The abbreviation BPM has several meanings. There’s “Beats Per Minute”. That usually refers to one’s heartbeat, but it can also refer to musical beats. Then there is “Blood Pressure Medicine”. Or “Business Process Management”. All those examples are meaningful in their individual contexts, but the BPM that I wish to explore is “Black Philanthropy Month”, which takes place each August.
Black Philanthropy Month was established in 2011 to highlight the voluntary giving of time, talent, treasure, and testimony from people of African descent. Notably, this celebration is not limited to African Americans. It is a recognition of giving traditions, from the ancient to the modern, across the Black Diaspora. To borrow from the late Lerone Bennett, our history begins long “before the Mayflower”. It is fitting that the land which gifted humankind to the world is also the birthplace of philanthropy – a word which literally means “love of mankind”.
Black Philanthropy Month was conceived and birthed by Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland, who founded the Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network in 2001. That organization, which is now known as Reunity, inaugurated Black Philanthropy Month at its 2011 global summit. Reunity is an international coalition of 400 women of African descent in more than 30 countries who work to enhance their families and their communities. I was blessed to have Dr. Copeland serve on the Advisory Board for the initiative that I led several years ago at what is now Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Beyond our sacred duty to care for others, Black philanthropy in America has always been crucial as a sanctuary against racial exclusion and discrimination. For example, African Americans formed “mutual aid societies” as a way to share the burdens of economic hardship, social isolation, and other forms of apartheid. One of the better known such organizations was the African Union Society (AUS), which was founded in Rhode Island in 1780 by “free” (i.e., non-enslaved) Blacks. Though there were few enslaved Blacks left in Rhode Island by the early 1800s, such freedom rarely translated into racial equality.
Mutual aid societies provided financial, emotional, moral, and spiritual support to Blacks, especially in the Northeast. Other traditions – some more formal and some less so – also came into being. For example, “giving circles” were formed to address everything from dire financial straits, to endowing scholarships, to building projects. We also gave generously, and joyously, at “rent parties” when someone was on the verge of being evicted. And, of course, the Black church has been the longest-enduring and most important foundation upon which we have supported those whom Jesus called “the least of these”.
AUS, which is often considered to be the first Black mutual aid society, was a catalyst for several others that would form. Most such societies were dominated by men. However, a women-led organization was formed in 1809 as a counterpart to AUS. Known as the African Female Benevolent Society (AFBS), many of the women who founded the organization were related to men who were members of the AUS. While there isn’t any evidence that the AFBS was created to protest the AUS, it is clear that uniting against racism was not always a precursor to addressing sexism.
Fortunately, Black philanthropy is not only a historical artifact. In modern day Indianapolis, I am proud to serve as Chairperson of the African American Legacy Fund of Indianapolis (AALFI). AALFI was formed in 2019 as a donor advised fund of the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF). Donor advised funds, or DAFs, are created by individuals or groups who seek to fund specific causes. Due to their simplicity (and tax advantages), DAFs are the fastest growing charitable giving vehicle in the U.S.
As all scholars of philanthropy know, African Americans give the highest percentage of our income to philanthropy of any racial group in America. Hands down. While our aggregate income and accumulated wealth lag far behind white Americans, we are the most generous racial group based upon what we earn. Yet, whether through ignorance or humility, relatively few of us consider ourselves to be philanthropists. This must change.
The ancient African philosophy of “ubuntu” is a seed within our heritage that was planted thousands of years ago. The Zulu word translates to “I am because you are”. Indeed, it is part of a longer phrase, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which literally means that “people are people through other people”. Black Americans often internal racism such that we fail to recognize the greatness that is within us. We continue to be underrated, by ourselves and by others, even though we are champions.
Harnessing the power of our ancestors, Blacks across the Diaspora have the power to build a world that could obviate the need for organizations that aid the poorest of the poor – because we can eliminate that level of poverty. The ability to “lift as we climb” must become the dominate ethos that drives us. It is not a matter of ability. It is simply a matter of the will.
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