Growing up, Benjamin Evans belonged to a giving family.
From school to church to community events in his childhood corner of Philadelphia, Evans remembers learning from an early age to be generous with time and treasure alike.
“We were volunteering. We were donating. When families needed help we gave it,” he said. “I came up in that.”
Evans, who now runs the nonprofit organization BMe Community, which connects black men to opportunities to contribute to their communities, said his family simply considered their regular small donations and volunteering a way of life. But in the past few years, he and a wide network of activists and advocates have been trying to tie that everyday giving to something bigger: philanthropy.
Though the word suggests big-dollar donations, philanthropy is more than just writing checks, local leaders say — especially in communities of color that define giving on a more personal level. In South Florida’s black communities, leaders have been pushing to reframe what it means to give back and encourage their communities to do more of it.
Black people “are creating spaces and causes that aren’t necessarily being picked up: at the barbershop, in their churches, on the football field and basketball court,” Evans said. “We need to take a look at those ways.”
It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much philanthropy happens in black communities, in part because donating to outside, formal institutions is eclipsed by more informal giving like church tithing or remittances to relatives that are not easily measured, said Ghislain Gouraige Jr., senior vice president, wealth management, at UBS.
“It’s very hard to capture the numbers because it happens on an informal basis, but you can’t discount that it exists,” said Gouraige, a Harvard-educated attorney who chairs The Ayiti Community Trust, which is building an endowment to benefit the people in Haiti. “Even if they don’t have the affluence that others have, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a strong sense of giving.”
Bigger slice to charities
The data suggest those informal ways of giving are substantial: A 2012 study from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation indicated that blacks, compared with every other ethnic group, donate a bigger slice of their salaries to charitable causes. IRS data compiled in a 2014 report from the Chronicle of Philanthropy also indicated that the predominantly black city of Opa-locka, despite its comparatively small gross income levels, ranked among the most proportionately charitable ZIP codes in the Miami area.
The new definition of philanthropy, Evans said, is characterized as much by generous intent as it is by financial impact. After Hurricane Irma in September, he described how members of his organization and another group, Making the Homeless Smile, distributed food and water to those in need. Some maxed out their own credit cards to purchase the food and water.
“Black-led organizations were feeding thousands of people and providing respite,” he said.
Attorney Marlon Hill, a former board member of the Miami Foundation, said encouraging the intention to give, no matter how much, has an impact in and of itself.
What matters is “the fact that you give,” said Hill, who helped helm discussions on the state of black philanthropy while with the Miami Foundation. “It’s not the amount. It’s the number of people that give that magnifies the impact on Miami-Dade.”
In redefining what counts as philanthropy, local leaders are also hoping to broaden where that giving happens and how it can feed back into their communities.
Felecia Hatcher began running coding and startup boot camps with her husband, Derick Pearson, through her nonprofit program Code Fever in 2013, after noticing the “innovation deserts” in technology and entrepreneurship when she started her business in Miami nearly 10 years ago.
“The definition needs to change so people can put a name to what they do and feel like they are contributing, although it seems small,” she added. “That giving is never included in the philanthropic conversation and it should be.”
New fund for Haiti
Local leaders are also starting organizations to build a more formalized and self-sustaining approach to giving. The Ayiti Community Trust, chaired by Gouraige, is attempting to raise $20 million to develop an endowed fund. The fund would be managed by the Miami Foundation, and would distribute grants to nonprofits and non-government organizations (NGOs) to benefit the island.
“Right now the gifts are temporary,” Gouraige said at a roundtable that discussed rethinking Haitian philanthropy last week. They’re “tracks in the sand that evaporate and there’s not a lot left after that.”
A permanent endowment, he added, would help the foundation fund various other organizations in the long term.
Santra Denis, who started a nonprofit organization for Haitian millennials less than a year ago, agreed. “Charity doesn’t work,” she said after the discussion. “People need Band-Aids, but they also need medicine. They need to be whole.”
But as philanthropy in black communities encourages more donations and new ways of giving, a focus should remain on individuals who give what they can, said Gepsie Metellus, who leads a Haitian philanthropy network and the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center.
“You see some well-to-do person writing a big check to a museum, to a school, to a church, to either carry a family legacy or to honor a family legacy,” said Metellus, who has run the center for more than 16 years. “I think that black philanthropy seeks to deepen the understanding and awareness of the black community.”
In the last decade, she’s seen the same older woman, affectionately nicknamed Yoyo, come to the center to renew her food stamps. Every month — “like clockwork” — she also takes the bus to the center with five dollars in hand, although her only income comes from a Social Security check every month. “That’s what she can afford, so that’s her way of saying ‘I thank you for all you do for me,’ ” Metellus said.
“We’ve always written about the Rockefellers and the Fords,” Metellus added. “We have not paid attention enough to the woman on disability. That is philanthropy at its best too.”