Sticking With It: The Story of Satterberg’s Commitment to Racial Justice Funding

Jun 17, 2024 | News

By LaShanda Robertson and Sarah Walczyk

We’ve read the alarming reports and heard about the disturbing trend from grantee partners:  funders are now pulling back on commitments to racial justice funding, especially Black-led organizations.  For some in philanthropy, there was a “moment” in 2020 (after the murder of George Floyd) when it was seen as urgent to make high profile pledges to fund BIPOC-led groups.  This wave is now receding for a whole host of reasons, including political attacks on DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and affirmative action, as well as fallout from the controversy over the war in Gaza that has worsened racial divisions.

Satterberg’s journey as a foundation has been different.  The goal of racial justice has been part of our mission from the beginning, and will remain core to our work.  To counter the narrative of retreat that is now out there, we want to add our story to those of other funders who are staying strong in this space.   By sharing how we came to this work, how our approach evolved over time and why we stay, we hope to offer a more positive path.

It’s important to note that we approach this work as a learning organization.  We are in a constant reflection process, evolving our approach based on what we learn.  We aim to listen, to witness, to be in authentic relationship with our grantee partners.  At the core of our work is trust:  trusting our grantee partners to know what’s best for their communities.  That means giving them unrestricted funds and freeing them from burdensome paperwork and reporting.  And it means sticking with organizations by providing multi-year commitments.

From our modest beginning decades ago, the Satterberg Foundation set out to promote a more just and environmentally sustainable society.  As our resources grew over the years, the Foundation has always aimed to be responsive and accountable to time-sensitive community needs and opportunities.  We could do more with more, and we did.  We decided to go deeper on racial justice funding almost a decade ago – and to step it up from there.

How Pillars Helped Guide Us

In 2016, our Board and staff began having internal dialogue about DEI, inspired by regional conversations about the state of equity in the philanthropic sector. We participated in a facilitated DEI training and began to explore collecting demographic data on our grantees and applying a DEI lens to our grantmaking.  The new pillars of DEI and advocacy, added to our longterm commitment to funding nascent, community-based organizations, helped guide our grantmaking going forward.

In 2019, Satterberg took a further step into this space as a co-host of Seattle’s first annual Equity Summit, founded by C’Ardiss Gardner Gleser. This event convened a cross-sector dialogue about how to improve equity in housing, education, and economic mobility for people of color and other marginalized groups.  Satterberg bought the historic Metropole building in Pioneer Square, with the vision of developing a community hub for nonprofit organizations, with an emphasis on those organizations who serve or are led by communities of color.

But 2020 challenged us to do still more.  As COVID took a toll on the communities we serve, Satterberg recognized the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on BIPOC communities.  We responded right away, adding more funds on top of our grant payout to help our current grantees, and backing pooled funds for communities most impacted. 

Moving Fast to Meet the Moment

Then the murder of George Floyd catalyzed the mobilization of nationwide protests for racial justice.  Like many others in philanthropy, we committed to taking more intentional actions as a Foundation and recognized we have our own role to play in the dismantling of white supremacy and institutional racism.  Breaking out of our mold, we decided to back groups organizing around the Georgia runoff election.  “My personal feeling is that adopting policies and laws to address racial inequity… is one of the most effective ways to further our mission,” wrote Board President Pete Helsell at the time. “This, obviously, would require a quick response on our part to fund organizations in the next couple of weeks.”   

But first, we listened.

After sitting in on a phone call with hundreds of funders, Satterberg responded to the Movement for Black Lives’ call to philanthropy for additional resources with a pledge of $50 million over ten years.  These resources would not be instead of but on top of our current grantmaking budget to support Black and Indigenous-led movement and organizing work.  This was the birth of our Reparative Action Fund (RAF), Satterberg Foundation’s first national grantmaking program.  We co-created and launched RAF with support from Will Cordery, Principal and Founder of Freedom Futures, a social impact advisory firm, committed to advancing a world where we all prioritize people over profit for our collective freedom and futures. 

Funding the Anti-Racist Ecosystem

Our vision for RAF is to resource Black-led/centered and Indigenous-led/centered racial justice work across the country, focused on building power and transforming society. RAF is supporting national coalitions and movement ecosystems – such as the Movement for Black Lives and NDN Collective – as well as place-based organizing and advocacy in local communities across the country where Black and Indigenous-led movement has been and will continue to be vital for social transformation (including groups like Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (in Wisconsin) & Tewa Women United (in New Mexico). 

 In total, we have made grants to 101 RAF grantee partners working at national, regional and local levels in communities across the country. $37 million of RAF funds have already been committed to general operating support for our grantee partners. The remaining RAF funds are invitation-only and will be granted during the 2025-2030 period. 

This money is making a real difference on the ground. We are meeting needs in these communities, and listening and responding as those needs change.  With a grain of humility, we are showing up and supporting the work on the ground.  As we do in all our work, we are trusting our RAF grantee partners to know what’s best for their communities – even as that work changes with the times.   

What We’re Hearing from Grantee Partners

One theme that’s recurring in the work right now:  to really address issues, groups need to step up their efforts – and unrestricted funds help.  One RAF grantee partner, Florida-based Chainless Change, says that the flexibility provided by general operating support is helping the group make a recent pivot from direct services to advocacy.  They work to provide essential support that can help justice-involved people to get a second chance – and they have succeeded.  Eighty-seven percent of justice-involved participants avoided relapse and rearrest, according to a 2022 internal audit.  

While continuing to offer help to those mired in the system, Chainless Change is now broadening its focus, training justice-involved individuals to become advocates.  “You can’t service your way out of oppression,” says Founder and Lead Steward Marq Mitchell, whose own early years were system-involved.  The group’s goals now are to “target laws that criminalize us” and to “reduce the footprint of mass incarceration.”  As some funders shy away from their new focus, Mitchell said, general operating support provided by Satterberg’s RAF “is particularly valuable right now.”

The Center for Native Amercan Youth is another grantee partner with big ambitions resourced by general operating support from RAF.   Coming out of COVID, a lot of Indigenous youth “felt that their voice didn’t matter,” and that the isolation led to a “disconnect to culture,” according to María Samaniego, the Associate Director of Operations and Strategic Partnerships, and Cheyenne Brady, the Associate Director of Youth Programs.  “That grounding” not provided in other spaces is offered at a forum they co-host, a powerful opportunity for “being in community with other Native youth.”

The Center’s visions of continued growth, including global ambitions, are fuelled in part by RAF’s support. “We often don’t get multi-year funding,” say María and Cheyenne.  But with Satterberg, they say, “it was a different conversation – we felt like we were sitting in community.”

Another ambitious grantee partner, Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SnapCo.), with deep roots in Atlanta’s Black community, has as its dual focus the “safety of trans people and involvement in building trans leadership,” according to Executive Director Toni-Michelle Williams.  A successful fight against a local ordinance that criminalized sex work catalyzed the birth of a collaborative that is now working together to advance both goals.  We want to “create a space where people belong,” says Williams.  To realize that dream, SnapCo is embarking on research initiatives, like the Deeper than Visibility Report, and ambitious projects, including SnapCo’s Taking Care of Our Own Fund and Trans Safety Initiative. In July, they will bring together members and financial supporters for the first ever SnapCo Forever Gala.

Committed funders like the Satterberg Foundation make the difference in achieving goals:  “There aren’t many organizations funding trans-led work,” says Director of Development Jasmine Martinez. In a context where “our people feel under attack and under-resourced,” says Toni-Michelle Williams, the general operating support provided by Satterberg in the past few years has been “really important” because it “allows us to be creative in how we educate and activate our people around the issues that impact our communities the most.” 

The RAF story doesn’t end here.  We are beginning conversations now about how to continue this commitment beyond 2030, so stay tuned.  One thing is clear: as our Foundation begins a spend-down period, we remain steadfast in our support for RAF and racial justice.  Exactly how we continue this commitment will depend on many conversations and more listening and learning about what the community needs now.  But we already know one thing for sure: we are sticking with it.

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LaShanda Robertson is a Program Officer at the Satterberg Foundation.  Sarah Walczyk is the Foundation’s Executive Director.