After taking a hiatus from fundraising this spring, the Obama Foundation is positioning itself to become a major philanthropic force in the fight for racial justice, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation suspended its fundraising efforts to avoid siphoning off donations that would otherwise support organizations providing food, medical support, and cash assistance to people in need. After the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others and the nationwide protests against systemic racism that followed, the foundation held a series of online events — including a forum that featured Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) in one of his last public appearances before his death on July 17 — and began re-engaging donors in support of racial justice.
“We were receiving thousands of unsolicited online donations and phone calls from people saying that the Obama Foundation has the potential to be at the forefront of the work that needs to be done,” David Simas, the foundation’s CEO, told the Chronicle. “We want to be part of this.”
Founded in 2014, the foundation raises funds for the $500 million Obama Presidential Center, to be built in a public park on the South Side of Chicago, and runs several youth and leadership development programs including My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and the Girls Opportunity Alliance. In one online event, participants called on viewers to visit the Obama Foundation website and donate, for example, to the Loveland Foundation’s Therapy Fund, which supports therapy for Black women and girls, and to the support groups run by the Brave Space Alliance for people who identify as transgender. According to the Chronicle, Simas declined to predict how the foundation’s pause in fundraising and the surge in donor interest that followed might affect totals for the year, after contributions fell 14 percent in 2019, to $141 million.
Some in the sector suggest that the foundation has not lived up to earlier expectations as a philanthropic force in support of racial justice and that it is unlikely to do so now, the Chronicle reports. Shawn Dove, founder of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement — which was launched in 2008 as an initiative of the Open Society Foundations, spun off as an independent nonprofit in 2015, and will close its doors this year — had envisioned the Obama Foundation as a fundraising juggernaut that could help smaller groups across the nation. “There were folks on the ground who were waiting to see a trickle-down effect of resources [and] who did not see it,” said Dove.
Some observers, including Hill-Snowdon Foundation CEO Nat Chioke Williams, noted that in focusing on leadership development initiatives rather than directly funding grassroots groups, the Obama Foundation has been risk-averse, as many foundations are. For his part, Simas told the Chronicle that the foundation remains focused on leadership development and suggested that there is a consensus on what policies might address critical issues but a lack of “Obama-style” leaders to carry those policies out — leaders who are “hopeful, resilient, accountable, and inclusive.”