For nearly 50 years, the Association for Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) has been committed to promoting effective and responsive philanthropy in black communities.
ABFE is a membership-based philanthropic organization that advocates for responsive and transformative investments in black communities. Partnering with foundations, nonprofits, and individuals, ABFE provides its members with professional development and technical assistance resources that further the philanthropic sector’s connection and responsiveness to issues of equality, diversity, and inclusion.
Susan Taylor Batten, CEO of ABFE, is passionate about advancing black leaders and black communities. With more than 25 years of experience in the private and public sector, Batten has dedicated her career to ensuring that black people have equity.
In her own words, Batten is a fierce advocate for people of African descent. “I believe we have the responsibility to support our community. That is my passion. I am guided by our indigenous principles of collective responsibility, self-help, and cultural pride.
In an interview with BLACK ENTERPRISE, Batten discussed her journey to becoming the CEO of the largest black affinity group in philanthropy and the work that ABFE is doing.
What was your journey to becoming the CEO of the largest black affinity group of philanthropic professionals in the nation?
Philanthropy wasn’t a clear career choice for me, though I was always interested in helping professions. I was tapped by a search firm to work in philanthropy and made the decision to leave my “good government job” for a sector that I knew little about. What I liked about philanthropy, and specifically, working with foundations, is that there were opportunities to support innovation and take risks as it related to supporting black communities different than one can do from a public service perspective.
My work at the Annie E. Casey Foundation centered on helping that foundation grapple with issues of racial equity, diversity, and inclusion, both within the institutions as well as externally with a grant portfolio focused on reducing racial disparities in child outcomes. It was a tough job: foundations are challenged with their own structural inequity and lack of diversity. What helped me during my time at the foundation was my engagement with ABFE; I was active in the organization and it provided support, mentors, and peers that were invaluable. When the president/CEO position opened up, I thought it would be a great way to advance foundation grant-making in our community and to support black leaders who work in the sector. I was fortunate to get the position—and celebrating 11 years here this year. We’ve worked hard to grow the network and programming we offer to members. Given the current political climate, we feel philanthropy in and for black communities is needed now more than ever.
Creating Lasting Impact
Tell us more about ABFE and the work that the group is doing around the nation.
Currently, our work falls into three areas; philanthropic advising, member and partner services, and research and advocacy. Across each area, we run a number of programs and events that all aim to make philanthropy more effective and responsive in black communities. For example, in the area of philanthropic advising, we provide direct consulting and technical assistance to foundations; this is critically important work that educates grantmakers on how anti-black racism is embedded in policies and practices of school systems, health systems, criminal justice systems, etc., which is why we see huge racial disparities in these issues for our community. As a result of this work, we’ve seen funders reframe their work and re-direct foundation grants to alleviate racial disparities that disproportionately impact our people. However, over the next several years, we are putting our emphasis on increasing investment in black-led social change organizations to build economic and political power in our community. We don’t think that our nation can achieve true racial and social equity without frontally acknowledging anti-black structural racism.
What impact has ABFE been able to on communities since its founding?
Our direct impact is on black foundation professionals—our members—who, in turn, directly invest in black communities. So we don’t work directly in the community but rather we support the philanthropic professionals that invest in the community. The organization will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year and literally thousands of foundation leaders have been a part of the ABFE network over the course of its history. Our primary outcomes are to increase the skills and knowledge of grantmakers to more effectively invest in black communities and network grantmakers to leverage foundation dollars for greater social impact. We know that participation in ABFE has increased foundation executives’ knowledge and skill and helped organize greater collaboration across foundations.
Supporting Black Leaders
Can you tell us more about the ABFE Fellows program and the impact it has on the fellows and their communities?
The Connecting Leaders Fellowship Program (CLFP) is a yearlong experience designed to sharpen the skills and strengthen the leadership capacity of foundation staff, donors, and trustees who are committed to assisting black communities through philanthropy. Fellows have the opportunity to learn from seasoned grantmakers and peers on a regular basis, understand how to be more effective agents for change within their institutions, and participate in a network that focuses on innovative solutions to community challenges. The fellowship begins with a weeklong leadership summit. In addition, fellows conduct a 360-degree evaluation and are assigned a leadership coach. Each fellow is required to complete a community-based learning project during the fellowship year, which can be volunteer work or a research project on a topic of interest.
The program is consistently credited with giving participants a stronger voice within their organizations, which results in the fellows feeling empowered to advocate within their organizations for funding and support to black communities. For the past few years, we have incorporated our Responsive Philanthropy in Black Communities (RPBC) training within their week-long CLFP Summit. This instruction has inspired fellows to deliberately interrogate the philanthropic policies and practices within their own organizations by using tools we provide. This type of instigation is weaving through communities across the country, with our fellows being amongst the chief instigators for racial equity in philanthropy. As a result, we’re learning about foundations directing dollars differently within communities and explicitly increasing resources for black-led and serving organizations. We have over 120 alumni around the country, many of whom have matriculated to the C-suite in their foundations. I was in the first class of the CLFP and still have strong connections to my cohort today. It is our own way of organizing to make change across the country.
Giving Back to Black Communities
What charge do you have for others to become more philanthropic?
People of African descent are some of the most philanthropic people in the world; we just don’t call it philanthropy! We’ve called it tithing, membership, sou-sou, burial clubs, and cooperatives. Research helps us understand that black people give away more of our discretionary income than other racial-ethnic/groups. Our gifts and donations may not be large, but we do give at higher rates. So, I ask that we honor and continue to practice our own forms of philanthropy—the giving of time, talent, and treasure. While philanthropy is personal, I do believe we should organize more of our giving to benefit black-led grassroots social change and movement organizations—these groups are not on the radar of many foundations. For that reason, it is up to us.
What is your 2020 vision for the organization?
As mentioned, our work moving forward is to unleash the power of our 900+ membership to strengthen and rebuild black-led infrastructure for social change. As such, we will spend this year organizing our network to increase investments in black nonprofits. We also are looking to expand our membership this year, particularly with black donors and philanthropists towards this goal.
For more information on ABFE, visit their website.