In the United States, seven of the richest grant-making foundations own roughly over $100 billion in assets. Many critics of large philanthropic foundations point to the self-serving ways that these organizations benefit from their good charity: through corporate lobbying, tax exemptions and detracting from the harm they do to workers, people of color and the environment. 

“The basis of traditional philanthropy is to preserve wealth, and that wealth is fundamentally money that’s been twice stolen,” writes author Edgar Villanueva in his new book “Decolonizing Wealth,” “once through the exploitation of natural resources and cheap labor, and the second time, through tax evasion.”

But there may be a way to restore balance within this overwhelmingly White, capitalist and privileged financial sector and help social justice initiatives in the long term, Villanueva says. His new book released last week, calls on people working in philanthropy to move away from the individualistic and transactional practices of rich people donating money to poor people. Instead, he says, we must adopt a culture of reciprocity—where mutual sharing and community are at the core of financing social change. Villanueva, who is chair of the board of directors of Native Americans in Philanthropy, pulls from his own experience as a Lumbee from the South to offer solutions that pull money out of the hands of a wealthy few and into social justice movements.

Here, Colorlines speaks to Villanueva about undoing philanthropy’s White supremacist legacy, empowering communities to take advantage of resources and building power for people of color to own and imagine their futures.

How has philanthropy developed over time and how has it been used to uplift colonialism?

There have always been generous people, so I’m not undermining some of the good intention that has happened through the years of philanthropy and the role it has played in supporting progress in this country. But our DNA as a [philanthropic] sector is very much similarly connected with the DNA of colonization. And that is the idea of hoarding wealth, using colonization so it has the mantra of dividing, exploiting, and conquering. In a way, [wealthy people asserting that they’re] superior in order to grow wealth. 

When you look back at some of the early work, like the Rockefeller Foundation, it sort of started out of a crisis for the corporation in needing to save face. So the idea was let us do a [public relations] stunt. From there, folks decided, “Well, not only can we do some corporate giving to make ourselves look good and cover up some of the wrong things that we’re doing, we should pass a law that gives us a tax break for doing that.”


That’s in our DNA as a sector. And it’s also in our DNA as a country. By any means necessary, we have stolen land, commited genocide, exploited low-wage workers, all of that to become one of the wealthiest nations in the world. And it’s a fact and a truth that we want to sweep [this history] under a carpet and whitewash [it]. Those are the parallels I’m bringing out in our history and also in our sector so we can acknowledge that and deal with it. Deal with the trauma that it’s caused us as a [colonized] community, society and a sector, so that we can, at minimum—through philanthropy, investment, banking and all the institutions that control money—stop more harm from happening and also try to use our resources to repair the harm that has been done.

You bring in a lot of your own experience and the experiences of your colleagues. What were some of the things you have found from Native people and people of color working in the field?

The culture of foundations is [a] strong, White-dominant culture. It seems extra prevalent within philanthropy because you’re dealing with a lot of extra privilege beyond just the typical White organization. There’s the expectation that you assimilate. On one hand, they want you to because of who you are and what you represent. But they do not want to make accommodations for how you might do work differently or [offer] a different type of perspective. Anyone who really begins to shine as a leader, especially because they’re pushing back and bringing alternative perspectives, immediately becomes a target of push-out or dismissal. The culture of White supremacy [is] so strong and so pervasive that you literally have to forsake your culture and everything that you’re about in order to get by.

[I’m also] talking about internalized oppression. I’ve worked at three foundations and all three presidents of these foundations have been people of color. On the surface, someone might say, “It’s been great! You’ve worked in philanthropy for only people of color!” But the Whiteness and the dominant culture is just so pervasive that for people of color to survive in the space, you take on that dominant culture and perpetuate those dynamics to sustain yourself in this field. Or you can choose to try to dismantle that [culture] and try to not lead in that way. But [then] it can be difficult to get ahead.

You also say that philanthropies should address structural problems rather than just trying to fill diversity quotas within their organizations. What are the faults in ignoring the systemic problems communities face? 

When you’re focused just on checking that box around diversity, we’re not making any significant, systemic change within our organizations. Out of the $800 billion in assets that foundations are sitting on, only five percent of that is being actually invested into grants. Then of that five percent, only about seven and a half to eight percent has ever been invested in communities of color.* The trickle-down impact of those dynamics results in very little investment and moving of the needle on systemic issues and especially supporting POC-led efforts in communities.

The conversation around equity is now a buzzword in philanthropy. I’m excited that they were having it, but folks have to really understand that it is so much deeper than diversity. It is about equity, it is about a shift in ownership and a major shift in power. The sprinkling of dollars in the way that it’s currently happening will never, ever, ever repair the harm that’s been done. It’s really just kind of throwing nickels at the problem. I’m pushing us to really think and imagine something really difficult. How can philanthropy play a role in true reparations? [In] using these resources and really getting excited about the investment in giving back and restoring what has been taken away? Versus the idea of hoarding wealth and growing our endowment.

You quote adrienne maree brown a lot around this idea of owning power to imagine the future. How does the concentration of wealth—among a very small percentage of people who have so much power in philanthropy—affect marginalized people’s ability to imagine their futures?

I wrote a sentence [in the book] that says something along the lines of, “one of the spoils of colonization is our ability to imagine.” I interviewed lots of activists and folks who are dismantling all kinds of systems of oppression in this country. And I interviewed wealthy people and forward-thinking people in philanthropy. I was really surprised and sad to see that a lot of the folks who are leading movements in this country did not have radical ideas about what could be different with philanthropy. So many people in this country are unaware of what’s going on with foundations, unless you work inside or you’ve been a non-profit raising money. […] There’s such a dependence on the system as it is even though it’s broken, unjust and unfair. We have become conditioned as people of color to ask for way less than we need and to get by on crumbs. On the other hand, [when I was] talking with a lot of privileged folks, White folks and people of wealth, they were giving me all kinds of amazing things to think about because there’s such a confidence that regardless of what happens, they’re going to be just fine. I hope that people of color will read the book and feel the strength to begin imagining and feeling empowered that these are our resources. Our ancestors contributed to the wealth of this nation and the coffers of these foundations.

How can we re-examine the Western, colonial language around “philanthropy,” “giving,” and “altruism,” to understand another way of redistributing wealth?

I think that altruism kind of goes side-by-side with charity. All of that is very connected to a White-savior-complex. There’s nothing wrong with those words. They are very transactional. In some ways, they are really delusional and sort of one-directional. When you look at an Indigenous way of being in community and giving, it’s much more about reciprocity. Altruism has this air of pity to it. It’s really dehumanizing in some ways versus, if you think, “Wow, I have something to share with someone who may have something to share back with me,” “I’m going to share these resources  because I have enough and in exchange I’m going to learn from someone and be blessed and influenced by what they have to offer.” Understanding that if I ever needed something, it will come back to me. That circular motion of giving is much more deeply rooted in relationships and sort of accountability with community. And it’s empowering for everyone all the way around.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

*Note: The statistic is from the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity in partnership with Foundation Center and Colorlines’ publisher Race Forward.