Foundation Leaders and President Obama Get It Right With 'My Brother's Keeper'

Something major just happened in philanthropy. It is certainly the most significant and strategic development so far in 2014, and it just might prove to be the most important thing that happens in our sector all year.

On Feb. 27, President Barack Obama announced the launch of a new public-private initiative titled "My Brother's Keeper." This program aims to address persistent barriers to equality of opportunity that confront young men and boys of color.

Ten exemplary foundations have already committed $150 million to this work, with another $200 million to follow. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The California Endowment, The Ford Foundation, The John and James L. Knight Foundation, The Open Society Foundations, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and The Kapor Center for Social Impact are the ten courageous foundations who sponsored this initiative. These funders deserve to be lauded for their values-driven commitment to help create a level playing field in which boys and young men of color are not left at the margins simply by virtue of their identity and life circumstances.

In announcing the initiative, President Obama stated the rationale behind the proposed interventions:

"Because if America stands for anything, it stands for the idea of opportunity for everybody. The notion that no matter who you are or where you came from, or the circumstances into which you are born, if you work hard, if you take responsibility, then you can make it in this country. The plain fact is, there are some Americans who in the aggregate are consistently doing worse in our society. Groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique way that require unique solutions, groups who have seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations. And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country, are boys and young men of color...If you're African-American, there's about one-in-two chance you grow up without a father in your house. Too, if you're Latino, you have about one-in-four chance. We know boys who grow up without a father are more likely to be poor and as a black student you are less likely to read as proficient in the fourth grade."

These sobering statistics suggest how deeply entrenched, normalized and rigid the barriers to equity are. The funding strategy behind this effort is notable: By focusing on the needs of the most underserved among us, the potential to address long-standing structural and systemic barriers to equity -- be it in education, health care, employment or any other index of human development -- is significantly higher. Consequently, the improvements for this targeted population will benefit all of us by creating a more inclusive and just society. We will all fare better if nobody is left behind.

Yet, the fact is that $350 million, if spent only on delivering services, is insufficient to reforming the institutions and practices that perpetuate the disparities faced by young men of color. The initiative organizers recognize this, and their statement of commitment suggests they will also invest in promoting effective public policy solutions. This is essential to the initiative's success.

Community involvement is also necessary to create sustainable change. I hope the initiative, therefore, will fund grassroots groups that work for and with young men of color directly and provide them with sufficient funds to engage in and win advocacy campaigns that address systemic and structural issues. This is the only way to give agency to the intended beneficiaries of this initiative. Because this work is framed by shared American values, it demands that work to improve educational outcomes and job opportunities or to address long-acknowledged disparities in our criminal justice system be rooted firmly in the framework of sustainable and transformational change. By doing so, what is strategic will be just and what is just will be strategic.

The ten sponsoring foundations have provided the preliminary funding required to create such transformational change. They will help build the needed infrastructure to operationalize the strategies and policy work essential to success. But much more is required for this work to have the kind of impact it aims to. Will other grant makers join them and support the "ladders of opportunity" that President Obama envisioned when he became our nation's president? Only time will tell.

Aaron Dorfman is executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). He thanks Niki Jagpal, NCRP's research and policy director, for her assistance in writing this piece. Follow NCRP on Twitter (@ncrp).