Good Ancestors

Black Future Co-op Fund Is Changing Washington Philanthropy

The brainchild of four nonprofit leaders shuns applications for direct investments in Black-run organizations.

By Benjamin Cassidy October 11, 2022 Published in the Winter 2022 issue of Seattle Met

T’wina Nobles, Michelle Merriweather, Angela Jones, and Andrea Caupain Sanderson.

T’wina Nobles, Michelle Merriweather, Angela Jones, and Andrea Caupain Sanderson eliminate barriers to receiving grants.

I give up.

On the day the video of George Floyd’s murder went viral, Angela Jones sat in her office and succumbed to a wave of resignation. She was a striver. Her father had always said that each generation must do better than the one that came before. He’d gotten his master’s; she’d gotten her master’s and JD, ascending to a CEO position at nonprofit Washington STEM. But the daily grind undergirding that climb, in the face of another blatant example of Black oppression, was too much to bear. For a moment. “And then as I was sitting there, I thought, Crap, if you give up, you’re not going to be a good ancestor.”

That mantra drives the Black Future Co-op Fund, the philanthropy Jones cofounded with three fellow Black nonprofit leaders—Michelle Merriweather, T’wina Nobles, and Andrea Caupain Sanderson—in the wake of Floyd’s killing. While organizations were quick to release anodyne statements in support of Black Lives Matter back in June 2020, Jones and company saw a dearth of material backing for Black-led nonprofits: These organizations have historically received less than 2 percent of philanthropic dollars, a recent study showed.

The Black Future Co-op Fund provides grants to Black-run nonprofits by deploying a more practical form of “listening” than all those wishy-washy corporate declarations. Its leaders know that under-resourced charities struggle to wedge cumbersome application processes and other idiosyncratic asks into packed schedules. So, after a brief due diligence, the Black Future Co-op Fund just doles out the dough. “We’re really doing trust-based philanthropy, and that’s not necessarily how big philanthropy has traditionally worked,” says Jones, who’s now the director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Washington State Initiative.

For Team Wrk, a Tacoma-based foundation that convenes conversations about bullying and violence prevention through gaming, the paradigm shift proved revelatory. Navigating restrictive grant applications during the logistical nightmare of Covid was a nonstarter. “I didn’t have time to learn any of that,” says president and CEO Lonnetta Cunningham. The fund’s $50,000 “We See You” grant, one of 20 distributed to organizations led by Black women this past year, helped Cunningham launch night programs for teens. 


WE SEE YOU

A few of Black Future Co-op Fund’s most recent grant recipients.

  • Arte NoirThe online creative outlet recently opened a brick-and-mortar in the Central District.
  • Black Coffee NorthwestThis Shoreline space blends brews with cultural salon talk.
  • Global Perinatal Services The Federal Way org expands doula access to Black, refugee, and immigrant families.

In a state with several three-comma club philanthropists, the fund’s donations have been comparably modest. Its seeds amount to a little under $3 million. But the organization’s ultimate goal is to raise an endowment of $246 million, according to cofounder Caupain Sanderson—$1 million for each year of institutional slavery in the U.S. “The issues that plague our Black communities didn’t happen overnight,” the Byrd Barr Place CEO says, “and therefore, we understand it’s not going to be solved overnight.”

Though there’s no application process, the fund doesn’t pick its causes on a whim. A listening tour and survey helped identify needs across the state. 

T’wina Nobles, a state senator and the fund’s first CEO, says hearing out the community can yield different priorities. They’ve found that those making less than $50,000 a year emphasize voting and other forms of civic engagement. The 55-and-under crowd values economic mobility. For seniors, health care is a concern.

The solutions, Nobles says, are already out there. “What we need to do as a philanthropic organization, what we need the government to do, what we need other philanthropic organizations to do, is to fund those solutions. To stop making it complicated. To stop gatekeeping and creating barriers.”

To let future generations prosper. 

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