Philanthropy & Race in the U.S. Virgin Islands


Over the past several weeks, since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, like many people around the country and the world, all of us at St. Croix Foundation have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the meaning of this moment for those of us in the field of Philanthropy and for us as Virgin Islanders.

St. Croix Foundation fundamentally believes that healing and evolution can come from shining a light on the interplay of Race, Power, and Privilege everywhere, even here. But, more specifically, for the field of Philanthropy, where high net worth often represents disproportional, sometimes unchecked power, Light and Courage must both be our tools!

This letter represents the very personal reflections of St. Croix Foundation President, Deanna James, on the dynamics and power of philanthropy within the context of race and equity right here in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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Full-Text Article

I begin this letter to the community in the same manner that I begin most messages about my work—through a lens that has been shaped by service. I believe deeply in the nobility and power of Philanthropy. In its rawest definition, Philanthropy is the Love of Humankind. It holds virtuous space in world economies, and its stewardship demands great care.

Of course, that’s the ideal. Unfortunately, the practice and principles that govern the field often fall short of that lofty standard. Five years ago, when I reluctantly agreed to take the helm of St. Croix Foundation, I didn’t realize that I would become the first native Virgin Islander and woman of African descent in at least 20 years (possibly longer) to head up one of three community foundations in the Territory. But I knew my leadership journey would demand a distinctive suite of competencies and would be wrought with unique challenges.

Having spent 12 years sitting stoically in front of donors—a predominant number of whom were white, older, and male—I have had to hold my chin up high as I listened to conversations most people of color in the Virgin Islands will hopefully never have to endure. Early on, I was exposed to blatantly racist, subtly bigoted, and implicitly discriminatory exchanges on a regular basis. I have had a donor’s rep prep me for a meeting by telling me not to make eye contact unless the donor approached me first because he did not like Black people. I witnessed a donor walk away from the Foundation after being told by our Board that they would not be permitted to wield their wealth and power to destroy important partnerships and alienate crucial constituents.  Most egregious is that, in a parting gesture, that donor wrote a letter to their peers (many of whom were also donors) declaring St. Croix Foundation to be a racist organization– against white people! That was well over a decade ago, yet the echoes from that letter still reverberate through our Community today.

Since that time, there have been far too many micro-aggressions to document.  In all cases, I had to endure white donors weaponizing their economic power and their “philanthropy” in ways few in the Territory have experienced or have been willing to discuss. In fact, those experiences have hardened the Foundation. They have also inculcated a real reverence for Equity in our organizational culture, forcing us to develop internal protocols to vet and artfully steer away donors who simply do not meet our standards of social integrity. We now hold firm to the precept that not every dollar is a good dollar. But on the bright side, I am proud to acknowledge that the vast majority of the donors we interface with today are not simply transactional relationships; they are bonafide Partners, Collaborators, and Co-conspirators who share in our commitment and conviction to real Philanthropy.

However, back in 2015, immediately following the departure of the Foundation’s previous president, Roger Dewey (himself an older white man, who was both my professional partner and friend for 12 years), contributions declined rapidly. On the surface, it could be reasoned that this was in large part because many of the donor relationships nurtured by Roger were personal ones that he carefully cultivated over the course of his 22 years of service. But I also knew that the shift was rooted in a much more complex phenomenon seen in other local and national nonprofits.

Conducting some cursory research, I noted that 15 to 20 years prior, at a time when many nonprofits on St. Croix were fiscally ‘healthier,’ not only did we have ‘older’ money floating around our community as well as a more intrinsically philanthropic donor base, but it just so happened that a significant number of leaders at some of the largest civic organizations on St. Croix were indeed white. This is, of course, not an indictment on those leaders in any way. It is just an honest assessment of our philanthropic and civic landscape that may get overlooked at times because Black people represent the majority population here.

While there are those who may argue that those white leaders were simply better administrators, I counterbalance that premise with this— they also had more donor access. Still others may argue that racism and implicit bias are not a factor in phenomenon like this, and definitely not in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where race issues are muted and seem less ‘pervasive.’

But the data reflects a much more complex and nuanced dynamic. According to a recently released study conducted by the Bridgespan Group, “research found that, on average, the revenues of Black-led organizations are 24 percent smaller than the revenues of their white-led counterparts. When it comes to the holy grail of financial support— unrestricted funding—the picture is even bleaker. The unrestricted net assets of Black-led organizations are 76 percent smaller than their white-led counterparts.”  Ultimately, systemic issues of race in America do not take a siesta at our shorelines. Our systems here in the Territory are governed by and rooted in the same structurally unequal, unjust, and racially biased national systems.

With this understanding, one of the first priorities I set in my new role was to begin convening local nonprofits on St. Croix around an ambitious goal of amassing people-power and leveraging scarce resources. Our Nonprofit Consortium was launched in the summer of 2016, with over 50 organizations holding a seat at the table as we began meeting regularly to talk about the sustainability of our sector. What instantly came to light was the level of diversity sitting at our Consortium table. We looked like the United Nations. And with that realization, quite subtly at first, conversations of financial stability transitioned into conversations about equity, which then dovetailed with issues around race.

Concurrent with the evolution of the Consortium, the Foundation conducted the most extensive Donor Study in our history, really digging deep to understand our small pool of donors and their willingness to support not just us but our Consortium of civic organizations. What we learned from that study was quite insightful. We learned that there was a disproportionately high number of nonprofits on St. Croix; estimated at approximately 300, including religious-based organizations. We learned that most of our donors felt burdened by the gravity of needs in our Community. We discovered that a significant number of our donors represented a deeper pool of resources than we realized but were giving at a level that, in fundraising terms, equated to ‘charity’ (i.e., 4 and 5 figures). Few were giving at truly transformational levels (i.e., 6 and 7 figures). And for those who were making transformational gifts, most of those gifts were not being directed to 501c3 organizations in the USVI (where they were filing taxes).

With the results of that study in hand, I challenged my Team to look up and out in developing a prospecting strategy that would diversify our donor pool beyond our shores. This strategy was intended to achieve two goals: 1) to relieve local donors of the burden of giving and 2) to diffuse the power that some high net worth individuals wielded over local nonprofits. Also, seeking to hold firm to our Founders’ pledge to limit local fundraising in order to minimize competition with our Territory’s nonprofits for scarce resources, we began seeking out new national philanthropic networks and partners.

It was undoubtedly an ambitious strategy because in addition to the complexities of leading a community foundation in a small, remote, under-served community, the Virgin Islands (as the only predominantly Black American colony) has also represented an aggravating blind spot to National Philanthropy. Whether that blind spot resulted from our Insular status, which often relegates us to international status; or our negligible expat advocacy power; or the same systemic racial inequities seen in other governing sectors, we knew it would be an uphill battle to try to upend wholescale neglect and historical dis-investment from the national field of philanthropy.

Fortuitously, almost two years into my tenure, I was ushered into a new national network through doors I had not even known existed, with a personal invitation from an almost 50-year-old philanthropic affinity group named the Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE). The invitation was to attend a small retreat for approximately 40 Black female executives in the foundation world. That convening exposed me to a different context of Philanthropy. It was a new world where Black foundation executives (a glaring minority in the field) were talking about, and intentionally developing strategies to direct resources toward all the same systemic issues of race and equity that are now bubbling up today all over the country. In fact, they had been tackling (and funding) these issues for decades.

As a Black woman in this field of Philanthropy in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I had accepted that the lay of the land was the lay of this land; that those of us in Philanthropy would never go too deep; that I would exist as a minority in my work while living as a majority in my community. That is until I joined a new coalition of Philanthropists filled with powerhouse women (and men) fighting for justice long before the world came to know about George Floyd. Four of those women (Susan Batten, CEO of ABFE; Janine Lee, CEO of the Southeastern Council of Foundations; Gladys Krigger-Washington, formerly of Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation; and Sherece West-Scantlebury of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation) ultimately became the impetus for me to propose to my Board of Directors that we host our own funders retreat here on St. Croix.

Make no mistake, my proposal had a few local detractors who questioned the rationale for the convening and who went so far as to suggest that the retreat was a cover for giving my “new Black friends” a free vacation. Despite the fact that the cost of the retreat (held in February 2017) was less than $7000, with our guests footing the bill for their own travel expenses, that meager investment translated into over $1 million in direct grants from national foundations in less than one year. Those funds were, in turn, regranted to local nonprofits in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Our Network quickly expanded beyond our first retreat Partners to include both national and international funders and allies who have awarded substantial resources to our Community and our Consortium of Nonprofits over the past 2 years.

The Foundation, along with our new national Partners and our Consortium of Nonprofit Leaders, also used our first philanthropy retreat to launch a courageous conversation on Race, right here in the Virgin Islands, seven months before Hurricanes Irma and Maria. With ABFE as our conversation guide and steward, that dialogue has continued and has gotten deeper and more honest, starting with topics like implicit bias and evolving into issues surrounding gentrification, structural racism, environmental injustice.

Today, we now open every single convening with a powerful presentation by Sonia Jacobs-Dow, Executive Director of St. Croix Landmarks Society, who roots our work in our Virgin Islands story, in our history of enslavement and rebellion and resilience. Through repetition, repetition, repetition, we are sensitizing our local stakeholders and a growing roster of national partners to our story, which is deepening our NPC conversations and consciousness. While we still have a long way to go on this journey of healing and understanding, the openness with which we collectively discuss race may serve as a model for the rest of the community and beyond.

At one of our (now annual) retreats, one of our guests, who proclaimed himself to be ‘a white guy from the mid-west,’ affirmed that our convening is one of the most progressive and transparent conversations on race he has ever participated in. He was mostly awed by the raw humanity of it that enabled people of diverse backgrounds and races to sit unified in a collective and shared space of Truth and Justice. We are indeed proud of the climate we have nurtured and the safe space we have held for honest discourse on race long before the pandemic and tragic murder of George Floyd. Our hope is that these conversations will deepen in the weeks and months ahead.

Over the past several weeks, since the brazen public lynching of George Floyd on May 25th, like many people around the country and the world, St. Croix Foundation has spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the meaning of this moment for those of us in the field of Philanthropy and for us as Virgin Islanders. We’ve contemplated how the issues being laid bare for the world surrounding racial injustice and systemic inequities have led to a disproportionate loss of Black lives due to COVID-19; how police violence has led to an overwhelming loss of Black lives for decades in America; and how broken systems have exacerbated educational disparities for our children and enabled disparate investment in the social infrastructure of Black communities like ours.

That our educational systems are underfunded; that our schools serve as a pipeline to the criminal justice system, manifesting in one of the highest per-capita homicide rates in the nation; that the largest oil refinery in the entire world just happened to be built on one of the smallest, most remote, under-represented, and predominantly Black depots in all of America… these are not coincidences. Undeniably, the same racial, environmental, and economic injustices adjoin Black people in the Virgin Islands to Black people in America and beyond. While there are some superficial differences relative to our majority local Black leadership and our majority Black demographics, the systems that undergird every aspect of our lives are the same as those in mainland Black and Native American communities. Their fight is our fight.

So, today as we collectively begin to build real understanding around that rallying declaration that Black Lives Matter, as Virgin Islanders, we must not only state that truth, we must stand in it as we excavate and interrogate its deepest meaning. St. Croix Foundation stands in that truth as well. As we have done for nearly 30 years, we also remain resolute in our commitment to advocate for and invest in fortified, resilient, and, most importantly of all, EQUITABLE Systems and accessible pathways to and through them.

All of us at the Foundation fundamentally believe that healing and evolution can come from shining a light on the interplay of Race, Power, and Privilege everywhere, even here. But, more specifically, for the field of Philanthropy, where high net worth often represents disproportional, sometimes unchecked power, Light and Courage must both be our tools!