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Philanthropic giving underfunds women and girls of color. A Colorado foundation is changing that

Lauren Y. Casteel, president and CEO of The Women's Foundation of Colorado
Stephanie Daniel
Lauren Young Casteel, president & CEO of The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, poses in her living room. Her career has been inspired by her late father, Whitney M. Young, Jr., a civil rights leader and former executive director of the National Urban League.

Charitable giving in the United States hit a record high in 2020. The biggest uptick came from foundations, whose philanthropic giving increased by 17%. But according to a national report, these organizations are woefully underfunding one specific group: women and girls of color. One Colorado foundation is working to change this.

Lauren Young Casteel grew up in Westchester County, just north of New York City. One of her most vivid childhood memories is answering the family’s rotary phone.

“A couple of times, as I recall someone saying, ‘Please hold, this is the White House. Please hold for President Johnson,’” she said. “And I'd yell, ‘Daddy, the President's on the phone.’”

Her dad was Whitney Moore Young Jr., a civil rights leader and former executive director of the National Urban League. In the 1960s, he was instrumental in setting an economic agenda, said Casteel, in order to overcome many of the public and socially racist policies and practices that created a wealth gap that still persists today.

“It was about jobs. It was about education. It was about the advancement of Black people in our country,” she said.

Casteel’s father died when she was 17 and before she really had a chance to pick his brain about policy or economics. But she remembers her father sitting at the kitchen table opening the mail. One of the envelopes held a check, a big donation to the National Urban League.

“He'd say, ‘This is Black power. This will help to create jobs and freedom,’” she said. “So, I also saw institutional philanthropy at work.”

Five decades later, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Casteel is president and CEO of The Women’s Foundation of Colorado, the only community foundation focused on women and their families. One of their newest initiatives is the Women & Girls of Color Fund.

“We wanted to serve women statewide to ensure that barriers were broken for women and girls and nonbinary people of color who have been the most undervalued and underinvested in nationally,” she said.

Charitable giving in the U.S. hit a record high in 2020. The biggest uptick came from foundations, whose philanthropic giving increased by 17%. But these organizations are woefully underfunding one specific group: women and girls of color.

In 2020, the Ms. Foundation for Women released a study on giving for women and girls of color in the U.S. It found grantmaking to this group in 2017 totaled about $356 million. They only received 0.5% of the $66.9 billion given by foundations, according to Giving USA, 2018.

Two leading philanthropic organizations said, “racial inequity is built into philanthropic norms,” in a 2020 report. They found Black- and Latino-led groups face significant disparities in revenue, assets and acquired funding. According to WFCO, “Gender only compounds these disparities, despite the monumental achievements of grassroots, women-of-color-led initiatives.”

“We need to reinvest and redistribute dollars for us to address the gaps that are inherent within our systems,” Casteel said.

Last January, the Women & Girls of Color Fund opened its first grantmaking cycle to rural organizations led by women, girls and nonbinary people of color executive directors. It was followed up six months later with a cycle for Front Range organizations.

The fund’s advisory council made unrestricted grants totaling $447,000 to 33 organizations serving all Colorado counties. Hermine Ngnomire received one of the rural grants.

“I am the founder of a nonprofit called The County Collectives,” said Ngnomire.

The County Collectives was established in May of 2020 and works with a diverse group of young adults in rural Weld, Adams and Boulder counties as they address challenges in their communities.

Hermine Ngnomire, The County Collectives
Courtey: Hermine Ngnomire
Hermine Ngnomire, president and founder of The County Collectives, received a grant from from the Women & Girls of Color Fund last year.

“That is our young adult advisory board, and we flip the switch a little bit,” she said. “They advise us as another board, a little older board, and say, ‘This is what it is we want to work on.’”

The young adults, ages 18 to 29, have worked on several initiatives like inspiring youth to create their own nonprofits, teaching hundreds of young adults about investing, cryptocurrency and NFTs, and doing policy work around affordable housing.

“We've spent a lot of time as adults and older adults really running the show,” she said. “Now how do you give those same opportunity and skill sets to the next generation so that we can ensure that great continued future?”

The nonprofit received $11,000 from the Women & Girls of Color Fund which was used to host community drive-in movies and discussions, and Juneteenth events that drew thousands of people.

Ngnomire, who has never run a nonprofit before, said it’s been challenging. But she also received support services from the fund that included training and advice on where to find additional funding.

“First, it was just like other people who have won the grant. ‘Here's their contact information. Here's what they have going on,'" she said. "It's a way to network.”

The County Collectives is still in its infancy, but getting this first grant has had a domino effect. Other potential funders have taken notice and Ngnomire said it lifted spirits internally.

“It creates a place where we can dream,” she said. “We can go out and execute because we know we have funding to do something now.”

Casteel’s living room coffee table holds several books written by her father and she has quoted him during speeches.

“My father, one of his quotes, was being the voice for the voiceless,” she said. “There are a number of things that I carry forward with me.”

But Casteel also carries the legacy of her late mother Margaret Buckner Young, who was an educator, author and racial equity advocate. She outlived her husband by four decades and served on several boards including New York Life, the Lincoln Center and Dance Theater of Harlem.

“My mom showed me as a woman about opportunity,” Casteel said.

The opportunities continue to grow at The Women’s Foundation of Colorado. The Women & Girls of Color Fund is currently accepting rural applications for its next round of funding.

The “American Dream” was coined in 1931 and since then the phrase has inspired people to work hard and dream big. But is it achievable today? Graduating from college is challenging, jobs are changing, and health care and basic rights can be a luxury. I report on the barriers people face and overcome to succeed and create a better life for themselves and their families.