THE BLOG
04/05/2011 12:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Who Gets the Money? Race-Based Funding Disparities in Urban Ministry

Are Christian donors less likely to write checks to minority-run ministries? Anecdotal evidence from the world of nonprofit fundraising suggests there's a race-based disparity in giving.

Trust is vital to any relationship, but when it comes to funding African American-led urban ministries, it can mean the difference between success and failure. At least that is what I heard from several notable leaders who identified lack of trust as a key factor in race-based funding disparities.

Brian Jenkins is director of Entrenuity, a ministry that helps urban youth start their own businesses. Although the organization has been featured on public television and has trained more than 700 adults and 4,000 youth since 1993, Jenkins says, "What I have found is that when it comes to people saying 'we're brothers and sisters in Christ,' that's fine, but when it comes to supporting my work and me as a minister in Christ, that's where the breakdown occurs."

Jenkins was honored to be a presenter at a recent urban-ministry event with an audience of 200, but disheartened to find that he was the only black speaker when every organization there was working with minority populations. He says, "I just felt like, Wow, how can I be the only one here? ... I have a directory full of people, you know, good Christian leaders, black men, black women, Latino men, Latino women, yet I was the only one there, and it was so frustrating because their stories weren't being told, relationships weren't being created, and the funding kept going to these same [white-led] organizations."

The event organizer later told Jenkins he was limited by the people he knew. Jenkins responded, "You have to be intentional in finding and creating new relationships and also relationships that you don't necessarily try to control." As an independent, free thinking urban leader, he says, "A lot of times when you work with another organization -- when you work with anybody -- you give part of your freedom up, but what I have found is that some African American men and women who are successful in majority-culture organizations oftentimes have given up some of their cultural identity, and I've just refused to do that."

Mark Soderquist is a Christian philanthropist, urban minister, and a good friend of Jenkins. He sits on several nonprofit boards and has lived and ministered in the predominantly black Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale for the past 20 years. Jenkins says of Soderquist, "He didn't come in and try to use his family's wealth or resources. He came in and served under a church. He didn't come in starting a ministry; he came in serving."

As Soderquist talked to ethnic pastors (including his own), he kept hearing things like, "We could use help, but we don't need another white organization to move in and set up shop and act like we don't even exist." It was an education for him. "Here I had grown up in the church outside of a major city, gone to a Christian college, had five years overseas with a great mission organization, got a master's degree [from Wheaton College] in Intercultural Studies, and none of those experiences challenged me about the issue of race in this country and how it relates to my faith and how it relates to justice." Soderquist, who serves as U.S. Director of Urban Ministries for International Teams, approached his pastor and elders at Westlawn Gospel Chapel about moving his work under the church's local leadership. "I was saying the right words," he says, "but what I didn't realize at the time was they had very little faith or hope, based on their experience, that I would actually minister under their leadership."

Fred Smith is founder and president of The Gathering, a group that encourages Christian philanthropy. He has seen similar dynamics in the Dallas area and agrees that lack of trust and latent racism can be factors, but says, "I suspect the predominant cause is a lack of networks that are peer-based."

Soderquist acknowledges the reality that white-led ministries often have an easier time getting funding than black-led ministries. "It's like urban ministry's dirty little secret in that we are often the ones who speak prophetically to the majority culture church about issues of justice and issues of race, and yet we continue to fit into this system where we seem dependent on the white leadership of organizations." He says it's a catch-22, because inner-city ministries need resources, but funding more easily flows from white resources to white-led organizations. "There is the issue of contacts and connections at work here," he says, "but I also believe race is a factor. I believe there still is mistrust of black-led organizations by white funding sources and we don't openly recognize or acknowledge this since white-led organizations are dependent on those same resources." (For statistical data on nonprofit funding bias, see the sidebar below.)

Another nationally recognized black ministry leader who asked not to be identified told me about the painful experience of having to ask white associates to elicit funds from donors who had turned him down. "At least I was smart enough to say, 'This is life as it is.' I could either fight it or take advantage of it."

After three decades of success, this leader has the clout to court donors independently, but says, "I'm watching 30-year-old white guys ... Everyone wants to give them the world, and they haven't done a thing yet." His voice trails off. "But I've had to build this whole history of successful ministry that goes 30-plus years, and now maybe, maybe somebody might trust me that I might be able to do something constructive on their investment."

Elmer Jackson sounds a similar note. As the charismatic founder and principal of West Side Christian Academy in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Jackson says, "What I've found is that I've had to make relationships and show myself faithful. People are looking to see what our end product is." (Among West Side's early supporters was musician Bruce Springsteen.) Jackson says he's had to outperform his white peers in order to secure comparable levels of support, but the former Marine adds, "I've been doing that my whole life."

For all these leaders, race-based funding disparities present a significant spiritual challenge. Though they remain confident that God has called them to their work, they find it difficult to have confidence in the current system. Says Jenkins: "There's just this lack of trust, and oftentimes I feel that if the body of Christ cannot be representative of a new model, then how will we have any credibility to speak about what the kingdom looks like?"

This article originally appeared at Urban Faith and is reprinted with permission.

NonProfit Funding Bias: The Numbers