Part II of our Black Philanthropy Month Spotlight on Katrena Perou
For Black Philanthropy Month (BPM) we are highlighting stories of those who are committed to informing, inspiring, and investing in Black communities. Through a series of spotlights, we will explore the various ways leaders are celebrating and emphasizing the importance of investing in Black leadership from within the Black community in Brooklyn and beyond.
Our first spotlight is on Katrena Perou, Executive Director of Inspiring Minds NYC and Donor Advised Fund holder with Brooklyn Community Foundation.
Image Caption: Katrena Perou (right) with Inspiring Minds NYC student participants. Image courtesy of Katrena Perou.
What inspired you to make your impact in Brooklyn?
I lived in Bedford–Stuyvesant for 13 years and I raised my children there. Most of my friends and the people in my circle are there, and I’ve had the chance to meet most of the local business owners there. That community is still part of raising my children, and it's part of my story—that was the first place that I felt was home in New York City.
When I got funding for my nonprofit, Inspiring Minds NYC, I had to choose a school to work with, and I chose the Boys and Girls High School campus because it's in the heart of Bedford–Stuyvesant and holds historic meaning for African-Americans in the neighborhood. Since being in New York, I feel like I have worked in every community but my own. I worked in Washington Heights, on the Lower East Side, in East New York, in Brownsville, in Queens, in the Bronx. When I had the power to choose which community to work with, I started in my own backyard—I chose Brooklyn, I chose Bed–Stuy.
As a nonprofit leader, can you speak to the importance of supporting local leaders from within communities of color?
I've worked for five different nonprofits over the course of my career, and I would say out of the five, only one had leadership in the community. Just in general, this is how the nonprofit sector works. Most of the time, it's not usually people from the community that are running the nonprofits that are receiving most of the funds—and I’ve read that only 4% of all the funds in the philanthropic sector are going towards Black and Latinx led nonprofits. In a field where it's already hard to get funding, the odds are stacked against us.
I had a chance to meet with a lot of the local youth organizations within the community, and all of them are under-resourced. All of them are run by people who grew up in Bedford–Stuyvesant or went to Boys and Girls High School. They wanted to give back and all their hearts were in the right place, and they did good work. Often they were juggling two or three jobs, and the youth work they were doing was their passion—but it didn't pay the bills. I saw the work they were doing with kids, and it was amazing. The one thing that they all had in common was that they wanted to do their youth work full time, and they didn't have the capacity to fundraise or the knowledge of where to find most of the funding.
One of the reasons why I created my Donor Advised Fund was as a way to be able to support these local organizations and give them a leg up—to help them get into the game a little bit more as it relates to funding and for us to actually be able to grow and fundraise together.
What are some of the barriers to funding that nonprofit leaders of color come up against?
A lot of funders won't support you unless you already have $500,000 or $1M dollars in the bank, which for most of the local organizations in our community is a paradox—the social sector is rooted in closing the wealth gap, or fighting inequity, but then how the funds are given actually repeats that cycle all over again.
Sometimes it's policies like that, or policies where you have to have a certain amount of years of fiscal history—and with Black and Latino communities, there have been so many systemic barriers to our communities where it's been hard to accrue wealth over a period of time. Having a long fiscal history is going to be extremely difficult at times, it isn't always there. There are ways around that, you can get a fiscal sponsor, but “you’re not old enough” is a common barrier.
What are some of the personal challenges you’ve faced as a nonprofit leader?
There are a lot of reasons why I've heard “no” from funders. I almost feel like not enough attention is given to the fact that our programs are impactful. For example at my own nonprofit, Inspiring Minds NYC, we served over 250 kids in one year in central Brooklyn, and we have both qualitative and quantitative data that shows that what we’re doing is working. But it doesn't seem to matter—what seems to matter the most is the fact that we don't have a million dollars in the bank yet. So almost like what Martin Luther King Jr. said, I dream of the day where our programs could be judged for the content of how good they are.
I talk to funders all the time, and I always ask the hard questions. One of them told me that ‘well, you know, it's just riskier giving to smaller nonprofits, they’re not as likely to be open 2, 3, 4 years down the line.’ I say to that—of course small nonprofits aren’t going to stay open if everyone has that policy in place.
My own personal challenges with trying to fundraise have been very frustrating. To have something that you know that works, but because I don't have X years of fiscal history or because I don't have a million dollars in the bank, because I wasn't invited—there are so many ways where policies are in place to keep us out.
How are you using your Donor Advised Fund to support local communities?
I wanted to give differently. I didn't want to just give $5,000 here and $2,000 there, but I wanted to give with a strategy that shed light to this problem of exclusionary funding practices—and to also be able to tell the story of a Black executive who has tried to build a nonprofit and fundraise for it in a way that hasn't felt supported by most philanthropists. But at the same time, to have been impactful to kids in the community.
People have to be empowered to feel like they can liberate themselves. If outside people control the decisions of how resources are used coming into the community without various voices from the community at the table, it only perpetuates the myth that we can’t do it on our own. There's a lot of rich resources and smart, capable people within our communities that can build on solutions to problems, solutions that are already there.
I don't want to shoot people down who are coming from outside the community because more often than not, that's what's happening. But there is a way to do it in a way that I feel is empowering for the community and allows them to make the decisions for how things are happening.
I know how discouraging it can be as a person of color running a nonprofit, and that’s why I wanted to make that the heart of my Donor Advised Fund—to support people of color, and our community.
Black Philanthropy Month, celebrated in August, was created in August 2011 by Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland and the Pan-African Women's Philanthropy Network (PAWPNet) as an annual, global celebration of African-descent giving.