Black Women to Watch in Philanthropy: Celeste James

Celeste James, executive director of Community Health at Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States

How do you define philanthropy?

Many people think of philanthropy as a big, very distant place – far from where they are or can be.  People often associate philanthropy with big organizations or wealthy people.

I see philanthropy as my contribution of time, talent, and treasure. It can be all three things or any one of them, at any level. It’s about the time and love that we are giving to the organizations we care about.

What is your philanthropic strategy and what advice would you give to other philanthropists?

I didn’t always have a giving strategy. I think that’s true for many of us.

We get the call or the email from a friend or see something that moves us, and that’s when we decide to give.

However, our giving would go further with a strategy. When we give on impulse, it’s not easy to assess the real impact we can have or to plan for sustained support, which makes a bigger difference. Also, when we have a strategy, we can enroll others in our cause and can communicate our “why.” Why we support the mission, why we chose a particular cause or organization, and why we want others to see the importance and offer support.

In recent years, I have tried to be thoughtful about how I give my dollars and time. My philanthropy includes helping set direction for a nonprofit organization to be successful and have its deepest impact.  I sit on boards of nonprofit organizations where I can contribute both my personal resources and sometimes, that of my organization.

What’s a “bright spot” in philanthropy or the causes you care about?

That philanthropy is changing. I’ve worked in corporate philanthropy for nearly 12 years and have seen the philanthropic sector evolve. Years ago, when I first became a professional who had the honor of awarding grants to community-based organizations, I heard a veteran foundation funder say that philanthropy needs to get “unsettled.” He was challenging the sector to be bolder and less prescriptive.  I think in many ways technology has helped us do that. With the click of a button, we can rally people through crowdfunding, track and share impact, tell stories and so much more to get people to give their support to a cause. And young people, especially, are getting involved. It’s an incredibly powerful time for philanthropy.

Do Black women do philanthropy differently?

I’m not sure. I’ve heard people say that Black Americans give less than the general population. I don’t think that’s true. In fact, data show we’re very generous givers, especially to our faith institutions, which in turn often give to communities. So perhaps, we give differently. We have different motivations and we see the world through different lenses – mother, sister, wife, friend. Women … we have the “caring gene.” Maybe that’s why studies have shown that we give more than men do.

Who are your philanthropic sheroes?

I don’t have one person in mind. I admire any woman or man who is willing to acknowledge that giving to help where there’s a need is not just a good thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I sit on boards with women who are tremendously selfless and put a lot of love into their giving of time and money. I admire that!

Is there anything else you want to share?

More and more, we’re seeing companies that are adopting different strategies and practices around giving. Instead of seeing philanthropy as giving back, they see it as integral to their business mission and brand. They see corporate giving as not just a social imperative, but a business imperative. When everyone does better, we all do better. My company gives with that intention, too. When we invest in the wellbeing of others and our communities, there’s a meaningful social impact for everyone.

To meet other amazing Black women to watch in philanthropy, read The Black Woman’s Guide to Philanthropy!



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