Working for Social Justice with Social Change Philanthropy


While going through some old files, I encountered one of my original print “newsyletters” from July 2004, which was devoted to social justice. That was eight years ago. Things haven’t changed much and I think that’s sad. So here goes…July 2004 revisited…

I’m concerned about the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots in America. And for me, that’s a social justice issue. I believe that progressive public policy is co-opted each day. And that, too, is a social justice issue. I see rampant social injustice—and that breeds a sense of hopelessness. But I know that you and I can make a difference through social change philanthropy.

What Is Social Change Philanthropy?

Social change philanthropy works by changing the systems (public policy, societal mores, institutional biases) that support social injustice. I believe that if we gave more money to social change philanthropy, we could produce social justice—and we wouldn’t need so much charity to redress social ills.

As Tracy Gary and Melissa Kohner explain in Inspired Philanthropy: Creating a Giving Plan, “traditional philanthropy is based on responding to, treating and managing the consequences of life in a society with a capital-based economy.”

Social change philanthropy, on the other hand, “analyzes and responds more to cause than effect…. Progressive philanthropy strives to fund work that is proactive rather than reactive. Progressive philanthropy’s investment lies in supporting and facilitating change, challenging the assumptions that economic and social inequities are somehow unavoidable as the price of progress or prosperity.”

“You have to take power,” said American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the son of slaves. “No one gives it.”

Social change philanthropy is about organizing and activism. It’s about engaging all members of our society in dialogue and action. Social change philanthropy and activism ensure that people who are typically ignored and disregarded have a seat at the table. By sharing power, we can hold all our institutions—from governments to corporations to nonprofits—and society itself responsible for social justice.

A Seat at the Table for Justice

I’m reminded of the old saying about “give a person a fish or teach her to fish.” But you have to give her a place to fish from. It’s not good enough to teach people to fish. People need a spot on the river to reach the fish.

Social injustice in the U.S. arises because of choices made by you and me as voters, choices made by elected officials, corporations, and other institutions. Yes, there are individuals and institutions that fight against injustice and promote social justice. But not enough of them.

Fighting against social injustice—and promoting social justice—is a progressive act. And progressives are not all that popular because they challenge established systems. That’s hard to do, especially when faced with people’s natural resistance to change.

Willingness to Speak Out

What I find ironic is that those of us who work and volunteer in philanthropy often collude with injustice. We want to raise more money for good causes, so we focus on big donors and recruit well-connected big moneyed people to our boards. That’s a bit unjust. That’s a bit limited. That’s really focusing on privilege—and much of privilege is unearned. Read “Philanthropy’s Moral Dilemma,” which is posted on my homepage.

Do we speak out? Do we ruffle feathers, albeit carefully and graciously? How many times have you heard someone in your organization (or on your board) say, “Let’s not rock the boat. We shouldn’t speak out about that public policy issue because some of our donors won’t like it.” Maybe some of your board members won’t like it either.

Susan B. Anthony once said, “Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations…can never bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly avow their sympathies with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.”

What’s Politically Correct?

Back in 2004, when I published that “newsyletter” about social justice, it seemed like it was politically correct to avoid words like “racist” and “sexist” and “homophobic” and “privilege” and “class.” “Liberal” and “feminist” were whispered, if used at all.

Even with the advent of President Barack Obama, we don’t refer to race all that much in the U.S. It seems like we pretend that we’re operating in a post-racist society. How foolish is that? During the last four+ years, we seem to be regressing into a fundamentalist state that denies women’s rights, destroys the labor movement, and increases the gap between those who have and those who have not. Where is our civil society? Where is our sense of community and the rights of all?

What is more offensive than people and systems that deny social justice to women and girls, people of color, those who are not affluent, or those with a different sexual orientation? Surely this is unjust. What does it say about us as individuals and a community when we use politeness as an excuse for not speaking out? “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” said Father Dan Berrigan. “But there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

How many times will we listen and smile politely when someone in power says, “Sorry, I just didn’t notice.” Or when government and organizations take actions that disempower and disenfranchise? Or when someone tells us, “security and the economy are more important than social justice?”

The Great Rewards of Social Change Philanthropy

Social change philanthropy has the potential for great rewards. As Alfre Woodard explained in the preface to Robin Hood Was Right: A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social Change, “Tipping the balance of resources to include more of humanity is an adventurous, thrilling, and worthwhile pursuit. Charity is good, but supporting and creating social change is about power. Power can infuse lives with purpose and dignity. That opens up the possibility of joy. The life of the giver, as well as the receiver, is transformed.”

Woodard goes on to write, “Giving isn’t a posture reserved for the rich or powerful. It is the responsibility and privilege of every man, woman, and child to participate in the task of building more just and humane societies…. By giving, we lessen our own cynicism and alienation. Creating social change is exciting. It’s proof that we are alive and thinking. What could be better than to work for a future where fairness is the bottom line?”