Several overlapping crises are wreaking havoc in the United States and across the globe. From climate catastrophe and forced migration to economic inequality to the erosion of democracy and the rise of political violence—these deep problems are also opportunities for major advances in progressive narratives and policies.1 Yet too often, those of us committed to racial equity, economic inclusion, and multiracial democracy must fight rearguard battles against authoritarianism, racial exclusion, and planetary destruction.
Social justice funders should take their own hard look at why the problems they have sought to address persist in such an exacerbated form.
As community power builders and social movement organizers engage in vibrant debates on how to address the immediate expressions and root causes of these multiple crises, social justice funders should take their own hard look at why the problems they have sought to address persist in such an exacerbated form. With so much fuel for change and so much money to spend, what’s coming up short in philanthropy, and what needs to be done?
Can’t Buy Your Way to Liberation
Of course, leaders in social justice philanthropy would be ill-advised to act as if writing checks is enough. Leadership, as it should, is likely to come from movement organizations and equity-oriented power builders directly. These actors are already thinking about how to scale up to take the lead in confronting what are—we must acknowledge—considerable forces of resistance, especially from entrenched elites who profit from confusion and division.
For movements to respond effectively, this requires not only reaching more people but also collaborating more effectively, especially by connecting multiple networks through shared infrastructure. In the arena of narrative change, success requires not only speaking to the convinced but also to the not-yet-woke, offering not obscure rhetoric that dissuades but popular language that persuades. Organizationally, efforts to enhance internal healing practices, although vital, need to be balanced with a focus on devising strategies that maximize external impact and operational effectiveness.
The first step to advance social justice through philanthropy is to focus philanthropic attention on power, not policy.
Where does social justice philanthropy fit in? While we don’t believe philanthropy alone will be sufficient to address the many crises we face, we think there are many steps foundations can and must take to help even the odds for social movement organizations.
Five Steps Philanthropy Can Take to Expand Movement Power
- Focus on power, not policy
For us, the first step to advance social justice through philanthropy is to focus philanthropic attention on power, not policy. Bad policies—a broken immigration system, inadequate voting rights, insufficient housing—are not the result of a lack of technical expertise or a poorly written white paper. Rather, there are interests that benefit from current arrangements that need to be disrupted. As a result, the North Star for both organizing and giving needs to be enhancing governing power.
Some foundations are stepping up to this reality. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), for example, has long focused on the social determinants of health, an academic model that stresses how much ill health happens before anyone gets to (or fails to get to) a doctor. But with the Lead Local project, RWJF went further and supported research on the determinants of the social determinants. Their main finding? They needed to support investments in community power building—and then followed that up with a shift in grantmaking.
- Trust the field
Too often, foundations can act in a top-down fashion, choosing the issues, designating the leaders, hiring the experts. Yet people who are closer to the problem often have better ideas about the solution and can be clear-eyed about the strategies to get there. Trust and accountability go together, and this means less onerous external accountability and more accountability from within social movement organizations—using metrics that matter.
This was a major learning from the Building Healthy Communities (BHC) Initiative of The California Endowment (TCE). A 10-year investment in place-based change, TCE began with an elaborate theory of change and soon discarded it to just listen to what communities were telling them. A decade later, the foundation and its partners had achieved healthcare for undocumented Californians, reforms in school discipline policies, and so much more.
- Stick with it for the long haul
The crises that the world faces today have accumulated over time. There is no shortcut to garnering the power needed to address them. Conservative philanthropy has often been patient about its investments—secure in the knowledge, for example, that supporting the Federalist Society could eventually help strip away reproductive rights—while liberal philanthropy changes strategic direction with every new foundation president.
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By contrast, TCE has followed up its first decade of investment in place-based change with a new 10-year, $2 billion commitment focused on power building (with a focus on investing in youth leadership development), reimagining public institutions (with a focus on transforming schooling, justice, and community development systems), and health for all (with a focus on prevention and wellness, as well as overall access to care). In 2021, the TCE Board approved a $300 million social bond (to be paid back over 30 years) to invest in the infrastructure for power building over a three-year period—and then turned over its design to California’s leading movement organizers.
- Shift the middle
A fourth step involves learning to balance an insistent call for racial equity with a persistent focus on common pool resources. For some foundations, there is a near-obsession with “winning the middle,” something that can suggest the need to ignore race and racism as divisive issues.
By contrast, innovators in the social change sector are working to shift where the middle is (or more accurately, help people with conflicting positions on issues make meaning of the world) through deep canvassing, narrative power, fact-based journalism, and power analysis that identify where to build relationships across differences into multiracial majorities and which, critically, change people’s “common sense” of where their interests lie and how they can pursue those interests in common with others. Smaller foundations like Liberty Hill in Los Angeles are making riskier bets to advance such programs of work.
- Change the funding power dynamic
A final step involves shifting power between foundations and grantees. Too often, community-based organizations are supplicants who are paraded out for performative sessions with hard-to-convince boards. At that stage, the tendency is to hide the truth from the funders lest weaknesses are uncovered and the groups are defunded. We need a more community-driven approach.
Signs of Hope
While there is much more to be done, we should not lose sight of the change that has taken place.
One hopeful sign: the incoming president of the JPB Foundation, Deepak Bhargava—coauthor of the recently published Practical Radicals: Seven Strategies to Change the World— is a former community organizer who previously served as the executive director of Community Change, an important national intermediary working to increase the power of social movements. Having someone of his stature at the head of a major foundation is an important step that will help reduce the grantor-grantee gap in the social justice space and bring to the fore the issues of scaling that are so central today.
Another sign of hope: there are ongoing conversations within social justice philanthropy about intersectionality, racial justice, reparations, and trust-based giving. Talk is also turning into action. Liberating capital and using money as medicine are game-changing narrative and philanthropic frameworks that the Decolonizing Wealth Project uses in all four areas.
While there is much more to be done, we should not lose sight of the change that has taken place. A decade ago, few funders, even in the social justice philanthropy space, supported campaigns for reparations or loosened the funding reins, embraced participatory grantmaking, and empowered movement groups to make grant allocation decisions. Now many do. The emergence of Black funds, such as the birth of a Black community foundation in Minnesota and the California Black Freedom Fund, is one example of this shift in the field.
In short, like the social movements they support, foundations need to step up to the moment. Dividing grantees by issue, geography, and constituency makes mincemeat of whole people and communities—and weakens the prospects for change. Instead, leaders in philanthropy should promote and model collaboration that can help build collective movement power to address structural racism, climate devastation, and economic insecurity—helping build a better future for all.
- Sulma Arias is executive director of both People’s Action Institute and People’s Action and Manuel Pastor is Director of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California. They draw here from their institutions’ respective reports, The Antidote to Authoritarianism: How an Organizing Revival Can Build a Multiracial Pluralistic Democracy and an Inclusive Economy, and Looking Around the Corner: (Re)Imagining Power for a Healthy and Just California.