Editors’ note: This article is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s summer 2023 issue, “Movement Economies: Making Our Vision a Collective Reality.”
What do community organizing calls for police abolition and recent federal public investments like the American Rescue Plan Act (more popularly known as ARPA) have in common? On their face, they might be seen as wildly different approaches to safety, well-being, and economic security in the United States. In reality, they are two sides of the same coin: both involve the use of state power. Public dollars can be used for good or ill; across the country, community organizers are calling to block the misuse of public dollars that generate harm in order to free up public dollars to achieve public good. The calls for police abolition make visible the ways our public dollars are often weaponized against us by using our dollars for increased police militarization and settling lawsuits for police misconduct. Public investments like ARPA have reawakened a commitment by politicians to use our dollars to improve access to quality housing, schools, and jobs.
At the Marguerite Casey Foundation, we believe this moment provides an opening for movements to shift public dollars to support the public goods our nation so desperately needs and to ensure that our dollars, in the public sector, are used to realize our dreams.1
Philanthropy’s Conflicting Commitments
Over the course of the last two and a half years, Marguerite Casey Foundation has supported efforts across the country to reimagine safety, increase access to public dollars, and seed in everyday people’s imagination the belief that our government dollars should be used to improve their lives.
Philanthropy has had a complicated relationship with the government. Even many equity-oriented donors and foundations have at times worked at cross-purposes with the public sector. In housing, many of us in philanthropy have tried to make deals and pay for change by funding an anemic affordable housing industry, as opposed to supporting the necessary community organizing to push federal, state, and local politicians to invest in the development of more public housing that is socialized and available to everyone who wants it. In education, many philanthropists have invested in the creation of a parallel learning infrastructure in the form of charter schools and voucher programs, instead of supporting parents and students organizing to fight educational segregation and school closures. In seeking solutions to the ever-present threats of climate change, philanthropy has prioritized market mechanisms that emphasize incentives, rather than community organizing that pushes for regulations motivated by a fundamental belief that corporations should not be allowed to pollute our water, air, and food. We should heed a few lessons from this past work.
First, philanthropy does not have enough money to replace the functions of government that meet the needs of everyday people for safe and affordable housing, quality schools, and a clean environment. Next, philanthropy cannot claim to want equity, justice, or liberation without bolstering people’s ability to engage in organizing for public resources. And finally, philanthropy’s best role is to support community members to come together and fight to ensure our dollars are being used to realize our dreams.
A Different Philanthropic Path
Over the course of the last two and a half years, Marguerite Casey Foundation has supported efforts across the country to reimagine safety, increase access to public dollars, and seed in everyday people’s imagination the belief that our government dollars should be used to improve their lives. We have also convened a group of scholars, organizers, funders, policy makers, and advocates to help us sharpen our articulation of the opportunity available to communities in this moment, as well as define the three unique roles philanthropy can play in this work:
- Supporting movements to unlock federal dollars for people who have been excluded from accessing them. Billions of dollars are currently available for working-class communities through federal agencies each year, and trillions more are being disbursed in the coming years through ARPA, the Inflation Reduction Act (also known as IRA), and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. However, skilled insiders and corporate lobbyists harbor significant power to influence the regulations that determine how these resources are deployed. Additionally, significant organizational infrastructure is required to apply for and manage federal funding. These barriers, along with often-required match funding, make it nearly impossible for all but a select group to access these resources. Compounding these challenges, some states refuse to use federal dollars on vital public institutions and instead seek to reject or return them.
There is a real opportunity here for philanthropy to support efforts that advocate for fair, transparent, and equitable budget appropriations and government grant processes; to develop infrastructure required to apply for and implement federally funded projects; to raise private funding to unlock public dollars; and to advise on the development of policies and practices that increase the flow of public dollars to marginalized communities.
- Shifting the use of public dollars for the public good through community organizing. City and county budgets remain ripe terrains for contestation, and with unprecedented federal investments flowing to state and local agencies, the need and opportunity for intervention are clear. Organizers across the country are leading public budget–related activities to ensure that these dollars are used for investments in child care, education, public housing, and so on—the range of services that actually help people thrive.
We know that people don’t need philanthropy to come together and fight for a better future; instead, philanthropy can play an important role by creating a more even terrain for communities in these fights. There is a real opportunity in this moment to organize people to inform and influence local budgets that divest from policing, disincentivize the corporate control of our public resources, and invest in services and goods that regular people require to live healthy lives. There is also a critical opportunity to do this work in rural communities that are disproportionately impacted by recalcitrant political leaders who have weaponized federal dollars.
- Increasing people’s expectations and demands for public goods and public options. As Heather McGhee, among other authors, has amply demonstrated, we all benefit from the investment of public resources into our communities: public schools and colleges, public parks, public libraries, roads and bridges, and safe drinking water, for example. Unfortunately, decades of well-funded and organized efforts, often with the express goal to limit civil rights movement gains, have sown seeds of distrust in government to deliver services, eroding public expectations in the responsibility of the state to ensure that people have what they need to live healthy lives. These same forces have simultaneously conceived a project to outsource and privatize enterprises that could be more effectively delivered publicly. The story of the power and potential of public goods is one that needs to be amplified to help reset our collective expectations of government.2
Marguerite Casey Foundation plans to fund experiments across these three areas while leveraging the successes and lessons learned from these projects to help tell the story of public dollars for the public good. There are already powerful examples of what this looks like.
Supporting local grassroots organizations requires broader support that extends far beyond accessing federal resources. Helping organizations build campaigns to access state and local dollars is also extremely impactful.
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Native Americans in Philanthropy helped establish an Office of Strategic Initiatives at the U.S. Department of the Interior—and is working to move more federal dollars to Indian Country. Through its Tribal Nations Initiative, NAP helped Native communities secure over $27 million out of nearly $90 million in federal funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.3 This unprecedented sum was more than triple the amount set aside for tribal communities. NAP seeks to replicate this model across conservation, education, and infrastructure funding streams to deepen the investments in tribal communities.
The Southern Economic Advancement Project developed a suite of tools for advocates, organizations, and politicians to fight for an equitable implementation of ARPA. Across the country, organizations used those tools to get resolutions in front of their local legislatures that centered the public’s priorities for ARPA dollars. And now, as ARPA is winding down, SEAP is expanding that effort to incorporate other funding streams such as IRA and the infrastructure bill. Now SEAP is launching Our Dollars, Our Dreams, a project that will scale and coordinate “equity in budgeting” campaigns across the South in response to ARPA, IRA, and other massive federal investments.
Supporting local grassroots organizations requires broader support that extends far beyond accessing federal resources. Helping organizations build campaigns to access state and local dollars is also extremely impactful. For example, the grassroots organization Kansas City Tenants developed a vision for municipal social housing that included divesting from policing and gentrification. They mobilized low-income renters who wrote and helped pass a ballot measure for a $50 million People’s Housing Trust Fund to provide affordable housing to residents of Kansas City.4 This bond is the largest commitment to housing in the city’s history, and a win for the building- and neighborhood-wide unions that organized toward it.
Support for local independent journalism, too, is part of building this vision. For instance, Mississippi Today is a progressive media outlet that launched a Follow the Money project to help community members track $6 billion in ARPA funds flowing into the state. This coincided with the build-out of new digital engagement tools to help Black and Latinx community members identify opportunities for local advocacy. Through their reporting, a Mississippi Today journalist wondered why, as the poorest state in the nation, Mississippi was approving less than two percent of welfare benefit requests.5 The journalist discovered $77 million in welfare funding that was misspent by the former governor, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding that state welfare officials allegedly conspired to steal.6
Done right, philanthropy can play a critical role supporting the power-building and organizing that are necessary to wrest control of public funds away from wealthy elites and large corporations, return the power of the purse to the general public, and fuel local and national movements to abolish poverty through significant and sustained investments in public institutions.
These examples and approaches to supporting communities that have long been excluded from enjoying the rewards that result when they are informed, engaged, and empowered to use public dollars for their wellbeing are just the beginning. Across the country, organizations are advocating for the movement of these dollars to communities that are on the front lines of economic inequality, racial injustice, and environmental degradation.
The sad truth is that philanthropy has often opposed—or at least declined to support—these efforts. In this critical moment, those of us who could consider ourselves in the social justice philanthropy sector must act differently. Done right, philanthropy can play a critical role supporting the power-building and organizing that are necessary to wrest control of public funds away from wealthy elites and large corporations, return the power of the purse to the general public, and fuel local and national movements to abolish poverty through significant and sustained investments in public institutions. I encourage more foundations to join us in supporting the growing movement to align public institutions and public dollars with public good.
- See Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003).
- See Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (New York: One World, 2021).
- National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, “NFWF, Federal Agencies and Private Partners Announce $91 Million in Grants from America the Beautiful Challenge,” press release, November 10, 2022, www.nfwf.org/media-center/press-releases/nfwf-federal-agencies-and-private-partners-announce-91-million-grants-america-beautiful-challenge.
- Dre Bradley, “KCMO City Council approves $50 million affordable housing bond funding,” KSHB, October 13, 2022, www.kshb.com/news/local-news/kcmo-city-council-approves-50-million-affordable-housing-bond-funding.
- Anna Wolfe, “Mississippi Today investigation exposes new evidence of Phil Bryant’s role in welfare scandal,” Mississippi Today, April 3, 2022, mississippitoday.org/2022/04/03/phil-bryant-mississippi-welfare-scandal-investigation/.
- Anna Wolfe, “Phil Bryant had his sights on a payout as welfare funds flowed To Brett Favre,” Mississippi Today, April 4, 2022, mississippitoday.org/2022/04/04/phil-bryant-brett-favre-welfare-scandal-payout/. See also Cyndi Suarez, “Puerto Rico: The Critical Role of Information and the Nonprofit Sector in Disaster Living,” NPQ, November 3, 2022, nonprofitquarterly.org/puerto-rico-the-critical-role-of-information-and-the-nonprofit-sector-in-disaster-living/.