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Foundations Are Mostly Staying the Course in Response to U.S. Supreme Court Affirmative Action Rulings

Date: February 21, 2024

John Muñoz, Ph.D.

Former Manager, Research, CEP

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To better understand how foundations broadly were responding to the Court’s rulings, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) conducted a survey of 280 foundation leaders in September through November 2023.  We sought to determine: were foundations abandoning grantmaking programs or changing grantmaking practices as a result of the affirmative action decisions? Or were they staying the course?

The data we gathered last fall suggests that, in the immediate wake of the rulings, few foundations were making significant changes to their grantmaking approaches. In the inaugural CEP Research Snapshot report — a brief, data-informed research series designed to answer timely, specific questions relevant to funders — released today, we found that most foundations were engaged in dialogue about the rulings while deciding to stay the course with their preexisting programming. More foundations reported reaffirming their commitment to racial justice programs than eliminating references to race in response to the Court’s rulings. Furthermore, our data show that foundations led by a person of color (POC) engaged in discussions about the rulings more prevalently than their non-POC-led counterparts, regardless of whether or not the foundation funds social justice.

More than half of the foundations we surveyed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s affirmative action rulings reported having already had, or having plans to have, internal discussions about the implications of the rulings on their work. One foundation leader described these internal conversations with their board as affirming their commitments to racial equity: “Our board has affirmed the importance of staying the course in our grantmaking strategy that sees racial equity as key to achieving health equity/justice.”

However, discussions with grantees or legal counsel were not as prevalent among responding foundations. At the time of our survey, slightly more than one third of foundations reported having had (or planning to have) discussions with grantees, and about 30 percent sought legal counsel.

Discussions regarding the Supreme Court rulings provide an avenue for foundations to talk with peers, share best practices, and align in response to threats to racial equity. But not all foundations were equally likely to discuss the Court’s decisions. Our data show — in both foundations that fund social justice and those that do not — foundations led by a person of color were much more likely to engage in discussions about the Court’s rulings.

More than three quarters of foundations that discussed the rulings were staying the course and not changing their ongoing work as a result of the conversations about the rulings, and fewer than one quarter of foundations enacted changes as a result of these discussions. In fact, foundations mostly remained committed to their existing practices and plans. Open-ended responses in our survey further suggest that, if any changes were made by foundations, they were more often in reaffirming their commitment to supporting communities in a targeted way than removing such support. One foundation leader noted that the changes their foundation was making as a result of the Court’s decisions were in this direction: “Explicitly furthering our support of organizations engaging in racial justice work; committing more funds to this work; working with regional funders to develop a legal defense fund.”

The fact that so few foundations reported making changes to preemptively remove support or programs targeting race or other demographic characteristics is noteworthy.

The data from this Research Snapshot provide a glimpse into philanthropy’s immediate response to the Supreme Court’s affirmative action rulings. While our findings are based on responding foundations — it’s possible that those that made changes to their grantmaking were less likely to respond —and are from a moment in time, they suggest that soon after the rulings, a large number of foundations were either not making changes or re-affirming and even doubling down on commitments to working on racial equity.

John Muñoz is a manager on the Research team at CEP. Find him on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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