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Social Justice Philanthropy and Meeting Next-Gen Donors Where They Are

Date: May 23, 2023

Elizabeth Dale, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Nonprofit Leadership, Seattle University

Jeannie Infante Sager

Director, Women’s Philanthropy Institute

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Philanthropy has become an increasingly important tool for individuals to drive change and express their values, with Millennial and Gen Z donors particularly engaged in addressing issues of systemic inequality and social justice. While a small number of funders currently operate in the social justice grantmaking space, many more are interested in how to grow their commitments to inclusion, equity, and justice — and can learn from donors already active in this space.

The Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) recently released a report focused on this approach to giving: “Moving Money and Shifting Power for Social Justice: Voices of Wealthy Next-Gen Donors.” The study provides a qualitative deep dive into the motivations and behaviors of 28 wealthy Millennial and Gen Z donors to social justice. Participants were selected from Resource Generation, a leading organization in the social justice philanthropy movement with a mission to “organize young people with wealth and class privilege in the U.S. to become transformative leaders working towards the equitable distribution of wealth, land and power.” Honing in on this subset of young, wealthy, and social-justice-minded donors, these observations serve as a window into trends in giving from younger generations and look at how the philanthropic sector can best respond.

Who Matters

Looking first at the demographic makeup of the small group, the study participants were predominantly female donors, many of whom identify as queer or part of the LGBTQ+ community. Nearly 70 percent identified as women and 21 percent as nonbinary, which mirrors the broader demographic makeup of Resource Generation. This may suggest that women are more drawn to social justice work; past research also found that high-net-worth women may be drawn to addressing systemic issues of inequality because of their gender-specific experiences of discrimination and difference.

Still, these participants identify in a multitude of ways, with other aspects of their identities such as their ethnicity, faith, or sexual orientation also fueling their giving motivations. Nonprofits should both understand and value the philanthropic power that women can and do bring to the space and be sure their practices are inclusive of women and other underrepresented groups. Additionally, it’s important to recognize the influences that these individuals may have with their roles in family foundations.

Giving as a Framework for Living Values

While social justice philanthropy has recently received increased attention, this term includes a diverse set of giving practices and does not have a single, agreed-upon definition. The most common understanding of social justice philanthropy is giving that seeks to address the root causes of social and economic inequalities. To date, social justice philanthropy has primarily been studied in the context of foundations, with less focus on how individuals approach their giving with these aims. Donors interviewed for this study view social justice philanthropy as a framework of understanding wealth, systems, class, and privilege that informs their giving. Importantly, the study identified six practices which donors used as guardrails and guidance for their giving strategies:

  • Cede power: Relinquish donor control and directives for how to use gifts.
  • Empower others: Shift power to marginalized individuals and maximize their participation.
  • Be transparent: Demonstrate consistent support and be willing to be asked for funding.
  • Change systems: Fund long-term, systemic change to address root causes.
  • Give wholly: Contribute time, skills, expertise, AND money.
  • Challenge oneself: Learn more, move money, give boldly.

The study made it clear that participants viewed social justice giving as more of the process through which they give, rather than giving to a specific organization. For example, participants considered how organizations worked to cede power and change inequitable systems, how others are empowered through an organization’s work, and how they can become involved in meaningful ways. This shift toward values-based giving was also reflected in the fact that, for these donors, social justice philanthropy not only includes supporting traditional 501(c)(3) nonprofits, but also encompasses political giving and movement-building, giving to mutual aid and rapid response, and sharing resources directly with friends and community members.

“I don’t care so much about whether it’s a nonprofit or for-profit, but I want organizations to have a strong social justice lens,” one participant summarized. For many of these donors, giving to charitable organizations was only the beginning of a much larger commitment to supporting people, ideas, and communities in creative ways. Funders would do well to both keep their mission and vision clear, while also being able to speak to the broader ecosystem that supports this mission so that donors can consider all angles through which they may be able to provide support.

No Easy Answers

Participants also discussed some of the challenges they encountered in trying to be active participants in social justice philanthropy:

  • Many spoke about the complexities of their wealth, difficulties in accessing it, and whether or not they had control over investment decisions;
  • Participants needed to overcome their discomfort with openly discussing money and navigating family relationships, especially when their giving priorities differed from those of family members;
  • They reinforced the surprising amount of time and effort it takes to give money away, especially when they wanted to redistribute assets rather than continue to grow them;
  • And, they acknowledged the tensions of working to address social justice within a flawed and unjust system that can sometimes cause paralysis or inaction.

Prioritizing a community-based approach and building authentic relationships with recipients and organizations can allow donors doing this work to feel more connected and supported while navigating these challenges. There seemed to be few trusted advisors who were willing to coach these donors on their particular philanthropic journey, showing a gap in the type of support broadly available for giving through a social justice lens and a need within the donor community.

“These donors and organizations that have been at this work, whether for three years or 40 years, are all still on learning journeys and we don’t have to have all the answers to take action. We’re in an imperfect situation, and one that simultaneously compels us to act,” one of the authors of this post (Elizabeth Dale) shared in a recent panel conversation hosted by WPI.

This study is not meant to be the final word on social justice philanthropy, but rather a starting point for how funders and the larger field can better understand and engage with a growing demographic of donors focused on these issues as well as how to evaluate their own commitment to social justice philanthropy. In learning how these social-justice-minded donors navigate their complex and intersectional identities in giving and practice social justice giving principles, funders can better understand how to enact a social justice framework within their own organizations.

Elizabeth Dale, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Nonprofit Leadership program at Seattle University and was the primary investigator in “Moving Money and Shifting Power for Social Justice: Voices of Wealthy Next-Gen Donors.” Jeannie Infante Sager is the director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute (WPI) at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI. You can follow WPI on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook

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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