Social Justice and a Relevant Philanthropic Sector: Grantmaking

Miles Wilson

This post is the fifth and final in “Social Justice and a Relevant Philanthropic Sector,” a series by Miles Wilson about where philanthropy is stuck in old paradigms — and where there lie opportunities to advance social justice both within the sector and across American society.

For foundations that care about advancing a more just and equitable society, simply fixing the internal operations of foundations is not enough. The next step is to begin or increase foundation giving through a long-term commitment of support to nonprofit organizations that are at the center of local and national efforts to advance social justice.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) defines social justice philanthropy as “funding intended to benefit underserved communities” and “funding whose explicit goal is long-term systemic change.” Effective social justice grantmaking is not only an attempt to make right historic injustices, but also to dismantle the underlying systems and structures that produce and reinforce injustice in the first place. Involvement in social justice funding is a long-term endeavor that requires foundations to commit to this work as part of its mission, and to perform it based on effective social justice grantmaking approaches.

In his article, “The Case for Using a Social Justice Lens in Grantmaking,” Michael Seltzer describes the characteristics of an effective social justice grantmaking framework as including the following:

  • a focus on root causes of inequity rather than symptoms;
  • a striving for lasting systemic and institutional change;
  • the use of a combination of tactics such as policy advocacy, grassroots organizing, litigation, and communications that together are more likely to yield enduring results;
  • the strengthening and empowering of disadvantaged and vulnerable populations to advocate on their own behalf.

Furthermore, Seltzer says that effective practice includes a sound analysis of the “forces that contribute to injustice, the effects of membership in oppressed classes of people, institutional structures, and the distribution of power.” Sound analysis must then be translated into both “an effective formulation of goals and objectives, and a smart choice of strategies and tactics.” Next is solidarity, which refers to a meaningful partnership with the communities they aim to serve. And finally, “effective grantmakers take calculated risks.”

As someone who previously managed grantmaking at a social justice foundation, I would add to Seltzer’s thoughtful and valuable comments that social justice grantmaking cannot be done effectively without long-term, multiyear general operating support. Nearly all efforts at structural, systemic, or institutional change are long-term endeavors that require nonprofits to invest in substantial and ever-broadening community support and engagement efforts. These efforts demonstrate to policy leaders the substantial and sustained importance of certain changes to community members.

Equally important is the ability of nonprofit organizations to be as flexible and responsive as conditions demand. Neither of these critical elements can be accomplished unless the organization has the committed long-term funding that allows them to plan, budget, and execute a long-term strategy. The foundation I worked at ensured this was the case across the entire portfolio. The critical combination of long-term, multiyear general operating support funding to social justice organizations produced substantial value and impact on both sides, including an often outsized impact on issues relative to much larger foundations.

It’s really a very simple idea, and one that I learned a long time ago during my first professional job in banking: you never fund a long-term venture with exclusively short-term funding because eventually it goes broke. This is not just a business concept, but one that applies to any long-term undertaking that requires sustained and dependable resources to succeed. Too often, nonprofits — including those engaged in social justice efforts — are asked to work miracles when they are underfunded, and therefore underpowered to deliver on their important work.

In its 2016 report Pennies for Progress, NCRP discusses philanthropy’s lack of progress in changing its consistent underfunding of social justice and underserved communities’ efforts. In particular, the report says social justice work in underserved communities lacked the funding that would support the kind of long-term efforts necessary for social justice strategies to succeed:

We found that in the decade that ended in 2013, foundations support for America’s marginalized communities grew just 15 percent as a share of all grantmaking. Support for long-term change strategies proven most effective at improving the lives of the poor did not increase at all…and just 1 out of 10 of those new dollars was for long-term systemic change strategies.

Sadly, this lack of real movement on funding underserved communities and social justice efforts occurred during a period when many of the underserved were still reeling from the impact of the Great Recession that began in 2008. The report also shows that one third of the funding provided for this programming came from only 250 foundations that generally prioritize this work. To put it plainly, the report states, “There is a lack of commitment to empower people and address the root causes of inequity and injustice in society.”

The long and short of it is: the field of philanthropy must get serious about taking on the underlying systems and structures creating our society’s most entrenched problems.

In the five blog posts of this series, I’ve sought to distill my most important learnings during my nearly 30-year career in the U.S. philanthropic sector. The sector, like the nation, is stuck in the paradigms of the past, and it will require courage and meaningful action to change the circumstances and move forward together.

Doing nothing is not an option. We can no longer sit on the sidelines to hedge our bets and play it safe, and there is no escaping this. The sector must be in the proactive business of undoing the underlying systems and inequitable power structures that have allowed racism, inequity, and injustice to shape our work and lives since this country’s founding nearly 250 years ago. The price we have paid every day since in lost potential, rights, effectiveness, and lives has been much too high.

At the end of the day we in philanthropy must ask ourselves one simple question: in what kind of society do we want to live? Then we must act on what should be an obvious answer.

Miles Wilson is a philanthropic professional with nearly 30 years of experience supporting the U.S. social sector as well as past efforts in Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, and South Africa. He currently serves as deputy director of education grantmaking at Ascendium Education Group and wrote this piece while serving as a senior fellow during 2019 with the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.

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