I distinctly remember when it ‘clicked’ for me that one of the major differences between progressives and the far-right in U.S. politics is the radical difference in our “bench”, so to speak. I was reading an article for a class on poverty during grad school at Washington University, and the article made the point that, while the Right invests in research and media and leadership development and this whole infrastructure which then makes many of its ideas seem practically inevitable, progressives often believe that, because we know that justice and truth are on our side, our good ideas will stand on their own. And so, unsurprisingly, we find ourselves fighting upstream, trying to win people over to our way of thinking as a divergence from commonly-accepted knowledge, rather than as an extension of the worldview they’ve already adopted. Much harder to do, really.
It was later, and I don’t remember a precise moment, that the role of foundation and big-donor funding in all of this began to make more sense to me. Now, as I spend a lot more time reading about social change strategies and how to invest in them, I’m learning more about how much we have to learn about taking this long (think decades) view of social change. Where grants for social services and even social justice organizing and advocacy tend to be deliverable-focused, many organizations on the Right can count on general support to underwrite their overall operations; where we have 1-3 years (if we’re lucky) to accomplish our grant goals, they can invest in young leaders and new thinkers and plan for where they want to be 15-20 years from now. And it makes a difference.
Even more alarming for those working with marginalized communities, the dollars available for progressive work in these areas are stretched much more thinly, among more organizations and even in areas beyond the most vulnerable. Funders among the far-Right are mainly giving only to those ideological causes, while more progressive-leaning donors may give not only to social justice organizing and advocacy but also to direct provision of services, parks and other public projects, the arts, and other causes. A recent study by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy, whose work reflects a lot of the trends above, finds that only 33% of all foundation dollars given between 2004-2006 went to marginalized communities, even in the most expansive definition of that term.
I’ve said many, many times that philanthropy is not enough. As long as social change organizations and the constituents with whom they work are dependent on people with a lot of money to advance our causes, we’ll always be at a disadvantage, because there tends to be considerable distance between us and people with a lot of money. But if philanthropy can invest in social change work in a way that sustains a social movement to demand justice that far surpasses charity in scope and impact, then it can really change our world.
And so, to continue this thinking about the role that philanthropy can play in that process, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the materials on the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy website. A lot of their work relates to transparency and accountability in the fiscal operations of foundations, which, while I’m sure it is an extremely worthwhile cause, just doesn’t happen to be one of my passions. But they have also done significant work urging foundations to give more to marginalized communities, to include advocacy organizations in major federated giving drives, and to reform grantmaking practices so that progressive organizations have a more level playing field on which to compete with the ideological Right. They have a Grantmaking for Community Impact Project that aims to show, in language that foundations can understand, the tangible results of investing in community organizing, civic engagement, and advocacy in underrepresented (and under-funded) communities. They are working in different parts of the country in the hopes that donors around the nation will see something with which they can identify.
I have contacted them to gently suggest that they make more of their publications available for free; most (but not all) have a cost to download, and while they’re not too expensive, I would argue that we can’t expect to compete with hostile ideas when those ideas are heavily underwritten and so doled out for free (some would say even shoved down our throats) and we expect people to pay to look at ours. Alas. But, still, you might check it out, and, especially, talk about it with your foundation partners as a resource for connecting with others who are interested in how philanthropic dollars can have the greatest impact for justice in our society. If we can better harness those dollars, we just might change the subject.