Tag Archives: foundations

Responsive Philanthropy

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.

Foundations for Advocacy

I am convinced that lack of adequate financial resources is a major, if not the most significant, barrier to effective nonprofit advocacy. Yes, we have challenges to overcome regarding institutional capacity and expertise, preoccupation with direct service, and, sometimes, lack of courage to take the stands needed to be effective advocates, but I truly believe that we could surmount these obstacles much more easily if nonprofit organizations could invest in the staff, training, and other resources they need to succeed in advocacy.

And, yet, the kind of long-term, sustainable, unrestricted funding that nonprofit organizations need to build their capacity to take on these battles is declining, and lack of funding continues to be a shield behind which organizations not engaging in advocacy can hide, and a real limitation for those trying to make it work.

All of this has led to one of my current research interests of sorts–the role of donors to social service organizations in supporting those organizations’ social change work (particularly advocacy, but also community organizing and broader justice work). This document outlines the highlights from a report regarding “Social Justice Grantmaking”, the authors’ term for grants that target work for structural change. I have contacted the authors to see if the study will be updated, since the data were collected in 2005, and I am very interested to see what the current recession means for these foundations–both those that were funding social justice work then and those that were not–and their levels of giving and priorities.

Here are the findings that I found most notable: social justice grantmaking is only 11% of total foundation support; it has grown somewhat since the late 1990s but more slowly than overall increases in giving. The ‘big names’ represent the majority of social justice grantmaking: the top 25 foundations for this kind of grantmaking constituted only 13% of the sample of donors but gave 68% of the total dollars to social justice work. That’s huge; what it means, essentially, is that those nonprofits doing excellent work not on the radar screen of the Fords or Caseys or Rockefellers or Carnegies are going to be competing with others for only ~30% of the 11% of total grantmaking dollars. It’s still a lot of money, but it doesn’t stretch too far. By social justice ‘topic’, economic development tops the list, followed by health care access (I’d love to see how this has changed given the current political openings on health care reform), civil rights, education reform, housing, and human services. What that makes me wonder is how nonprofit organizations can frame their advocacy so that it hits those priority areas, given that, in many instances, we’re seeking the kind of wholesale societal changes that touch on multiple areas of inequity. Somewhat surprisingly, the Midwest is second in terms of its share of social justice dollars (24%, behind the unsurprising Northeast).

The end of the report has barriers cited by grantmakers to increasing their participation with this social change work: the magnitude of the problems (um, to me, that suggests a need for MORE investment in social justice grantmaking, no?), the short-term focus of most grants (a problem it seems that they could change, right?), lack of field coherence (e.g. we don’t all use the same language to talk about change, we don’t work together like we should, advocates still need to get our acts together), and lack of outcome measures (this is another one of my obsessions right now–I’ve read at least 6 advocacy evaluation reports a week for the last month–more on that to come soon).

But, I loathe anything that just lays out a problem without suggesting some way around, over, or through it, so I’ve sought out some resources to help nonprofit advocates get the social justice grant dollars that ARE available, as well as some really excellent individuals and organizations that are working hard to convince foundations of their moral obligation and obvious self-interest (um, solve the problems and you can do whatever you want with your money!) in investing in social change. One that I’m really stoked about is Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training. Some of their resources (like the seemingly-superb webinars–once my kids can sit still for 30 minutes, I’m totally there) cost, but others are free. I’m on their e-newsletter now, and they’ve got great stuff on how to survive the recession, how to plan good special events..it’s not all advocacy-focused, but it’s good.

And here’s the other one I want to share right now: Grantcraft. Now, if you follow that link, you might wonder why I’m sending you to a website clearly designed for grantmakers (since I doubt many of you are sitting on millions of dollars in endowments). But here’s the idea: first, think like a grantmaker in order to influence grantmakers. Read what they read, use their same language, understand their rationale for saying ‘yes’, so that you increase the likelihood that they’ll say it to you. Second, direct the donors with whom you have an existing relationship to resources like this if they’re currently reluctant to fund advocacy/social change work. They need to know that they won’t be alone, or breaking the law, or throwing money away. They need to connect with other grantmakers who, in fact, find social justice grantmaking the most rewarding and effective part of their portfolio. And then they need to open their pocketbooks, because we’ve got work to do.

Words to Give By

I’ve linked to a new report from the Council on Philanthropy and the Alliance for Justice–Words to Give By. It features interview selections with a sample of some of the most influential leaders in the philanthropic community, especially those whose foundations have experience contributing to advocacy. They talk about where they see nonprofit advocacy headed, what has been rewarding for their organizations about this work, and how they would advise other foundations to approach advocacy funding. I read it last night, and it was a lot of fun.


  • The former CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation takes his fellow funders to task, in a way, for the claim that they can’t/shouldn’t give to advocacy because it’s difficult to measure its outcomes. He points out that that’s the case for a lot of the work that foundations do support (he gives the example of mentoring)–advocacy is ‘messy’ (his word, but I really like it) to measure, and sometimes success is nebulous, but we know that it does work, and it should not be held to a different or higher standard than other interventions.
  • The former ED of the Surdna Foundation makes the essential point that, really, it’s impossible to separate advocacy from program. If people took this to heart, I believe it could lead to my ideal–every social service program integrating advocacy on the public policies that impact their work into their programming, in a seamless and synergistic way. It would be expected of organizations, and organizations would expect such support from their donors.
  • The President of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation states, “advocacy on behalf of our constituents is essential to ensure that public funds, which will dwarf the amount of private resources in scope and amount, are used effectively and applied towards the needs of displaced residents and communities that historically have had access to the fewest resources.” (in quotes to prove that she really said it, even though it’s the same thing that I say in all of my policy classes!)
  • One of the most provocative and, I think, fascinating sections is from the former Executive Director of the Public Welfare Foundation (with a long history of funding advocacy). He points to the liberals’ ‘obsession for neutral, unbiased research and action’ as a barrier to foundations’ vigorous support for advocacy, where, almost by definition, you have to take a strong value stance and, inevitably, make some people on ‘the other side’ angry. There’s a lot of truth to this; I find that my students, even, are often somewhat hesitant to really call out their opponents on a given policy issue, because social workers often try to see things from multiple points of view and find common ground, when what we need sometimes is a line drawn in the sand.

    There is a lot more of value here, both for foundations that are considering contributing to advocacy and for nonprofit advocates who want some insights into donors’ minds or need some tools they can use to convince donors to step into advocacy. Check it out, and thanks, yet again, to the folks at Alliance for Justice. You guys rule.