Grant Makers Step Up Advocacy Efforts to Help Disadvantaged People, Report Says

Resource type: News

The Chronicle of Philanthropy |

Foundations are stepping up their advocacy efforts to help the poor and other disadvantaged people, according to a report released today by the Foundation Center.

The report found that grant makers and charity officials were more optimistic about the efficacy of social-justice grant making — defined as efforts to expand opportunities for disadvantaged people through structural change — than in a similar study conducted in 2005.

They cited the changed political climate, the success of community organizing during the last presidential election, and new ideas and energy about social-justice issues among the factors for its growth.

“In 2005 many of us wondered about the prospects for social-justice philanthropy because the field itself was so pessimistic about its future,” Bradford Smith, president of the Foundation Center, said in a press release. “Today, social justice is experiencing a resurgence.”

The report, which was based on giving by 749 foundations and interviews with foundation officials and advocates, found that giving to social-justice causes grew by nearly 31 percent from 2002 to 2006, outpacing the 20-percent increase in overall foundation giving during that period.

Social-justice grant making performed even better in 2007, reaching $3-billion or 13.7 percent of overall grant dollars. The Foundation Center’s estimates suggest it held steady in 2008.

The growth was fueled in large part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which accounted for half of the increase in social-justice grant dollars from 2002 to 2006, according to the study.

A Big Foundation’s View

Some grant makers are increasingly seeing their overall giving strategy through the lens of social justice. Gara LaMarche, president of Atlantic Philanthropies, announced yesterday that his foundation had come to believe through a review of its giving that “what captures and unites our work best is the notion of social justice.”

The grant maker, which has long worked to help disadvantaged people, would sharpen its focus on dealing with the underlying reasons why those individuals are marginalized, Mr. LaMarche said.

Despite those positive signs, the economic crisis is expected to depress social-justice grant making, as it has for other types of giving.

“Social-justice philanthropy is not immune to the current economic crisis,” said Steven Lawrence, senior director of research at the Foundation Center, in a release. “Yet, while grant dollars will certainly be down, we do not expect that social-justice related grant making will be disproportionately affected by the downturn.”

The report found that grant makers were more likely to give to economic and community development than other types of social-justice causes. But social-justice giving increased to all but three areas: social-science research, public-affairs issues such as welfare policy, and education.

Foundations that gave to social justice were nearly twice as likely as other donors to support causes overseas. Meanwhile, grants to international affairs, peace, and conflict resolution grew by 65.4 percent between 2002 and 2006, according to the report.

People interviewed for the report suggested several approaches to effective social-justice grant making, including supporting coalitions that include fewer organizations, focusing on grass-roots charities, and embracing mission-related investing.

Activists and charity officials encouraged efforts to support community organizing and to connect think tanks with small, grass-roots groups.

You can hear Mr. LaMarche talk more about the Atlantic Philanthropies’ strategy in the latest episode of Philanthropy This Week, the Chronicle‘s new podcast about the nonprofit world, below.