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Sit Down, Stand Up: Social Justice Philanthropy Revisited

Resource type: News

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by Christopher Harris

Last summer, Alliance magazine editor Caroline Hartnell asked me if I thought it would be good to write another special feature on philanthropy and social justice. As she put it, was there something new to say? While there is still much to do to increase and improve the work, there is encouraging news for those committed to philanthropy for social justice.

In fact, there is both bad and good news. The bad news is how slowly philanthropy has moved in the social justice direction in the face of enormous need and injustice. The good news is how much positive activity is now under way. Let me offer seven items that I believe are worth reporting.

A Change, If Not Yet a Sea-Change

For much of the past ten years, “philanthropy for social justice” usually meant one of three things. First, there was grantmaking by a small number of foundations that had a specific focus (such as human rights, women’s rights or social exclusion) but rarely dealt with other issues. Second, there was grantmaking that was wrapped in ideology but paid little serious attention to impact (especially in the United States). Third, there were a number of practitioners who alone or in small groups were searching for more powerful strategies but could find no rigorous research or training opportunities to help them.

As Albert Ruesga points out in his article in the December Alliancemagazine, a glance at foundation mission statements suggests widespread support for addressing injustices of all kinds, but the actual grants made by most funders offer charitable aid and the provision of services. They do not offer support to help people change the rules and practices that keep them in poverty or otherwise vulnerable. However, despite the slowness of many foundations to take on the tough issues of unfair treatment of groups in our various communities, there are nevertheless reasons for optimism.

Convening the Working Group

In the summer of 2007, while I was still at the Ford Foundation, frustrated by my inability to find help to address some key issues relating to grantmaking in support of social justice, I looked across the field of philanthropy around the world and identified a set of individuals whom I believed could help. My criteria were pretty simple: their own work must demonstrate a commitment to justice and a particular analysis of injustice; they must have a history of serious thinking about this kind of philanthropy; they must be willing to roll up their sleeves and do hard work (for free); they would represent different parts of the world and kinds of institutions; and they would have a good sense of humor. To my shock and delight, they accepted my invitation and we started the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace. The group has since expanded and is continuing to bring in new members.

The Working Group had three initial tasks. First, to hold a major gathering of a hundred practitioners of philanthropy for social justice from around the world to test whether there is a potential “community of practice” with which we could engage, learning from each other and expanding into a larger movement. That meeting took place in Cairo in February 2009, and work with an enlarged group continues.

The second task was to develop a definition of philanthropy for social justice that would help clarify what it means and how to go about it. It was much more difficult than any of us imagined. Nevertheless, Albert Ruesga’s article offers helpful new thinking on the problem. He gives a wry and helpful twist on the parable of teaching a man to fish.

Finally, we wanted to take on the issue of impact analysis. The rapidly growing philanthropy evaluation industry largely emphasizes outputs, generic “effectiveness,” or managerial issues, but is mostly silent on issues like structural inequality or institutionalized racism. Barry Knight’s articleoffers some useful guidance on this topic. Barry and Albert are members of the Working Group, as are several other contributors in the December issue of Alliance.

Growing Demand for Better Practice…

So what else is new and worth saying about philanthropy for social justice? First, as I mention above, there is both a growing demand for better practice and groups willing to do the hard work of identifying what that practice should be. In addition to the Working Group, there are several other collaborations across the globe that have come together — frequently out of the same frustration that there is nowhere to go for help — and are wrestling with very similar issues. While still in the early stages, I can imagine that as these groups interact and produce more useful work, we might see a real community of practice for social justice philanthropy emerging. The articles in this issue reflect those efforts.

…And for More Rigorous Analysis

A second item worthy of note is the consistent demand for greater rigor. Increasingly, good intentions and ineffectual outcomes are being called failure. More and more foundation practitioners are demanding tougher analysis and are willing to take on the hard work of designing and reviewing their work in light of its impact (or lack of impact) on elements of injustice.

I recall an analysis of our funding in the South, in particular the state of Alabama, that took place while I was at Ford. One of the pillars of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was up for re-authorization before the Congress, and the data showed that there were almost as many young African-American men in Alabama who could not vote in the mid-2000s as there were in the 1960s. While Ford supported a variety of civil rights and other social justice organizations in the area, all of which were doing good things, it was clear that we were having no effect on that aspect of structural racism in Alabama. What was needed was a rigorous analysis of the situation and a very different strategy.

Several of the articles in the December Alliance show how different funders employ a rigorous analysis of the injustice they target and their causes. In her article, Karen Zelermyer describes the struggles of the regional group of funders she worked with in the United States to define what they thought was a single problem but which turned out to involve historical roots and a network of related issues and structural arrangements. All of these had to be considered in order to get to the root of the problems. Ana Valéria Araujo and Sérgio Haddad’s article on the experience of the Brazil Fund for Human Rights shows the comprehensive analysis that they bring to the causes of human rights violations in their country.

These articles and others in this special feature reflect a growing realization of the need for a sound analysis by grantmakers of the forces that cause and maintain injustice. This analysis must include a careful and rigorous look at:

  • The historical forces that contributed to the shaping of the current unjust reality and the forces that perpetuate it;
  • The effects of being a member of one or more excluded groups (the article on the Dalit Foundation shows how being a Dalit woman means double oppression);
  • Institutional structures — how the policies that govern institutions, their cultures, and their relationships with others and with the communities they supposedly serve contribute to injustice;
  • The distribution of power — how power in its various forms (wealth, political influence, etc.) is acquired, held, and brokered.

Designing the Strategy

A third issue has to do with the effective choice of strategies and tactics. A sound analysis of injustice usually shows up hidden practices and structural issues. The funder must design grantmaking strategies that are sufficiently sophisticated and robust to take on those structural arrangements and help those who are trying to create a fairer deal.

This is far easier said than done, but it is the focus of many of the groups that I mention above. What are the best strategies for making the change happen? Do the strategies lead to a choice of tactics rich enough to initiate and maintain social change? For example, if the strategy is to fund litigation, will the funder pay only for the lawyers and related costs or will they also support organizing and movement building, monitoring capacity, and enforcement of the decision, and other activities that, taken together, are more likely to succeed in removing the injustice? There are an increasing number of grantmakers looking for more appropriate and effective ways to help stop injustices and not just to relieve the pain they cause. Several of the articles in this issue show how those funders fashioned their grantmaking strategy.

Designing Appropriate Evaluations

A fourth issue is evaluation. Grantmakers interested in philanthropy for social justice are looking for ways to show the effects of their strategies on reducing or eliminating the cause of injustice. Tension exists here for at least two reasons. First, the loudest voices in philanthropy, business, and the media call for metrics that are either over-simple or reductionist. They measure things that might be mildly interesting but are silent on changing structural injustice. Second, there is a well-financed industry of evaluators, riding the crest of this wave, many of whom offer very sophisticated analyses that are ultimately unhelpful about changing conditions of unfairness.

What is new here is the growing set of foundations leaders who are calling for more substantial and wiser thinking, along with some efforts to identify helpful practice in social impact analysis. In the article mentioned earlier in this piece, Barry Knight walks us through a process that he and Suzanne Siskel at the Ford Foundation are using; and Ana Criquillion tells of an evaluation effort in the making that is trying to employ a much more sophisticated analysis of justice for women in Central America.

For a long time, those who practiced good grantmaking for social justice used three elements — structural analysis, devising a grantmaking strategy, and finding ways to understand and learn from their impact — but they frequently did this alone and they did it by trial and error or intuition. There was little serious and systematic effort to analyze these practices and craft them into useful learning products. While it is still not assystematic as I would like, there are an increasing number of seriousefforts that hold promise for the field. The real possibility for access to helpful learning is certainly worth reporting as a fifth item, and the December issue of Alliance identifies a few of those efforts.

A Growing Collection of Foundation Leaders Involved

The sixth bit of news I want to share is that there is a growing number of foundation leaders whose social justice work increasingly challenges mainstream philanthropy’s comfort level with “business as usual.” In addition to those few who have done such work for decades, like Stephen Pittam at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust in the United Kingdom and Katherine Acey at the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, this new group of leaders is directing its institutions to be more strategic about their funding and the injustices on which they work.

Others, like Gara LaMarche of Atlantic Philanthropies and Luc Tayart de Borms of the King Baudouin Foundation, have successfully proposed to their boards that the foundation emphasize social justice explicitly. Atlantic produces a series of publications that capture the lessons they are learning from their more focused efforts to address social injustice. Space does not allow a more complete list, but what is exciting is that ten years ago I could not have written most of the paragraphs above.

The Continuing Reality of Power

The seventh issue I want to metion has to do with the use of power. Someone always benefits from injustice, so efforts to stop it inevitably encounter resistance. In some cases this takes the form of attacks on the character and integrity of those opposing the injustice. Ironically, one measure of success is the degree to which groups and individuals who uphold injustice attack those who oppose it.

Foundations that support social justice are not immune from such attacks. My former place of work experienced several such assaults. Alliance offers two examples of foundations supporting social justice that faced attacks — the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland and the New Israel Fund. Their success stories offer lessons for the rest of us.

Sit Down, Stand Up

There is an old Yiddish saying that reminds me to question my assumptions: “If three people say that you are drunk, sit down.” In other words, your perception of reality may not be accurate, and you ignore good advice at your peril. Now that many more than three people are saying that philanthropy can and should support social justice, there is a chance that more foundations will sit down and soberly build a rigorous body of practice about philanthropy for social justice, so that the rest of us can learn and ultimately stand up to work with those most marginalized in our societies. I hope that this article, and the others in this special Alliancefeature, help in that endeavor.

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