Reimagining Philanthropy: How Funders Can Advance the Movement for Social Justice

  • By Lori Bezahler ,

Philanthropy does not have a great record of supporting social movements and organizing. For the most part, it has been a story of benign neglect–simply ignoring them. When foundations have supported social movement organizations, the interests of the funder have generally driven the strategy and focus, not the organization or the community most impacted. Too often, that approach has resulted in movement capture, whereby the energy and strength of the people and the movement are subverted from the issues most critical to them.

The public conversation on racism in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breona Taylor, the existential struggle of climate change, and the rise of authoritarianism all call us to engage with social movements and give us the chance to do better this time. In order to be better partners to grassroots organizers, we need to do more than talk. We need to listen and then we need to act.

For the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, the elections of 2016 led us to question our level of commitment to the education justice and racial justice youth organizing groups we supported at a time of trauma, fear, and also opportunity. That question resulted in the decision to move all of the Foundation’s assets to the field by 2025–a century after the Foundation’s establishment.

At each step, we asked our current and prospective grantees to guide us in determining how we could best support them. As we approached our final months, we asked our grantees for their advice once more. This time, we asked them to advise Hazen and our peers in philanthropy on how to be effective partners.

“Reevaluating Practice: Reimagining Philanthropy” captures recommendations of our grantees. They have taught us to be more responsive and effective partners. We hope their words will help our peers to implement practices that advance a more effective and sustainable movement for social justice.

Below, we share some of the teachings from the field.

Recommendation 1: Build authentic partnerships with nonprofit partners through transparency and vulnerability.

The strength of a partnership often depends on the willingness to share vulnerabilities. This openness fosters a deeper level of trust and collaboration, enabling both funders and grantees to navigate challenges more effectively together. “It’s especially helpful when program officers are transparent about internal challenges at their funding institutions and ask us to help them strategize about how to address those challenges,” shares Alicia Olivarez, associate director at Power California.

Many funders understand movement building from a theoretical perspective, so the actions and resources they prioritize often do not match the reality on the ground. Alicia continues, “some funders just don’t come from a movement building lens, so it’s helpful when program officers tell us what they need to effectively advocate for us. Transparency is paramount.”

*By openly sharing the challenges they face, funders can unlock new levels of trust and cooperation, laying the groundwork for a more authentic partnership. *

Recommendation 2: When funding nonprofit partners, account for the cost of capitalism.

The realities of capitalism continue to drive more communities into poverty and nonprofit workers are not immune to these pressures. “Housing and living costs keep increasing, and our communities are affected. That includes our organizers and our staff. At least three of our staff members have side jobs, and one of them is full-time,” reveals Sandra Hernandez-Lomeli, director at Latinos Unidos Siempre. Funders must recognize the need for living wage salaries and benefits to keep nonprofit staff focused on mission and reduce burn out. Or, to put it bluntly, why shouldn’t nonprofit partners get what those of us privileged to work in philanthropic institutions have come to expect for ourselves?

To enable nonprofit leaders to plan for long-term budgeting and to act quickly when opportunities or emergencies arise, funders must move away from project specific funding and towards unrestricted funding. “It is imperative that we support the everyday work happening and the leaders on the ground who make it possible. Too often, organizations receive funding to conduct seasonal or project-based work without funders considering the capacity and infrastructure needed to create long-term outcomes,” explains Cendi Tena, co-executive director at Leaders Igniting Transformation. Hazen’s support was general operating support and, as we moved towards spending out, grants did not include end dates.

Recommendation 3: To engage in strategic collaboration with nonprofit partners, take the time to fully understand the circumstances and context of the communities you serve.

Solutions crafted by those directly affected by systemic inequity often differ from what funders might typically expect to see because organizers are responsive to the realities of a specific community at a specific time—not a theoretical approach. “It can be disruptive when funders come up with preconceived ideas about solutions because one particular solution has gotten traction in the media or in one geographic context,” recounts Tanushree Dutta Isaacman, lead organizer at Action in Montgomery.

Instead, James Lopez, executive director of Power U Center for Social Change, suggests, “If you’re actually interested in creating the change you want to see, you have to be equally invested in studying the conditions and making sense of the issues with the practitioners who are on the ground.”

We know many of our peers in the field have long worked to implement strategies and practices that develop authentic relationships with nonprofit leaders and center justice. We hope this report adds to their work and is a catalyst for pushing philanthropy to go further in the pursuit of a just society.

We also know many of our peers are interested in stepping onto this path but have not yet moved from conversation to action. We invite our peers in the early stages of their efforts to use our examples and the experiences of our nonprofit partners to motivate their next steps. The movement for social justice requires our reflection and our action.