Social Justice Philanthropy Is Not a “Political Third Rail”

Written by: Christine Reeves Strigaro

Date: October 29, 2015

Of all the rich details in NCRP’s newest report, Families Funding Change: How Social Justice Giving Honors Our Roots and Strengthens Communities, the one that resonated with me most was the description that family foundations see social justice philanthropy as a “political third rail.” So many family foundations seek measurable change – and yet view a key element for it as a subject too dangerous to broach.  However, this misconception is easily changeable.

When family foundations disregard social justice strategies out of caution, they prevent themselves from serving society to the fullest. Let’s face it; most family philanthropists are not interested in reducing homelessness a tiny bit, polluting our environment just a little less, or giving one kid a scholarship. They are in the business of positive social change. They posit audacious mission statements: “end poverty,” “reverse climate change” and “restructure our public education system so all children have access to equal opportunities.”

Families Funding Change shares that, between 2004 and 2012, family foundations classified only 9 percent of their collective grant dollars toward social justice purposes. According to the definition cited in NCRP’s Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best, “Social justice philanthropy is the practice of making contributions to nonprofit organizations that work for structural change and increase the opportunity of those who are less well-off politically, economically and socially.”

The dearth of dollars for social justice philanthropy is a missed opportunity. Yet, there is good news. In the new publication, NCRP identifies seven “perceived barriers to funding social justice” by family foundations – and lays out recommendations for addressing each.

Many family foundations refrain from supporting social justice because they are leery of the legal rules of advocacy, not realizing the rules are actually quite generous. Alliance for Justice’s newest publication, Philanthropy Advocacy Playbook: Leveraging Your Dollars, sheds light on this very topic. The Playbook provides benefits, tips, diagrams and examples for how foundations can effectively and legally support advocacy within their foundations and through their grantmaking. Eleven chapters give foundation leaders the confidence to better reach their missions by incorporating organizing, civic engagement, public policy, voter registration, grassroots work and other advocacy strategies that could fall under the tent of social justice philanthropy. These strategies address the heart of the matter: how to practice philanthropy that matters.

I have witnessed how foundation leaders, who courageously and inclusively pursue social justice philanthropy, end up addressing root causes of problems. In doing so, their philanthropy yields deeper, stronger and longer-lasting outcomes. The NCRP publication cites helpful case studies of leading foundations – Surdna Foundation, Hill-Snowdon Foundation and Needmor Fund — that have championed advocacy and social justice.

As we know, there is no perfect formula for philanthropy, and it is often more of an art than a science. Yet, imagine if 90 percent, or even 50 percent, of family foundation grants supported social justice. Then we might all agree that the political third rail of philanthropy would be the absence (not the presence) of social justice philanthropy.

Christine Reeves Strigaro is the associate director of foundation programs at Alliance for Justice. She previously was senior field associate at NCRP. Follow @CReevesStrigaro on Twitter and join the #FamiliesFundingChange and #AFJPlaybook conversations.