Accountability and alignment in philanthropy: Reflections from the Just Transition Forum

Written by: Caitlin Duffy

Date: April 06, 2018

What does accountability in philanthropy look like today?

This was a particularly salient question at the Just Transition Forum, a powerful cross-sector convening hosted by the Building Equity and Alignment (BEA) for Impact Initiative in Jackson, Mississippi, in February.

The BEA “brings together dynamic grassroots organizing groups, effective national green organizations and innovators in philanthropy to advance the progress of the environmental movement towards a just transition and directly confront powerful polluters.”

Guided by the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, and informed by research authored by Sarah Hansen and published by NCRP in Cultivating the Grassroots in 2012, the BEA has grown a strong grassroots-led network over the past five years.

Attending the Just Transition Forum and being in a space full of incredible yet continually under-resourced frontline organizers was a humbling and jarring difference from philanthropy’s mainstream conference culture, from the circular assembly set-up and world café discussion model, to leveraging allies like me as volunteer note takers and attending a local rally.

The agenda was outlined but fluid to accommodate emerging themes from conversations, and much of our time was spent grounding ourselves in the history of the movement and wisdom of elders. We delved into the principles and nuances of a “just transition,” recognizing the hundreds of years of colonization and white supremacy, and the resiliency of Indigenous, immigrant and Black communities in the face of so much pain and destruction.

Among the many breakout discussions, I attended one for funders, including colleagues from the Ceres Trust, Chorus, JPB, Overbrook, Mertz Gilmore and Surdna foundations, and organizations such as Arabella Advisors and EDGE Funders.

We discussed philanthropy’s current realities, how we show up and what we bring to the movement. Accountability was a prominent theme: We named that we operate in a sector that has few mechanisms for accountability and transparency, and identified a need to push for structures that support and move philanthropy towards “true accountability.”

It struck me that NCRP has fostered dialogue around these themes since our founding in 1976, a time in our nation’s history when there was also an increasing concern with public accountability. One of NCRP’s seminal reports from 1980, Foundations & Public Information: Sunshine or Shadow?, placed the growing conversation within the context of the Freedom of Information Act, first passed in 1966, the Tax Reform Act of 1969 and public scandals such as the Pallotine Fathers embezzlement case that led to indictment in 1978.

Among many observations that are still relevant, especially amidst the Trump administration, the report asserted: “Being accountable and accessible to the public is one way foundations can overcome an enormous obstacle they face in trying to make grants that deal effectively with social problems. That obstacle is their almost complete isolation from those problems.”

Today, mainstream grantmakers still hold enormous power, privilege and gatekeeping abilities, isolating them from the inequities and injustices experienced at the grassroots. With no “natural predators” beyond the IRS and tax policy in the United States, and ongoing sector disagreement over the fact that foundation dollars are partially public dollars, it’s no wonder that this challenge continues to plague the sector. Reflecting on this same report in 2013, our president Aaron Dorfman wrote, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

But philanthropy can and must move beyond upwards accountability to boards, donors and founders, and operationalize accountability downwards to nonprofit partners and communities.

To address this persistently thorny dynamic in philanthropy, the BEA is educating and organizing funders towards greater alignment with grassroots social movements. And they’re doing so in powerful, intersectional ways that bring funders out of their bubbles, which I invite you to support and learn from.

Here are some suggestions for how to show up and what to bring:

  • Be thoughtful about navigating power dynamics. In spaces like the Just Transition Forum, the BEA invites funders in as collaborators. This doesn’t mean you can’t contribute — the BEA welcomes vulnerability and honesty about your challenges in navigating barriers. But these are opportunities to practice stepping back, listen and make room for grassroots leadership. For more funder-oriented convenings, check out the BEA’s Funder Allies Webinars and the Funder Briefings hosted by the Climate Justice Alliance, a core member of the BEA.
  • Honor the network’s democratic decision-making and understand that these kind of processes take time and require in-person, authentic relationship building to be truly inclusive and responsive. For more do’s and don’ts for how to approach this in historically under-resourced, marginalized communities, check out NCRP’s As the South Grows series of reports.
  • Contribute to the burgeoning BEA Fund to better resource grassroots groups that are advancing community-based solutions to the ecological crisis. The Fund’s grants will be decided by the real experts: grassroots organizers. To delve into the “why” and “how” of equitable community-led grantmaking, check out NCRP’s Pass the Reins webinar and our recent issue of Responsive Philanthropy.

Funders can play important roles in social movements, providing resources, peer support and sector organizing. By engaging in the work of organizations like the BEA and NCRP, grantmakers can practice more respectful relationships with grassroots groups and generate a culture of “true accountability” throughout the sector.

Caitlin Duffy is senior associate for learning and engagement at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP@DuffyInDC and @BEA4Impact on Twitter, and stay tuned for more reflections and recommendations from the BEA at You can find live tweets from the Just Transition Forum using #JTForum2018.

Thank you to Doyle Canning and Jennifer Near of the BEA and Samantha Harvey of EDGE Funders for their support with this post.

Photo courtesy of Building Equity and Alignment for Impact.