The logic and demonstrated value of these elements of social justice philanthropy can be found in nearly 10 years of NCRP research. In 2009, NCRP combined them – along with other philanthropic best practices – into aspirational goals for philanthropy in the landmark Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best. Not until now, however, has NCRP been able to look back on a decade of data to observe just how well the sector has measured up to those benchmarks.
Between 2003 and 2013, foundation giving to intentionally benefit underserved communities in the U.S. increased slowly, both in total dollars and as a share of all giving. Still, it remains disturbingly low: Domestic grantmaking to benefit underserved communities grew from 26 to 31 percent in those 11 years and from $3.2 billion to $5.7 billion in total dollars.
One third of those dollars came from 250 funders whose overall grantmaking showed stalwart commitment to prioritizing populations that were underserved and marginalized. Most of these grantmakers were very large independent and family foundations, with a few notable exceptions. Twenty percent of the grantmaking that explicitly benefitted at least one underserved community between 2003 and 2013 came from just 20 other large foundations, none of whom met NCRP’s benchmark.
Almost 9 out of every 10 foundations in the sample devoted less than half of their grant dollars between 2003 and 2013 for the intended benefit of underserved communities. Together, they were responsible for $200 billion in grantmaking during that decade.
Whose public good do those dollars serve if not communities that need them most? One understands, in light of these data, the frustration felt by nonprofit organizations working tirelessly on behalf of the poor, of immigrants, of women and girls, of victims of crime and abuse and others when they face dire budgetary shortfalls despite the hundreds of billions of dollars cached in foundation assets.
Making matters worse, foundation giving for strategies that lead to long-term change for underserved communities did not increase between 2003 and 2013. Foundations gave $18 billion domestically for these social justice strategies in those 11 years, and $700 million more in 2013 than in 2003. But the increase was not enough to keep up with the explosive growth in foundation giving and assets.
Half of this funding came from just 20 foundations, all of them very large independent or family foundations. Clearly, these 20 leading funders have realized the potential for leveraged impact in funding strategies such as organizing, civic engagement and public policy change. They should be proud of their sustained contribution to progressive change, but it should worry the philanthropic sector at large that such a substantial portion of all funding for these strategies is coming from such a small cohort.
That cohort has welcomed a slew of new members since 2003. More than 75 percent of the funders that met NCRP’s social justice strategies benchmark in 2013 did not appear in the sample in 2003. Sector leaders like Unbound Philanthropy, Northwest Area Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Foundation for the Mid-South and NoVo Foundation have shown that wisdom doesn’t just come with age. All five have entered the upper echelon of foundations and all have given more than 90 percent of their domestic grantmaking to systemic change strategies since 2003. Their emergent leadership is especially important in the light of the projected sunsetting of The Atlantic Philanthropies in 2020, whose consistent and significant support for social justice strategies will be missed in their absence. These data might indicate that new, young and growing foundations are increasingly attuned to the opportunity presented by social justice grantmaking.
Fifty other large foundations appear to be flirting with a commitment to social justice strategies, having given between 15 and 25 percent of their domestic grantmaking for social justice between 2003 and 2013. Together, they were responsible for 16 percent of all social justice strategies funding in those 11 years, despite not meeting NCRP’s benchmark.
These foundations represent an exciting opportunity for the sector. If they take the next step and commit to funding long-term systemic change, $10 billion more could flow to social justice grantees in the next decade. NCRP’s analysis indicates that, once funders reach the 25 percent benchmark, they are less likely to backslide in their commitment to social justice funding than they are at 20 or 15 percent. In other words, the 2003 to 2013 data indicate a commitment threshold for systemic change grantmaking around 25 percent of all grant dollars. If grantmakers in the 15 to 25 percent range can increase their commitment by just a few percentage points, they are likely to continue leading the sector toward more systemic change funding.
The $18 billion devoted to systemic change strategies between 2003 and 2013 had an enormous impact on underserved communities, but it is not enough. The share of all domestic funding for social justice strategies did not budge in those 11 years, and more than half of the 1,000 funders in the data set gave less than 10 percent of their grant dollars for long-term change strategies. The median foundation’s share of social justice strategies grantmaking was just 8 percent.
When it comes to the administration of social justice grantmaking, foundations are not doing much better. Between 2003 and 2013 foundation giving as general support increased very slowly, with the share of domestic grantmaking as general support inching up from 18 to 21 percent. This means that, in those 11 years, 80 percent of all domestic grantmaking was given as restricted project support, a grantmaking practice that hamstrings grantees.
This disappointing trend holds for general support grantmaking for underserved communities. Social justice strategies grantmakers may be doing a bit better – the share of those grant dollars given as general support surpassed the sector-wide share in 2012 – but more data are needed to determine whether this is a signal for hope or just noise.
In any given year between 2003 and 2013, about 90 percent of the foundations in the FC1000 did not report making any multi-year grants. Although imperfections in the sector’s multi-year funding data limit robust year-to-year analysis, lack of reporting and other anecdotal evidence from the sector indicates that that multi-year grantmaking – the best way to sustain a healthy nonprofit and a healthy sector for the long term – is still vanishingly rare. Between 2003 and 2013, the 2,079 foundations in the sample reported that just 16 percent of all their domestic grantmaking was given as multi-year support, and that share does not appear to have changed significantly in those 11 years.
In the next decade, foundations must change course if they are serious about being agents of sustainable, just social change and not just vehicles for elite tax relief. Here are three things that foundations can do now: