P O S T E D B Y A L B E R T
Inside the painfully polite, frequently conservative world of mainstream U.S. philanthropy, the term “social justice philanthropy” often suggests an unwholesome radicalism in one’s approach to grantmaking. This fact, if it is a fact, should give us pause. What kind of an enterprise is mainstream philanthropy that it can be so easily rattled by the notion of social justice?
The 2005 publication, Social Justice Grantmaking: A Report on Foundation Trends, did much to help make the philanthropic world safer for discussions of social justice. It attempted to step carefully around—or rather through—the thornier questions, some of them related to a precise definition of the term “social justice philanthropy.” The report’s working definition was this:
Social justice philanthropy is the granting of philanthropic contributions to nonprofit organizations based in the United States and other countries that work for structural change in order to increase the opportunity of those who are least well off politically, economically, and socially.
The authors of that report did an admirable job of balancing competing perspectives.* Going forward, while there might be some skirmishes related to the category of the “least well off,” most of the battle will shift, in my view, to the kind of “structural change” that effectively addresses the roots of social injustice.
Of special interest in the report was a chapter written by Henry Ramos and Scott Nielsen in which they described their interviews with program officers and foundation executives, some of whom were apparently skeptical about the project of social justice philanthropy. These interviews uncovered an eye-opening—and sometimes eye-popping—array of objections to social justice as an organizing concept.
What follows is my attempt to address the objections I believe are most commonly raised against social justice grantmaking. Some of these are drawn from the work of Ramos and Nielsen; many come from my own experience as an apologist for the field.
So here goes, in no particular order. Hold on to your megaphones …
1. The poor will always be with us.
The unfair advantages accorded one group over another might or might not result in substantial income and wealth disparities, so that while a strikingly unequal distribution of income and wealth is frequently an outcome of social injustice, it isn’t necessarily so. Racial discrimination, second-class citizenship for gays and lesbians, draconian treatment of legal immigrants under IIRAIRA laws: these are unjust in and of themselves, whether or not they lead to significant income disparities.
There’s no denying that in Matthew 26:11 Christ tells us that the poor are always with us. But a sensitive reader of the Gospels would not on this basis conclude that we should do nothing to reduce their numbers or alleviate their suffering.
The deeper question here is, what can social justice philanthropy reasonably hope to accomplish for the poor (see objection 8, below)? We have a fairly clear idea of how to help individuals and individual families escape poverty. The challenge in the U.S. context is to better understand how our values, habits of mind, institutions, and economic and political structures enable poverty to persist in marginalized communities defined by race, ethnicity, class, national origin, and other characteristics.
Finally, if eliminating poverty were the only goal of social justice work, this objection might carry some weight. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t.
2. Social justice work is anachronistic at best and radical at worst: my board would never agree to it.
The objection here, if I understand it correctly, is that the trustees of U.S. foundations would generally resist the notion of social justice. If that’s the case, could there be a stronger argument for damning the enterprise of American philanthropy and dismantling its institutions? If the notion of fairness raises so many objections in the boardroom, hasn’t the American foundation stopped serving a useful social purpose?
I’m not convinced, however, that notions of justice or equality of opportunity will ultimately prove so alienating to trustees. Remove the rhetoric, the partisanship, the unpleasant associations, and you’re left with an idea—justice as fairness—that all good people can embrace.
As for the charge of anachronism, it’s true that discussions of social justice have an ancient pedigree. Mencius, Plato, Christ, and thousands of others have weighed in. But we’ve been arguing about morality for as long a time, and nobody’s suggesting we move past the notion of ethical behavior.
3. Social justice philanthropy can’t be properly evaluated.
It can be and has been. Many frameworks for assessing social justice philanthropy have been developed over the years. Here’s a link to just a few.
4. Funding for social services or youth enrichment programs or housing development etc. is social justice funding.
I’ll cede the point: there’s no use arguing over the ownership of the term “social justice.” Moreover, I can imagine contexts in which giving a hungry man a piece of bread would count as a deeply political act. It’s true that funding social services or youth programs, for example, fails the definition I’ve given above of social justice philanthropy. After all, providing funding for these services doesn’t typically lead to structural change and might in some cases impede it. Nevertheless there’s something wonderfully human, deeply just about giving assistance to someone who needs our help.
There is, however, another kind of funding that aims to address the upstream causes of our downstream problems, that asks why some communities are much more desperately in need of social services or affordable housing than others, or why the young people in these communities attend schools that are falling down around their heads. It’s the kind of philanthropy that analyzes how power and privilege are brokered and maintained in this country. It’s the kind of philanthropy I’m championing here. I’ll call it “social justice philanthropy plus” perhaps, “or turbo philanthropy” or “Maureen.” Rather than fight for possession of the term social justice philanthropy, I’d happily yield it to whomever would claim it since ultimately it doesn’t matter what we call it, it matters only that we do it.
5. We fund social services or youth enrichment or housing etc. Social justice philanthropy has nothing to do with us.
Periodically, history affords us a few moments of clarity. By the grace of a higher power, or by chance, the light of insight burns away the mists and we come to understand more clearly who we are and what we do. Hurricane Katrina was for many not only an opportunity to respond but also to reflect. Few events in recent U.S. history have so clearly put the lie to the idea that we can effectively address the challenges faced by low-income communities by ignoring the effects of race and class or by side-stepping issues of power and privilege.
6. Social justice philanthropy is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.
Foundations are tax-exempt institutions with the dual purpose of holding excess wealth and benefiting the public good. This excess wealth is quite often the result of the inequitable distribution of economic, political or social power. The question becomes then, “How can tax exempt institutions that benefit from power inequalities and control great wealth work toward equal opportunity and social, economic and political power for those without it?” Without market (economic or political) signals to determine the demand for social justice, how can institutions that are the result of the private market and inventions of public policy determine such a demand?
Along these same lines, there are critics who argue that it’s no accident that grand philanthropic gestures coincide with moments in our history when wealth becomes concentrated in very few hands and the gap between the rich and the poor grows unacceptably large. (Consider, for example, the founding of the first large American foundations around the time of the Robber Barons, or the record-breaking foundations being created today.) These critics argue that now, as in ages past, philanthropy has functioned as a social safety valve, redistributing just enough wealth to keep people in low-income communities from becoming uncontrollably militant. In a context such as this, they ask, is it really possible for philanthropy to become the snake that bites its own tail, to challenge the very institutions from which it draws its power?
Some of these critics assume that social justice philanthropy will necessarily lead to revolution rather than evolution; that any effort to help the marginalized will require bringing capitalism to its knees. This is an absurdity of the first water, equal in absurdity, perhaps, to the claim that a perfectly efficient market will solve all of our social ills.
We have not, in my view, taken the first step toward change, which is simply to see, to understand where we are and why. If and when we attempt this, I would urge us to avoid what I call the “systems heresy”—the idea that just systems will necessarily lead to just people who produce just outcomes. Let’s not presuppose what the solutions will be until we clearly understand the problems.
7. Funding advocacy is against the law.
No, thankfully it isn’t—despite the best efforts of some members of Congress. More importantly, advocacy is only one of many tools used by individuals and organizations working for social change. Other perfectly legal tools include research, community organizing, policy analysis, voter registration, movement building, leadership development, and public outreach, among others.
8. The problems are too big: we don’t have the capacity to address them.
We once thought the ocean too wide and too deep to cross. Then somebody invented the boat.
Even a system as large and complicated as the United States has undergone dramatic shifts in its treatment of marginalized communities and in how it grants access to power and privilege. Slavery has been abolished, women have won the right to vote, and the great social movements of the 1950s and 60s have moved us closer to widely shared ideals of social justice. The broader goal of a world without want where all people thrive and nations live in peace, where all have equal access to opportunity and all contribute according to their means—this world might be farther off, but there’s nothing in principle to stop us from creating it.
9. All the great social justice battles have been fought and won: there’s nothing left to do.
The residents of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward don’t think so. Neither do the gay and lesbian couples who are being denied full marriage rights, or the working poor who have seen their real wages drop over the past several decades. We can ask the legal immigrants suffering under draconian IIRAIRA laws about their take on American-style social justice. Perhaps those inmates being water-boarded in secret CIA prisons, or being held without due process at Guantánamo, or undergoing extraordinary rendition to countries where they’ll be tortured have a perspective on how much farther we have to go before we declare victory in the war on injustice.
All of this and more is happening in the U.S. context. The chamber of horrors becomes substantially more crowded the further afield we go.
10. There are no models of successful social justice grantmaking.
American philanthropy is blessed with many examples of courageous and far-seeing foundations that have cast their lots with the poor and the marginalized. They would be more than happy to share with you their successes. Check out, for example:
… and many others.
11. Even avowed social justice grantmakers can’t agree on a definition of the term.
It’s not a matter of shared definitions, but of a shared determination to forego philanthropy as usual for a kind of giving that transforms both the giver and the supplicant, humbling the former and empowering the latter.
More to the point: How essential is it that all of us subscribe to the same definition of social justice or social justice philanthropy? Perfect justice requires that each of us have a meaningful role in shaping society’s institutions and inflecting its values. It shouldn’t surprise us that from this multiplicity of views there will emerge a range of perspectives on what social justice should consist in. Social justice philanthropy, we can agree, is a verb not a noun; we can expect its meaning to unfold over time. Our evolving sense of social justice would suggest that we continue to welcome disagreement, to invite all stakeholders to search for a higher truth through reasoned debate, as hopelessly old fashioned as this might sound.
12. It’s not a lack of social justice that’s at the root of our problems: it’s a lack of personal responsibility or it’s big government or …
I would wager that it’s these things and more. If our primary commitments are to social justice, to truth and to mercy, we’ll find a way to sort through our disagreements. If, on the other hand, we’re here in the service of narrow interests, then the idea of justice as fairness will never resonate with us.
* I believe the working definition of social justice philanthropy used by the report needs emendation, but this view was apparently shared by the authors themselves. I’ll return to this question in another post.