A community foundation is an odd institution. Unlike a private foundation such as Ford or Rockefeller, it’s a public charity, meaning, that among other things, it must raise money each year from the general public to satisfy what the IRS calls the “public support test.” Community foundations typically serve a specific geography—a metropolitan area or an entire state, say—and they combine grantmaking with other programs to address the needs of a broad constituency.
You will rarely find a community foundation that fully embraces the analyses, strategies, tactics, and values of social justice grantmaking, which I define here simply as grantmaking that addresses the root and/or structural causes of social, economic, or political injustice. A recent survey of community foundations suggests why this might be the case.
My colleague Barry Knight, director of CENTRIS, and I invited community foundation staff members to respond to a five-question survey on matters relating to social justice philanthropy. We received a little over 50 responses.
We found that 57 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Many CEOs or trustees of community foundations resist social justice philanthropy because they fear alienating donors,” while only 17 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Rather than guess at why social justice philanthropy might alienate donors, we included a question that would probe the roots of people’s unease with the notion. There were two factors that stood out: (1) the term “social justice” sounds too radical for some, and (2) the aims of social justice philanthropy seem too vague or too broad for others.
On the one hand, the radical connotations of social justice philanthropy are a bit surprising given that a quest for social justice is central to various mainstream Jewish, Christian, and other faith traditions. On the other hand, many people still associate calls for social justice with the politically charged language of the 1960s.
More troubling to practitioners should be the claim that the aims of social justice philanthropy are too vague or too broad. Is the goal fairness and equal access to opportunity? If so, how can this be sharpened? Or is the goal a fairer distribution of society’s benefits and harms, something that might indeed cause a flutter in many a donor’s heart?
Not too surprisingly, our survey uncovered a significant difference of opinion between the corner office and program staff members: 62 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “Program staff at community foundations are generally more supportive of social justice philanthropy than CEOs or trustees,” as compared with 15 percent who disagreed or strongly disagreed.
When we asked survey-takers to define social justice philanthropy, we saw a broad array of responses, the most popular involving, in some way, the attainment of “equity.” Some respondents described equity as a leveling of the playing field; others as providing equal access to opportunity. None, apparently, thought of it as a post-earnings redistribution of wealth. If, as 11 of our respondents suggested, social justice philanthropy is simply a matter of helping those who are least well off, then the category suffers meaning inflation and comes to include just about every grantmaker in the United States and abroad.
As I ponder these survey results, I’m hopeful that community foundations will be able find the language— “fairness,” “equality of opportunity”—that resonates with their donors and other stakeholders. I also believe it’s possible to clarify the aims of social justice to everyone’s satisfaction.
The persistent racial and other disparities in our communities highlight, in my view, the shortcomings of philanthropy-as-usual and prompt us to look for a new kind of giving. To make the same kinds of grants year after year to the same communities, to see the same disparities persist and even widen, and not to question one’s approach to grantmaking is, in my view, to do philanthropy in bad faith.
Social justice philanthropy offers us a way of recommitting ourselves to philanthropy’s great aims. In practicing it we acknowledge that what’s good enough for us might not be good enough for the communities we purport to serve.
For more on the definition of social justice philanthropy, click here.