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June 08, 2008


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The Nonprofiteer

Bravo! Especially useful is your reminder that there's no legal obstacle to funding or doing advocacy. As you say, it's troubling to realize that the notion of social justice makes philanthropoids uneasy--until we recall that the duty of everyone who cares about human progress is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!

Jeremy Gregg

This is some powerful stuff. Before I read this, I happened to write a blog about the recent announcement that more than 90% of the Dallas Independent School District lived at or below poverty. I wish I'd read this first.... although I would likely still be writing it! :)

Thanks for bringing this up.

Jeremy Gregg, Editor
The Raiser's Razor


The path to the jury box and witness stand passes by the guillotine, so I can understand the uneasiness some people feel. A recent visit to the Conciergerie was for me a sobering experience.

The Dallas stats are stunning. I hope the tax rebates are helping with that.


You point out (correctly, I think) that social justice philanthropy is more than just the alleviation of suffering, but structural change that would, well, alleviate the need for alleviation. Fair enough. But then you ask "what kind of an enterprise is mainstream philanthropy that it can be so easily rattled by the notion of social justice?" Um, because you are suggesting "structural change." Going for big-idea change isn't that scary if you are advocating it - although perhaps it should be a little more scary than it's advocates find it to be, since the more ambitious the program, the bigger the unintended consequences turn out to be. But it's awfully scary if you are, say, a billionaire or the descendent / legatee of a billionaire, or just someone that happens to have a fairly comfortable position at a long-established foundation. The world has been pretty good to them, and then in comes someone asking them to change the structure that got them where they are. You say "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." That seems to suggest a need to change, perhaps radically, our values and habits of mind (to the extent that it is even in the power of foundations' funding choices to change them), and our institutions and economic and political structures. Certainly for someone in one of the older, more established foundations, that would be one of the easiest grant denials ever - "hmm, I can either advocate for structural change that will lead to an uncertain outcome and that sounds like it will threaten my comfortable place in society, or I could just write another big check to the ballet..."

A couple of other observations: some words have become shorthand for entire political philosophies, like freedom, free markets, peace, and yes, justice. It gets even more freighted with preconceived notions when preceded by "social." People may not know what it means, but they sure *think* that they know what it means, whether accurate or not. One thing is for certain, and that is that they don't think that it's politically neutral, and I have rarely heard it described to me in a way that's politically neutral. Usually if a foundation is willing to take on such an overtly political agenda, they were founded to do just that (Tides Fdn, Heritage Fdn, etc.) - they rarely come to it late in life.

Also, it simply may not be the mission of a foundation to try to change society in such radical ways. As we all know, for any given cause, there are only a select number of foundations that are willing to fund it - you may go to the Open Society Institute for all of your structural change needs, but the local orchestra can't go to them for a grant. I don't find that anymore objectionable than the fact that you probably can't go to their funders.

Then there's donor intent - Joseph Pew and Henry Ford were politically conservative (uh, troglodytes might be more accurate), and would be spinning in their graves to see what has happened to their foundations. Are you suggesting that Pew, Ford, and others vere even further from their founders intent? The counter argument is easy - no, to the contrary, they should go the other way - and has the added benefit of actually being what the founders wanted.

Finally, we have the largest, most vibrant philanthropic community in the world, with huge amounts of resources freely dedicated every year in annual donations, and still larger amounts in endowments and foundations, to fund a very large number of causes. Maybe we in the nonprofit world are the change that we have been waiting for (tip o' the hat to Barack Obama).


So many foundations with grand goals like "end poverty as we know it". I want to tell them you can't get there from here, at least not by putting all your money on direct services.


Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Bif.

It's a great irony that some philanthropic leaders who were helped significantly by earlier social justice movements might now resist a re-engagement of that conversation.

Your point about language is well taken. Annexing "social" to "justice" takes the term out of the courts and onto the streets where it can be discussed and negotiated. It's purposely vague--a good thing, in my view--setting it apart from terms like "distributive justice," users of which generally have specific redistributive goals in mind.

I would certainly leave the symphony funders to their symphonies. Some of my best friends play the bassoon. I would also, however, endorse erasmus's comment here. I did a straw poll of our local foundations. When there's any kind of specificity at all in our mission statements or in our stated goals, these typically involve things like ending homelessness, eliminating poverty, and the like. I venture that we won’t achieve these goals through direct service funding, or even through most of the advocacy funding we tend to do. We should certainly support organizations that house the homeless and feed the hungry (these are the organizations I write my checks to), but they'll be the first to tell you they’re not in the business of ending homelessness and poverty.

BTW, I don’t have the last word on what "structural change" consists in (the term is fraught), but I think it's foolish to leave this work to just a handful of big foundations like Ford, OSI, and others. It is now, and has always been, the most critical work of our time -- the work most tightly bound, in my view, with what it means to be a citizen.

Pete Manzo


Very powerful observations, really well written, as always.

I'd like to hear more about the "systems heresy." Do you mean that to trend toward greater justice, you need both good people and good systems, and so can't just say "well, I'll wait for the day good systems appear."? If you get a chance, maybe that would be a good subject for a further post.

Also, I'd love to see another post and discussion going into further depth on the meaning of "social justice", along the lines of your exchange with Bif above.

Thanks for doing this (and as a board member for NCRP, thanks also for citing our publication).


Thanks, Pete. In answer to your question about the systems heresy: The upside of the classically Liberal conception of the state is that it provides a values-neutral framework of rights in which each of us can pursue his or her own vision of the good. The downside is that if you believe it's important for there to be general agreement about certain values (e.g., respect for the commons), that conversation about values has to be carried by institutions outside of the context of the state. This can and should happen, but there are various forces, in my view, that keep it from happening as effectively as it should in U.S. civil society. The shorter answer to your question is yes, I believe even the best systems can be subverted by sociopaths.

I'm thinking I should ask our SSIR colleague Mark Rosenman to weigh in on the systems heresy (although he doesn't express his views in these terms). He's been thinking a lot lately about values and their role in philanthropy.


A great post, Albert. Robert Coles interviewed wealthy parents and children about their values and way of life. A phrase that sticks in my mind from those interviews was from an heir describing the vacation homes that she and her friends had: "comfortable, comfortable places." Philanthropy and the family foundation seems often an appurtance of such comfortable, comfortable places. Social justice to me means remembering, "There but for fortune go I," that we are where we are, in these comfortable comfortable places, not by talent alone, but also by good fortune. Justice demands that we do for others trapped in poverty what we would need if we were so trapped. This is not about doing good, but doing justice. Tzedakah. When we forget how privileged we are, we invite the wrath of a just God. He loves each of us equally, and said so. We love ourselves mostly, and it shows.


"We are where we are, in these comfortable comfortable places, not by talent alone ..."

Or by talent hardly at all, even here recognizing that talent and our ability to exercise it also depend on a roll of the Cosmic Dice.


If you ever do fall to work in a menial role among those who are down to a last chance, you come to the awful realization that they are a great deal like those you might have known in higher class places. The best rise, the best fall, the best never have a chance. Fortune's wheel or Fortune's Chutes and Ladders.


And the worst rise even faster.

Enrique the Gay Philosopher

We'd solve all our energy problems if somehow we could harness the power of bad faith.


Might make a good white paper for a think tank.

Tidy Sum

I second the motion that the comforts of privilege need to be at the top of this handy dandy list.

I run an exercise in my night class that asks tired post-grads to compare the notions of social change vs charity.

I am always surprised at how few are able to identify examples of social justice work -- these are smart people with experience in nonprofit organizations.

The big hairy moral questions of equity, power, justice, are under their noses but they don't always see them without a sharp smack from my ruler.

Phil is right. We philanthropoids and our ilk live in gauzy bubbles of privilege that do not require us to look outward, touch the sidewalk or connect to the dirt on the ground. And the distance is growing.

Even the so-called social justice philanthropoids (a most delightful contradiction to toy with if there ever was one) are regularly razzed by their grantees for their studied posturing that betrays their high-rent perch in society.

I am a regular at those fabulous lefty funder shindigs and would not be surprised should any one ask:

"Excuse me, do you happen to have any Grey Poupon?"

Eliza Winters

I absolutely agree with your statements. It's so unfortunate that there will always be injustices and prejudices in the world. I cannot believe how hard it is for other ethnic groups to gain legal status in America. I know that we do offer an immigration lawyer to them but it is still too much to ask in my opinion.

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