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November 07, 2011


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Prentice Zinn

Several things ring true for me – and not just for community foundations.

I regularly see how foundation program staff involved in funder collaborative or other working groups discuss how to “play” the social justice elements of their grantmaking within their own institutions that do not have a social justice framework. They have to grapple with their personal commitment to social justice and an often muddy framework from their own institutions. I am sure many program staff can recount their own Robin Hood stories of how they have downplayed the politics of particular grants in order to sneak in a grant for good social justice work.

I also think the problem of “meaning inflation”, as you call it, needs a lot more discussion in the field. If it is endemic among nonprofit organizations that we support, it is not surprising that foundations, especially community foundations are masters at faking the equity dance. The endless fusillade of NCRP reports seem to bear this out in 3-D. Better yet, ask grassroots organizations in communities of color to rate the equity scorecard of all of their local foundations.

While community foundation boards and leaders tend to reflect the social and political elites of communities, I am optimistic that they can move beyond the dominant charity banking model and recapture some of the promise of the community foundation movement. Many of us are amazed at the noisy public conversation about social inequality that was relegated to the margins only a few months ago. In this context of failure and frustration, I’m hearing rumblings of discontent suggesting that our models of governance, our grantmaking practices, and the way the institutions authentically engage with the community need a dramatic overhaul.


I suggested to the Council on Foundations that it do a reprise of its popular "Philanthropy on Trial" plenary session at its 2012 annual conference, this time inviting the residents of communities served by various foundations to sit on the jury. When this session was first introduced at the 2011 conference in Denver, 10 out of the 12 philanthropoids on the jury voted to convict. Better bring the bail money if, as you suggest, we invite grassroots organizations in communities of color to pass sentence.

Hilary Gilbert

Lots of interest and many apposite points here, both in the article and in the comments. Both are focussed on the western environments and value-systems in which the community foundation model evolved. But the same conundrum occurs, in a different guise, in the very different socio-economic environments in which the movement is now emerging. In the Middle East (the corner I'm familiar with)the dichotomy is not 'social justice' vs 'business as usual', but 'philanthropy for development' vs 'philanthropy as a religious duty to succour the poor'. Reduced to their bones, though, they amount to the same thing: should philanthropy uphold or challenge the status quo? I've always seen the role and purpose of CFs as being one of brokerage between the two positions. We stand of necessity with a foot in both camps, and it is our specific function to interpret each side to the other and make them intelligible. A CF that plants itself squarely on one side or the other will betray its mission. The question is how overtly it can take this brokerage role. In the global north, working overtly for social justice may lose you some wealthy conservative donors. In parts of the global south it can land you in jail. We serve mutually incompatible constituencies - proponents of social change vs upholders of the status quo. All over the world, I suspect, people in CFs are deliberately muddying waters in order to satisfy them both at once. It's what we're good at, and if we leaned too far in either direction we'd stop being CFs and become something else. Whether that makes us healthy pragmatists or shocking hypocrites is, I guess, for others to judge....


Wonderfully put. In the US context, challenging the status quo doesn't land you in jail because these challenges typically have little effect. Chomsky would argue that we're free to say whatever we please in a deeply indoctrinated society that has so thoroughly internalized the pieties of the market and of historical exceptionalism. As for the proper role of the community foundation, I like very much your metaphor of the interpreter. Is the interpreter supposed to have no feelings one way or the other about what he's being asked to interpret? Does he interpret ultimately for the sake of justice, or does it matter? I think it does matter, and that we cease to be a community foundation not when we side with justice, but when we fail to understand what living in community requires of us.

Devon Kearney

I guess the good news, to an extent, is that few respondents view the social justice subsector as weak or ineffective. And given that respondents also see social justice work as hard to measure, but not ineffective, perhaps there is a recognition of the value of long-term strategies that do not show immediate pay-off.

On the other hand, looking at the heavy concentration of 1s and 5s gives me pause: roughly equal numbers of respondents see "social justice" as too radical and social justice nonprofits as not ineffective. Though I recognize the fallacies in drawing this conclusion, is it possible that funding radical, effective work is a particularly scary combination?


We need to ask ourselves: When did basic fairness and decency become a radical notion? But you're right, there's some good news in this survey for proponents of social justice philantropy.

Gano Carnahan

I just heard that there is such a community foundation. This is not common in our country. What is know are private foundations. God bless to the philanthropist!

Duca Jackman

Yeah.Good luck!

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