Is Institutional Philanthropy Structured to Support Successful Social Change?

Philanthropy411, in partnership with the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Lee Draper, Chair of the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers and CEO of the Draper Consulting Group.

By:  Lee Draper

A few of the Philanthropy 411 bloggers have offered reactions to the Council on Foundations Mini-Plenary, “Social Justice: From Here to 2030”.  I’d like to add another vantage point on the ideas presented.  The panel was composed of some of the most experienced and effective social change leaders from diverse countries and conflicts, moderated by Gara LaMarche of The Atlantic Philanthropies:

  • Akwasi Aidoo, Executive Director of TrustAfrica
  • Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director of the Center for Community Change.
  • Ana Paula Hernandez, Consultant, Angelica Foundation
  • Van Jones, Founder of Green for All
  • Avila Kilmurray, Director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland
  • Kumaran Naidoo, International Executive Director of Greenpeace
  • Eboo Patel, Founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core
  • Connie Rice, Co-Director of the Advancement Project – Los Angeles

First, a definition offered by the panel.  Although social change may ultimately strive to achieve equal opportunity and justice for all, it has additional components:

  • There must be a moral commitment and focus on the marginalized (by poverty, ethnicity, religion, etc.)
  • It involves organizing and empowerment, not amelioration (here is where Paul Connolly commented in his blog entry about this panel that change and charity are important to the equation).
  • It addresses structural changes for lasting impact.

Now, to the core of the quandary.  The panel questioned whether philanthropy had the capacity to support social change due to embedded structural and behavioral impediments.  Their verdict is that if individual grantmakers truly want to achieve social change, they must begin by changing themselves from the inside out, comprehensively and immediately.

It is well worth examining eight key characteristics that they suggest make it nearly impossible for most grantmakers to engage in supporting true and effective social change.

  • First and most basic, foundations want organizations in the field doing social change to conform to their goals, guidelines, and parameters.  Even when grantmakers talk about their commitment to advocacy and community organizing, the request for funding is about how much can we fund you for this or that project.  An effective organizing strategy can not be contained within a $100,000 grant for a project with up-front statements of methods, participants and partners, timelines, and the other elements of traditional grantmaking.
  • Foundations are organized into program area silos that are reinforced by distinct program leadership, budget allocations, and discipline-based methodology and logic models.  It is challenging for program directors to work in teams.  Yet, a holistic perspective and interconnectedness of diverse elements is fundamental to social change.
  • There was a lot of panel discussion about foundations’ current preoccupation with metrics in evaluation, and how this has a chilling effect on social change work. This emphasis usually means that the wrong indicators are chosen, short-term outcomes dominate, and/or organizations are pressured to conform to externally mandated benchmarks that undercut flexibility and the vital core of dynamic community organizing and social change.  “Everything that can be measured doesn’t matter, and not everything that matters can be measured.”

Some of the panelists referred to the current fetish to use corporate vocabulary, values, concepts, and terminology.  Others discussed the importance of qualitative evaluation or the need to ask those on the ground what type of goals and benchmarks would be most meaningful to them.

Metrics is usually a tool of patronization.  It is applied to each organization and single projects, when one project achieve much in moving systemic change.  There needs to be consistency between the issue, the scale, and the evaluation.  For example, in Los Angeles’ impoverished and gang-dominated areas, where 35% of the students and 25% of the teachers have severe post traumatic stress at levels comparable to civil war locations, according to the World Health Organization’s benchmarks, reduction in this metric must be linked with a community-wide, cross-sector strategy that has to be defined by all the partners and then fully funded.  Otherwise, we are keeping organizations in a little box and not empowering or partnering with them in a meaningful social change agenda.

  • Grantmakers fund short-term:  The majority of foundation initiatives are between three and ten years whereas social change takes decades to achieve meaningful transformation.
  • Progressive foundations downplay the role of media in achieving social change and don’t want to engage in media strategies   Regressive philanthropy, on the other hand, systematically funds training its representatives/pundits in media presentations, supports them with talking points from their well-funded think tanks, and coordinates bookings on media outlets so that messages get out and are reinforced.
  • Advocacy is old school, yet it is presented as the most cutting-edge approach to achieving a social change agenda.  Foundations fail to recognize that access to power is not the same as influence over power (e.g., janitors in tall skyscrapers have enormous access to the corporate elite but have no power to influence).
  • Funders avoid conflict whereas social change and the coalitions that are an essential ingredient are messy and most always involve dissention.  Furthermore, funders are not usually comfortable with organizing masses of people to push established systems to address their needs. Yet, this is basic to the social change process.
  • Social change is played on contested territory.  There is an organized anti-social change side and it is without the parameters or limits/guidelines.  The effort has to be played to win and philanthropy isn’t comfortable framing the goals in this way.

There was a lot of agreement in the audience as the panelists pronounced these criticisms of the distance between philanthropy’s rhetoric of social change and its capacity to deliver real support over the long haul.  Here is an opportunity to reflect upon the criticisms, refute the analysis, or begin structural change.

Comments, anyone?

5 responses to “Is Institutional Philanthropy Structured to Support Successful Social Change?

  1. Karen Pittelman

    I agree with Amanda—I think “niceness” can undermine our attempts to support social change. Institutional philanthropy in the U.S. was not created for this purpose. After all, before 1969, foundations weren’t even required to give any money away. It’s an institution like any other—designed first and foremost to serve those with privilege. That said, I believe we can do our best to work within its confines to move as much money to social justice as possible. But I think we must be vigilant that these efforts are not co-opted by the institution itself. I fear we are far too polite sometimes about the real damage funders with even the best intentions can do to the organizations they mean to support.

  2. All of the above is interesting. What is missing, to me, is a recognition that funders exist in social circles, and most human beings don’t like to be made uncomfortable or embarrassed in their social circles. Funding social change work is *inherently* about making the status quo uncomfortable.

    A funder can have dinner with another funder, a politician, or another elite and chat about disease-reduction strategies. It’s a lot harder to have that dinner if the group you are funding to work on disease reduction issues is regularly embarrassing pharmaceutical company CEOs in public by quizzing them about their policies on low-cost medication, carrying around big, amateur-ish looking signs, and having “die-ins” to visually represent the human cost of lack of healthcare access.

    There is an immense pressure in the philanthropic world towards both “niceness” and — as journalism professor Jay Rosen has described it in another context — “the cult of savviness.” Funders put a premium on behaving within the strictures of the system as it is currently set up. Lobbying is fine. Advocacy is fine. Savvy people understand how the system works (this is the “access to power” thing). Savvy people also know what will turn people off, and making people uncomfortable is one of those things.

    Under this line of thinking, it is positively uncouth for teenagers to go and sit in the street to advocate for the Dream Act. They ought to work through Congress, trying for the 13th time to get a bill that has stalled for 12+ years moving.

    I’m sounding harsh on funders here, and I mostly mean to be. But I’m sympathetic to how easy it is to fall into the niceness/savviness trap. I’m not immune either, and I haven’t been on the funder side of the equation for years.

  3. Thank you for this thought provoking and thoughtful summary.


  4. Thank you for this thorough and thought provoking summary.


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