Thoughts, questions, musings and discussion about social justice philanthropy.


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  • June 30, 2014 12:00 AM | Surina Khan
    I’m coming up on my 20-year anniversary as a social justice grantmaker. In 1995 I was invited to join an activist-advised fund of a national foundation. There I learned the craft of grantmaking--how to review proposals, conduct site visits, read budgets, and identify programs that would make a difference to the people I worked with on a day-to-day basis. Along with my other colleagues on the fund, I was one of several volunteers. Most of the year we were deeply engaged with our day jobs, at organizations that were addressing the problems facing our communities. We were advocates and grantseekers. And twice a year we became grantmakers, coming together for a few days to advise the foundation on how to give away its money to advance social justice causes.


    Our participation was important for a number of reasons: beyond the benefits of drawing on each other’s expertise and thinking together, each of us was connected and accountable to a larger network, and we brought those perspectives with us as we deliberated grant recommendations. Each of us had a particular expertise or focus which allowed us to collectively grapple with the complexities of movement building so that we didn’t inadvertently forget to address the issues that were most important to our communities. Collectively, we brought a gender, race, and class analysis. We considered developing youth leadership as well as how to engage seasoned leaders in the work. We considered geography. And capacity building. We deliberated the ups and downs of a policy focused approach. We each brought a range of perspectives and as a result we were more likely to effectively address the issues that affected our communities.


    Since then I’ve worked in publicly and privately funded foundations--making the leap from volunteer to a professional philanthropist. As a broad sector, philanthropy has spent decades focused on achieving good outcomes. Many foundations are committed to inclusive frameworks where people who are most affected by problems are active participants in the decisions that affect their lives.  We are committed to empowering affected communities in the fields in which we work. We strive to listen and learn, to model openness and transparency, to be accountable to the organizations we support. But what do these inclusive frameworks look like in practice? How are we engaging communities in our own grantmaking, in our strategy design? In our day-to-day activities? Are we accessible and responsive to the communities we are accountable to?


    Engaging community-based leaders in philanthropy is critical to achieving the social change we are striving for. Diverse perspectives of community-based leaders who are closest to the problems and solutions in their communities allow us to be flexible in our grantmaking approaches, adaptable to the rapidly changing conditions we face, and accessible and accountable to the field.


    Community-based philanthropy emerges from a practice of grassroots activism. A recent report by the Lafayette Practice, Who Decides: How Participatory Grantmaking Benefits Donors, Communities and Movements, found that a participatory grantmaking model is a democratic practice that requires the participation of a number of people with varied backgrounds and expertise, necessitating both transparency and authenticity.


    Bringing the experiences of those most affected by problems to consider the best funding solutions to those problems is smart and strategic. When grant decisions are shared across a group, there’s a greater chance for funding what’s best for a movement. And it has the added value of building diverse philanthropic leadership: by training community leaders in the craft of grantmaking we are building philanthropic literacy, program design skills, fundraising capability and movement and leadership skills of community activists.


    How we engage those who we are accountable to in our grantmaking may vary, but it is an essential part of social justice philanthropy. We might work in a structure that allows for a community funding panel, a community advisory board, or we have set up internal structures to be intentional about including community members and grantees in identifying funding priorities and approaches. And at the very least we must be accountable, accessible and responsive to the field.


    Surina Khan is a Director in the Democracy Rights and Justice Program at the Ford Foundation. Previously, she served as the Vice President of Programs at the Women's Foundation of California.


  • June 23, 2014 8:30 AM | Cathy Lerza

    For me, being a "justice funder" means that the money and other resources I help move into world supports long-term efforts, rooted in communities and lived experience, to transform economic, social and political systems so that they advance the right of all people to live healthy, happy, secure, dignified, respected lives. It means constantly asking: Who wins? Who loses? Who decides?


    There’s also a personal element to this. Like everyone, my experience of reality is shaped by personal identity. My journey as a funder, an activist, and a human being is a  struggle  to understand how being a white-woman-baby boomer-middle class-heterosexual shapes how I am perceived and how I perceive. (There’s more to me than that, but those facts are especially important here.) That’s meant several decades of learning to question my every assumption about everything --  and being hit upside the head sometimes.


    When I started my social justice career four decades ago, I thought change started with a few dedicated people working really hard to point out what’s wrong and to put forth solutions. I thought changed = federal legislation. That’s why when I graduated from UC Berkeley, I headed to DC to work for the US EPA as an intern. I ended up staying in DC for more than a decade, working in the burgeoning public interest nonprofit world there.  


    I got hit upside the head big time in the mid-1970s when I was working with the National Family Farm Coalition (a predecessor to,  but not the same organization as, today’s NFFC). A bunch of DC- based activists, me included, had crafted a vast federal  omnibus bill aimed at saving the family farm from both agribusiness and a USDA whose motto had become “get big or get out.” Our family farm bill addressed farm subsidies, credit, organic agriculture,  land use and conservation, direct marketing, ad infinitum -- all aimed at keeping small family farmers on the land and  encouraging new farmers. 


    Then I met Joe Brooks (yes, that Joe Brooks), at the time the executive director of the Emergency Land Fund in Atlanta GA. ELF fought to keep African American farmers on their farms. I learned that Black farmers were losing their farms at rates four to five greater than white farmers –and that African Americans made up only a tiny fraction of the farm population in the first place, far smaller than their numbers of the overall population and almost entirely in the South.


    So if white farmers were getting a bad deal, Black farmers had always gotten a bad deal, which was getting worse.  (It’s kind of like when civic participation funders talk about “restoring democracy,” and a colleague, usually someone of color, notes that the task is to actually create democracy for the first time.  But I digress.) The bill we had created, sitting in our poorly funded DC organizations talking earnestly to one another, was aimed at fixing the system, but would never actually work because we didn’t really understand the system we sought to fix, in large degree because we had not acknowledged  or understood the structural racism that created it.  And we hadn’t talked to anyone but ourselves.*


    There’s a lot more story here that I don’t have room for, so  I’ll will cut to the chase: That experience taught me a lesson about assumptions and the need for me, as a white middle class social justice activist, to question ALL my perceptions of reality. To listen to people.   To question underlying assumptions.  To disaggregate data. To find out what data are missing. To find out who is at the table, and who is not. To not sit at tables that leave people out. I learned that “who decides” is the most important question of all.


    I took these lessons with me into philanthropy, but to be honest, 25+ years ago, when I got  my first job in this field,  if asked what social justice philanthropy is, my answer might have been the same as it is today, but it would have been framed in terms of policy outcomes and agendas – policies and agendas created by the communities they were aimed at “helping,” but still agendas and policies.  Like many funders,  I was more concerned about smart solutions than transforming power relationships and supporting determinative political power building.


    Over these two plus decades, thanks to some remarkable funder colleagues and activist/advocacy organization leaders, I’ve come to believe that how you get there is as important as where you get to. We can’t achieve a democratic, progressive, just, equitable, fair society with only some of us at the table because that’s not  democratic, progressive, just, equitable or fair.  And besides, we can’t know what the problems are, what the solutions are, or build the determinative power that makes transformation possible. I know from my own missteps and those of others that you can’t skip any steps or cut any corners. 


    While I hope I do a lot less corner cutting and flawed assuming than I used to, the world of philanthropy is still full of both.  Too often, those flawed assumptions guide the  distribution of  tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.  I believe that the most important things I can do as a justice  funder are to challenge assumptions, be open to information that blows assumptions away, and support colleagues in philanthropy and outside to do the same.


    A real life example: just last week, at a lunch sponsored by the See Forward Fund, during a fantastic panel on power building in California put together by Ludovic Blain of the Progressive Era Project, Dr. Lisa Garcia Bedolla of UC Berkeley presented some mind-altering data about “the gender gap.” Nationally, 56 percent of women (who made up about 42 percent of the electorate) voted for President Obama in 2012 as compared to 45 percent of men. Big gender gap, right?  But dig deeper: 40 percent of white women voted for President Obama as compared to 79 percent of women of color. Here in California, about 50 percent of white women voted for the President, but 95 percent of Black women, 76 percent of Latinas, and 72 percent of API and others voted for him. The gender gap suddenly becomes a race and gender gap.  So why, if building long-term determinative political power is the goal, aren’t women of color the focus of most progressive integrated voter engagement (IVE) programs? Why do progressive funders continue to  support IVE programs that make “women” the focus, and women of color an underfunded afterthought?


    If I want to call myself a justice funder, it’s time for me to start posing those questions to funder colleagues and donor clients, and to leaders of organizations in the IVE field. 


    * ELF did pioneering work documenting more than 100 years of discriminatory policies -- and outright theft in many cases defined by banks and private lenders and several decades of discrimination by the USDA's farm credit and other agencies.  It merged with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in the early 1980's.  Through FSC and the Black Land Loss Project in NC, this work continues.


    Catherine Lerza has spent more than four decades in the social change movement as a grantmaker, writer, advocate, and researcher, working with many progressive nonprofits and foundations on environmental justice, economic policy, civic engagement, food and agriculture, and women's rights and reproductive justice. She was the executive director of the Shalan Foundation and the Beldon Fund, and a senior philanthropic advisor at Tides.  Since 2010, she's been a consultant; her clients include the Alki Fund, the California Wildlands Grassroots Fund, the Underdog Fund, and the Groundswell Fund.

  • June 16, 2014 7:16 AM | Steve Phillips

    To me, a "justice funder" is a donor or philanthropist who has the explicit objective of allocating resources in order to combat injustice in society and foster racial and economic equity for historically marginalized communities. The Bay Area is a powerful place to be in terms of social justice activism and philanthropy. Because there is such a large concentration of all the communities of color, as well as such a large proportion of progressive whites living here, more is possible.  And because more is possible, the Bay Area really has the opportunity to provide a model and example for the rest of the country around what social justice and progressive social change can look like.  Other places in the country that may not have as favorable of demographics can look to our actions as a model. That’s why we have a unique opportunity here in the Bay Area, but also a certain responsibility to act.

    In my own work, I really focus on how to change the balance of power in this country. I think that most of the social and economic problems in society are attached to or flow from the imbalance of power.  This is the richest country in the history of the world.  We have more than enough resources to meet everybody’s needs if we have the will and the motivation to do so, and that to me is a question of power. I think a lot of people overall, funders included, shy away from conversations about power.  To be effective requires a sober power analysis, and then to think about how to move your money in the context of what will bring about a shift in power relationships.

    I was very proud to be a lead funder of the national effort to increase African American civic participation in the 2008 election of the first Black president. I saw the Obama campaign as a continuation of civil rights struggles from Fannie Lou Hamer in ‘64 to the Rainbow Coalition of ’84, and so we did a lot of work and invested a lot of money in 2007 and 2008 in strengthening Black civic engagement. I really believe that in 2008 we had the attainment of what Jesse Jackson meant when he said “the hands that once picked cotton can now pick presidents.”

    Through my work the Democracy Alliance, I helped to start the Latino Engagement Fund, which has become a national hub for donors who are interested in increasing Latino civic engagement and involvement. The Latino Engagement Fund influenced the spending of 10 to 12 million dollars in 2012 and helped to turn out large numbers of Latino voters, who are now being recognized as a dominant political force in the country as well as a significant community whose issues deserve to be taken seriously. I take some real satisfaction in having been part of that.

    The more I do this work, the more I see that there is a strategic significance in supporting the development of social justice leaders. Leaders can transform organizations, and they also move to different organizations and geographies. If you develop leaders, wherever they go they can continue to have that level of impact. For example, we provided the first grant to help Ben Jealous to start his tenure as president of the NAACP, which was a huge leverage point to transform the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization to support everything from criminal justice reform to marriage equality to immigration reform.

    Over time, it has become increasingly important for me to think about my own philanthropy as a paired approach between c3 and c4 strategies.  People are sometimes hesitant about giving to political institutions, but one could look at political giving and advocacy as a leverage point that supports community organizing efforts that work to increase power in historically disenfranchised communities.  Political advocacy is a necessary tool to win social justice, and when paired with leadership development and community organizing, can begin to redress institutional economic and social inequality.

    That being said, as someone with a long history of political organizing and giving, I began to see some years ago that there was a critical gap in the infrastructure of political fundraising. There wasn’t an explicit effort by any organization to link demographic change with the advancement of progressive policies. That realization drove the establishment of PowerPAC+, which supports a diverse group of progressive candidates and works to increase civic engagement in African American and Latino communities.  We are the only Super PAC that specifically targets regions where increased voter turnout among people of color could actually flip the political balance of power.  By working at the intersection of race, politics, and philanthropy, I truly believe we are creating a new strategic framework for funding social justice in America.


    Steve Phillips is a San Francisco-based donor activist.  He currently works on both the state and national level in progressive donor organizing and infrastructure-building, after a 25-year career as an education reformer, attorney and elected official.  Steve is Founder and Chairman of PowerPac.org and PowerPAC+, advocacy organizations that promote social justice and work to elect progressive, multiracial candidates at all levels of government.

  • June 10, 2014 9:46 AM | Vanessa Daniel

    When funders offer grantees technical assistance or capacity building support, already imbalanced scales of power can become even more skewed.  As a trusted funder colleague once told me, “There is a big difference between being offered technical assistance and being (in Terminator voice) technically ASSISTED.” Capacity building is hard for funders to get right, despite the best intentions.  Even though many of us funders have been in grantee shoes at some point, we sometimes forget what it felt like to make a command performance at a funder-sponsored grantee convening based on the untested expectation that, in the course of two days, everyone will become great allies and walk out ready to coordinate strategy.  We forget suffering through a one-size-fits-all funder-sponsored training that only marginally relates to our work or being force-fed a consultant that we never asked for and don’t have the bandwidth to use.

    Three years ago, when Groundswell Fund decided to enter the treacherous waters of capacity building around Integrated Voter Engagement (IVE), we did so acutely aware of the pitfalls it would entail. But even that didn’t prevent us from missteps and many “teachable moments.” After an 18-month pilot, we launched a full 24-month program with 10 groups in early 2014.  Here are the top 10 lessons we learned -- and continue to learn -- gleaned from either getting it right or dead wrong the first time:

    1. Co-design with grantees. Our current program is measurably stronger than the pilot because we engaged grantees in the nitty gritty of its design. They joined a design team of staff and IVE experts to review participant feedback and re-tool the program in major ways – from the number of months it would run to the scale of grant support allocated to participating groups.
    2. Don’t fear failure. Colleague Sujatha Jesudasen of CoreAlign recently reminded me of the famous Marshmallow Challenge:  kindergartners consistently beat business school students in a timed competition to build the tallest tower using a marshmallow and several sticks of spaghetti. They win because they try and fail many times until they find a method that works. In contrast, business students spend all their time arguing about a plan, leaving themselves only a short time to actually do something. The IVE program’s mantra has become: be nimble, fail fast, welcome and metabolize grantee feedback, re-work, and re-try.
    3. Hire an external evaluator. A program officer recently told me she knew she had become a funder when people started praising her every idea and complimenting her hair. We can’t fail fast and improve if we’ve created communication channels engineered for compliments rather than honest critiques. Few grantees have the hutzpah to tell us when they object to something we are doing; most, for good reason, fear leveling with us because too much is at stake. A neutral third party evaluator who can aggregate and anonymize feedback is critical to surfacing the info needed to improve program.
    4. Make capacity building programs optional. Forcing harried, under resourced groups to participate in something they wouldn’t voluntarily sign up to do is a set up for failure. 
    5. Communicate expectations and agreements clearly and precisely. The main problem with, as the cliché says, “building the plane while flying it,” is that no one wants to be a passenger on that flight. Spell out measurable benchmarks clearly, in detail, and in writing, and consider using an MOU that leaves no doubt what grantees and funder are each committing to do.
    6. Tailor support. One-size-fits-all approaches are less efficient and effective than tailored ones that meet grantees where they are with the tools needed their particular context.  For example, if you offer coaches or consultants, offer a diverse pool whose members have a variety of technical skills, styles, and cultural competencies for grantees to choose from.  Co-create work plans right-sized to each organization’s capacity and mission. It is possible to offer tailored support while simultaneously maintaining some program-wide structures and benchmarks.   
    7. Vet participants carefully. Given what’s at stake (funding), grantees sign up for a capacity building program for any number of bad reasons that lead to unhappy campers on all sides once the reality of the actual work sets in.  A detailed pre-program assessment via phone or in-person interview of a grantee’s capacity, readiness, and hunger to do the work and alignment with the program’s theory of change goes a long way toward positive outcomes for all parties.  
    8. Be real. A fitness coach who tells someone they can run a marathon without training is setting that person up to fail.  A program that tells groups they can build electoral power without essential tools and capacities like power mapping, geographic targeting, and a methodical use of data is no different.  Effective capacity building programs maintain strong relationships with grantees while pushing them beyond their comfort zone – and ensuring they have the resources to succeed.
    9. Evaluate. Co-design evaluation metrics with grantees and experts so data gathered are useful not only to you, but to the participating groups, and the field at large.  One of the reasons smaller grassroots organizing groups don’t get full credit for their work is that they can’t document impact because they don’t track and benchmark it. Ensuring that groups participating in capacity building programs come away with new tools and resources to track and document impact makes such programs useful in the long term, and beyond the specific context of the program.
    10. Ensure adequate staffing. If you are running a capacity building program in-house, hire a staff person with deep experience and technical knowledge of the subject area to oversee it, even if you are contracting out key pieces of the work to intermediaries or consultants. Groundswell’s IVE program leapt forward with the hire of a seasoned IVE practitioner, Letetia Jackson, to run it.

    My hope in sharing these lessons learned is that they will be helpful to grantmakers considering similar programs. At the core of these lessons is our ability as grantmakers to be accountable and in greatest service to grassroots power building efforts; with a focus on efforts led by communities directly impacted by the policies and systems they seek to transform.


    Vanessa Daniel is the Executive Director of Groundswell Fund, which supports a stronger, more effective U.S. movement for reproductive justice by mobilizing new funding and capacity-building resources to grassroots organizing efforts led by low-income women, women of color and transgender people. Vanessa has 18 years of experience working in social justice movements as a union and community organizer, researcher, freelance journalist, and social justice grantmaker. She serves on the Steering Committees of the Bay Area Justice Funders Network and the Health and Environmental Funders Network.

  • June 02, 2014 8:00 AM | Deleted user

    The following is a conversation between Alice Y. Hom, Director of the Queer Justice Fund, and Laila Mehta, Director of the Civic Engagement Fund from Asian Americans Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP) about what they learned from their programs and as justice funders.


    Alice: At AAPIP, we have programs that provide grants and capacity building spaces to community organizations. Whenever we work with community organizations, we highlight the fact that AAPIP isn’t a typical funder; we aim to inform and engage philanthropy (institutions, people) about diverse AAPI and AMEMSA community organizations and about the impact that small but strategic grants can have.  


    Laila: Yes, in fact one thread among our programs – what we call incubations – is that they each started based on deep and broad conversations with sets of communities about their challenges and their aspirations for educating and advancing their constituencies. AAPIP’s programs have brought together organizations that use different approaches – such as organizing, policy advocacy, leadership development, arts and culture – as part of their cultural change work, within their own communities and across communities to build a broader base. Foundations do not fund the needed cultural change work that underpins the outcomes they want to see in the form of policy or legislative wins. Philanthropy recognizes that U.S. demographics are rapidly changing, but what are we doing to meet both the emerging issues and the enduring challenges? How are we supporting new leaders that innovate, but who aren’t labeled ‘entrepreneurs’?


    Alice: That’s right, and that’s the continual challenge. There does seem to be more conversation around movement building, which is a step in the right direction. But it seems to be bound by what funders want to achieve as an end goal – the policy win for example – instead of being based on what the organizations see as advancements in their communities. Through the Queer Justice Fund, I work closely with LGBTQ AAPI groups and I’ve learned that the impact an organization makes through community organizing and leadership development isn’t always the kind of impact a funder might desire. Justice funding pays attention to and values cultural transformation and sees it just as important as policy advocacy.


    Laila: I think the field gets stuck in semantics. I run the Civic Engagement Fund, so named because not all the organizations focus on political participation. It was because each organization, no matter what their issue or approach, creates opportunities for communities they work with to provide spaces they feel safe in, to volunteer, to become informed about their rights, to learn about the political process, or to understand their struggle as part of a larger system that they can then find solutions for their issues. The organizations framed and articulated what they saw as ‘wins’ along a long continuum. That’s a justice-oriented way to fund. That should be as relevant to an immigration funder, as it is to an education funder or an arts and culture funder.  A justice funder is one that has an understanding of an intersectional framework and not one that is siloed or separate.  There are connections to be made.


    Alice: That’s why we decided to bring our respective LGBTQ AAPI and AMEMSA cohorts together – to learn about each other’s strategies, to see how both Islamophobia and homophobia restrict and silence their communities, and to begin discussing avenues for raising the consciousness of the overlaps in issues and needs. Bringing together our cohorts provided our community partners with a space to talk about subject matter that was not always easy to bring up. We learned that creating a space to talk, listen and share is just one part of the process and that there needs to be more than talk. But first you have to build trust and a relationship and that takes time. A justice funder is a partner and will be there for the long haul; not just 12 months and expect big things to happen in a year.  We recognize that community members are the ones to drive the process and are the ones to create the solutions.


    Laila: AAPIP does play a unique role in bringing people together to talk about the strategies needed to make impact that’s defined by those who are doing the work. We’ve talked about how we do that in our programs with grantee partners. We would love to continue to do that with our members and philanthropy partners and build a stronger network of justice funders. We need to do this because we are better and stronger together.  


    Alice Y. Hom is responsible for philanthropic advocacy for LGBTQ AAPI communities and issues and the implementation of QJF BRIDGE, a capacity building program focusing on LGBTQ and ally AAPI organizations.  Previous to AAPIP, Alice was the founding Director of the Intercultural Community Center at Occidental College, where she focused on issues of diversity and social justice.  In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown appointed her to the Cal Humanities board.  She is the co-editor of "Q & A: Queer in Asian America."

    Laila Mehta is the Director of the Civic Engagement Fund for Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities.  She works with funding and community partners to create a learning environment that allows new ideas, energies and leaders to be harnessed.  Her interests lie at the intersections of human rights, social justice and development and has focused on that work for over 15 years both globally and locally.  In the US, she has focused on API groups, women of color, and diverse communities.  In Cambodia, Timor Leste, and Nepal, she centered on governance, gender rights, peace-building and bottom-up policy advocacy.

  • May 28, 2014 7:30 AM | Molly Schultz Hafid

    What is one of the worst kept secrets in philanthropy?   Grantee budgets are fake.  Grant managers and program officers spend hours each docket working with grantees to develop well-crafted budgets designed to move through the decision-making process with as few questions as possible.  Why?  The most common answers are that we believe the budgets tell us something about an organization and their ability to carry out the work; the budget review process helps us assess a group’s overall comfort with financial management; and financial information helps us prevent or detect fraud and misuse. 


    It turns out that this exercise in financial review is deeply flawed for funders and grantees alike.  Project Streamline reports that under the auspices of financial due diligence, there is wide-spread dissatisfaction with the financial requests being made of grantees and the materials being provided to funders.  One nonprofit stated clearly, “We keep two sets of books (or more).  Because foundations often require budgets in a particular format or ask to see expenses broken down in specific ways, many nonprofit organizations keep multiple versions of their budgets. The potential for errors is heightened every time a budget is translated into a new format.”  From the funder perspective, one clearly stated that they “used to allow agencies to submit the budget in their own format, but it has been so challenging to figure out how some things were calculated, and [we spent so much time] reconfiguring the budget for presentation to our board, that we now require agencies to use our format.”


    Here is the uncomfortable truth: the budgets that we review are largely created by individuals who have learned exactly what we are looking for and tailor the budgets in their proposals directly to our needs – either our specific institution or the general practices in the philanthropic sector.  In other words, the budgets are fake.


    So, why are fake funder budgets something justice funders should care about? Ron Rowell recently wrote on this blog that being a justice funder is both about the “the what and the how of funding.”  I would add that beyond the issues we fund and how we behave as funders, being a justice funder is also about removing the barriers to the resources our movements need to thrive.  In addition to our work organizing within the field of philanthropy, justice funders can also be advocates within our own institutions to simplify and streamline the grantmaking process.  Grantee time dedicated to preparing and presenting proposals and budgets is time that is not being spent on the change we want to see in the world. 


    The Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) captures this calculation in what they refer to as the “net grant” which is the total grant amount minus the costs organizations incur to manage the grant itself (e.g., reporting requirements, proposal writing, and funder updates).  In other words, if an organization is applying for a $50,000 grant but it costs them $5,000 of staff time to prepare and report on the grant, then the grantee’s “net grant” is $45,000.  However, we still expect them to show $50,000 worth of results.  Now multiply this discrepancy by the twenty other funders they have to apply to and we can begin to see why our movements are starving for critical resources.  Simplifying our applications and our financial requirements are two relatively direct ways to increase the value of our grants even when we can’t increase the size of our grantmaking budgets.


    Last year, the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock completely eliminated budgets from our application requirements.  We made this breakthrough thanks to the encouragement and leadership of Carol Cantwell of Fun with Financials.  Carol’s assessment after 10 years of consulting with foundations and nonprofit organizations is that many foundations rely too heavily on grantee budgets to assess financial health. Carol worked closely with the Veatch Program to develop the Financial Health Indicators (FHI) tool.  The FHI pulls three years’ worth of data directly from the IRS Form 990 and provides the Veatch Program with a more realistic picture of the trends in actual financial performance than a static budget ever could.  The IRS Form 990 is especially helpful because all of the organizations complete the same form and the data is more consistent across diverse groups in a way in which the individual budgets are not.  The Financial Health Indicators (FHI) tool allows us to see total revenue, total expense, trends in unrestricted net assets and temporarily restricted net assets and if an organization has a diverse base of financial support.   The resulting FHI rating is then combined with financial questions and a discussion guide designed for the program officers. 


    One important side note: one of the most common arguments for why we request a multitude of financial materials is that funders believe they help to prevent misuse and fraud.  Unfortunately, there is no real protection against these possibilities.  Fraud and mismanagement happen and financial statements (including audits) do not protect a funder against the possibility that funds will not be used correctly or that a grantee will be the victim of fraudulent activity.  A rare study of fraud in nonprofit organizations by Greenlee, Fischer, Gordon and Keating published in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly found that only 12 percent of the cases of fraud were found by an external auditor.  Additionally, the article found that payroll and check-tampering were the most common forms of fraud in the nonprofit sector – neither of which is likely to be detected in the financial information most commonly requested by funders. 


    The argument to eliminate fake funder budgets is not intended to suggest we do away with financial due diligence.  Rather it is an encouragement to speak more directly with our grantees about the role of financial information in their overall organizational plans and to dedicate our institutions to removing busy work and barriers from the grantmaking process.  These shifts make our financial review more relevant and our total grants more valuable.



    Molly Schultz Hafid is a senior program officer at the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, where she is responsible for the Democratic Participation, Civil and Constitutional Rights and Community Organizing program areas.  She is the co-chair of the board of the Neighborhood Funders Group and a board member of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees.  Molly is also the author of a forthcoming full-length article in the journal Foundation Review on how eliminating budgets can improve funder due diligence and increase the value of our grants.  Do you think you have what it takes to get rid of fake funder budgets? Email


  • May 18, 2014 10:00 PM | Ron Rowell

    Justice funders come in many forms.  After all, there is a lot of work to do just to begin to repair the enormous damage to the social contract, the political system, and equal opportunity that has been done over the past 30+ years.  So what distinguishes a justice funder from other funders?  In my opinion, it involves both the what and the how of funding.



    I would propose that justice funders focus on underlying structural injustice and supporting those most disadvantaged by that structural injustice to make use of all the tools of democracy available to overturn those structures.  Justice funders are and should be those who want to see radical change--i.e., large-scale change--and who use the resources at their disposal for that purpose.


    These tools give democracy meaning:  grassroots community organizing, voter registration, get out the vote drives, and legal action, for example.  Just a few inspirational successes that were supported by philanthropy in the Bay Area have included:

    • Ongoing grassroots organizing focusing on citizens’ concerns, like advocating for the installation of a crosswalk at a dangerous school intersection that saves children’s lives or forcing diesel trucks out of neighborhoods suffering from high rates of asthma as the result of diesel pollution that improves the health of an entire community;
    • Legal strategies to hold energy corporations accountable for violating safety standards and using the damage awards for grantmaking to strengthen the ability of those most affected to fight back;
    • Campaigns to raise the minimum wage;
    • Campaigns to strengthen tenants’ rights;
    • Immigrant youth organizing to insure access to higher education and a legal path to citizenship;
    • Legal and organizing strategies to help cities fight predatory housing foreclosures;
    • Organizations fighting against propositions whose purpose is to further disadvantage the disadvantaged, e.g., California Proposition 54 (2003) or California Proposition 8 (2008) and many others;
    • Developing leadership among young people of color to understand and use the tools of democracy to improve their lives;
    • Formerly incarcerated people organizing for rights and dignity after serving their sentence and for the rights of those currently incarcerated;
    • Increased voter participation by low-income people of color, youth, and women; or
    • Helping veterans organize to improve access to affordable housing, mental health services, and employment.

    There are many others, of course, that could have been listed.  What these all have in common are that the change that results doesn’t just touch an individual or a family: it touches entire communities, cities, counties, states, and the nation.  It results in profound and long-term change that improves people’s lives.



    I would also argue that what should distinguish justice funders is not just the “what” but the “how” of grantmaking.  It is often said that philanthropy is a relationship business.  That’s a truism.  What kind of relationship is it that we mean? 


    The reality is that one party to the relationship has the resources and some degree of authority over those resources that the other party wants or needs.  This, as we all recognize, is an unequal power relationship.  That’s a given.  How we manage that unequal power relationship is something over which we have control. 


    In my opinion, the most important features of justice grantmaking are that:

    • It should always be transparent.  No grantee should ever feel that the application process is a great black hole. 
    • No justice grantmaker should ever presume that their role confers omniscience.  Humility and an openness to learn should be part and parcel of a justice funder’s approach to the work.  That doesn’t mean that the grantmaker has nothing to offer other than money.  Grantmakers can be great sources of information.
    • Justice funders should see themselves as part of a larger movement for change, not outsiders.  As such they should use their position to collaborate with, seek advice from, and contribute time, effort, and money to those working for change. 

    In my 14 years in philanthropy I've felt my engagement with both grantees and other funders has continually broadened my perspective.  In the last four years, the Bay Area Justice Funders Network has been especially important in helping me focus my attention on what I've learned from social justice grantmaking.  Let's keep the discussion moving!



    Ron Rowell is a trustee of the Common Counsel Foundation of Oakland.  He is past CEO of Common Counsel, past Program Officer for Social Justice at The San Francisco Foundation, and past president of Native Americans in Philanthropy.  He is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

  • May 12, 2014 12:00 AM | Anonymous

    When I entered the field of philanthropy, ten years ago, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. The word “philanthropy” conjured the image of the round elder gentleman with a mustache and top hat who serves as the mascot of the game Monopoly handing out bags of cash as charity.

    As a working class Xicana, the practice of philanthropy--of giving and supporting others through the giving of our resources--wasn’t unknown to me, but field and the lexicon were new.  I was lucky to land in a progressive philanthropic institution that isn’t shy about explicitly naming the problem it is addressing (structural racism) or about taking direction from those most affected by racism in creating and leading the solutions.  The Oakland-based Akonadi Foundation was a very small family foundation when I arrived and I was the first non-family member staff person.  I quickly realized that I needed to build a community to learn and grow with if I was going to make meaningful impact.

    Several years passed and I attempted to bring together peers of color in the field to provide mutual support, a learning community and a place to share best practices and work through challenges in real time. At the time, my colleague at Akonadi, Leticia Alcantar (who was Akonadi Foundation’s first non-family Executive Director) and Laura Livoti (then at French American Charitable Trust) were inspired by the model of the Social Justice Infrastructure Funders (a national funder formation).  Attempting to test the interest of the local philanthropic community for a similar formation at a regional level, I was entrusted with facilitating the first meetings--and found that I needed more help if I was going to be able to keep the momentum going.

    On New Year’s Day in 2009, Oakland was shaken to its core when the young Black father, Oscar Grant was killed by Johannes Mehserle, a White BART police officer. Many of us took to the streets calling for swift action to investigate the case and hold Mehserle and the BART police accountable.  It was in these days that I saw several of my philanthropic colleagues demonstrating in active engagement against a major crisis of injustice. It was in the Oakland streets that we found each other and the glimmer of a vision for holding a similar space in philanthropy where we could learn from each other, mobilize resources to serve social justice work and be led by movements while doing so began to emerge.

    Five of us came together to form the founding Steering Committee of the Bay Area Justice Funders Network: Kazu Haga (who was then at Peace Development Fund), Luke Newton (of Common Counsel Foundation), Carmen Rojas (who was at Mitchell Kapor Foundation) and Vanessa Daniel (of Groundswell Fund).

    It has taken me nearly the decade that I have been in philanthropy to help build the kind of community that I wish I had when I started in the field.  In the Bay Area Justice Funders Network, I now have a base of colleagues from various kinds of philanthropic institutions that come together to learn from each other, to do better at our work in supporting justice work and to be in a meaningful partnership--in harmony with movement leaders creating beloved communities.


    Melanie Cervantes is a Program Officer at the Akonadi Foundation, and a Steering Committee member of the Bay Area Justice Funders Network.  Melanie is a graphic artist who creates images that reflect the hopes and dreams of social movements and that catalyze people to action.  She is a co-founder of the Dignidad Rebelde, a graphic arts collaborative dedicated to the production of work that translates people’s stories into art that can be put back into the hands of the communities of struggle who inspire it.

  • May 05, 2014 8:00 AM | Mario Lugay
    These four suggestions were originally posted on the Mitchell Kapor Foundation Blog in four separate entries in 2010.

    Of the many approaches to social change, I turn most towards movement-building strategies.  As a funder, then, I’m constantly searching for the ways that my practice and work best align with the demands of such an approach.  Below is the first of four such ways that I’ve come to believe strongly in.

    1.  Find a Political Home

    Social justice movements require scale and scale, in turn, requires a level of consistent connectivity among people and organizations.  Political homes – community-based and led social justice institutions or organizations that individuals are members of and with whom there is mutual investment and accountability – provide exactly this. We should find and join such places not only to contribute to an organization’s work, but, more so, as a space in which to be grounded, to continuously learn, to develop organizing skills, and to be only a phone call away for when those unpredictable political moments that can define social justice movements occur.


    CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities has been my political home for the past seven years.  Time and again, CAAAV has not only responded to events and political openings, but also intentionally expanded the opportunity for others like myself to participate in those responses, from the ’06 immigration marches to the first United States Social Forum in ’07 to ’08 voter engagement efforts in Virginia.  Just as important, CAAAV allows me to participate in the often unrecognized day-to-day contributions that have been the backbone of every social movement. CAAAV, in short, facilitates my choosing to engage in action over indulging in apathy. And, it does so by offering strategic and coordinated ways to act with a community of people I’ve grown to trust.

    As a funder, being a member of a community-based organization allows me to be in dialogue with those to whom I most want to be accountable.  It affords me the opportunity to understand at a deeper and more personal level the conditions faced by organizations that I support through grantmaking and to understand the realities of building such organizations.  Only through having a political home have I’ve been able to access the experience, political analysis and honest feedback with which to ensure that my work is relevant and complimentary to the many moving parts of our social justice ecosystem.

    Like any home, political homes bring their own sets of challenges and demands on our time.  But, in the same spirit, they also position us to engage and engage better the world around us, allowing you and me to start from a place of love and support to which we can always return.

    2.  Build the Vehicles to Move us Forward

    The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is undoubtedly a powerful one.  But while the courageously repeated and mass act of refusing to cooperate with a racist bus system dominates the popular narrative about the boycott, it is that other side of the story that continues to captivate me.

    For African Americans in Montgomery in the 1950s, the bus system allowed them to travel from one place to another, usually from their homes to their jobs (which often were at the homes of white residents).  It came, though, at a heavy price.  By segregating the ridership and requiring African Americans to give up their seats to white riders, bus drivers made African Americans pay their bus fare plus the added indignity that comes from suffering unjust acts.  They were, in short, not allowed to bring their full selves on their daily commute.

    In response, the Montgomery African American community decided not to remain complicit, choosing instead to boycott.  In order to make possible and sustain a bus boycott, civil rights leaders had to create and organize a massive car pool system, up to 350 cars daily, that required immense financial and human resources from an already under-resourced black community.  It is this car pool system that seems particularly instructive.

    Set-up by a newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, the car pool system, like the bus system, also offered African Americans the ability to travel from one place to another. The difference, however, was that the car pool system did so in ways that did not cost African American passengers their dignity. It brought together the fractious classes of Montgomery’s African American community in what Taylor Branch described as a “radical act of togetherness.”  And, just as importantly, the car pool system advanced a social and racial justice agenda, offering all the residents of Montgomery a much needed level of redemption.

    For those of us in philanthropy, foundations, like the bus system, offer opportunities to move individuals, communities, organizations, and/or ourselves from one place to another.  In our case, it has the ability to move us closer to the social justice ends that we might seek.  But for so many reasons, whether those be legal, financial, or political, what or how we move forward can be structurally and culturally constrained.  If this is the case, then it begs the question, what’s our car pool system?  What are the additional vehicles or ways of moving that we need to create, as funders, that will get us to where we need to be and that will sustain our organizing efforts to get there? Creating such vehicles seems to be the task at hand for social justice funders.  It is the task being undertaken by those organizing within the philanthropic sector, whether through affinity groups, study groups or spaces such as the Bay Area Justice Funders Network or Bay Area Blacks in Philanthropy. It is, perhaps, our own small and necessary acts of radical togetherness.

    3) Develop your Skills as an Organizer

    One of the most remarkable aspects of social movements is that there truly is a role for everyone to play.  Regardless of your background, your relative privilege or lack thereof, your profession or where you live, there are ways to contribute and benefit.  Foremost of these is to organize – to consciously attempt to expand and amplify social justice analysis and work by allowing others to similarly have access to and ownership of social justice analysis and work, and by supporting those people to themselves become organizers.

    As social justice funders, we must accept the responsibilities that come with being an organizer.  In particular, we need to organize where we’re at, to organize within philanthropy. Thankfully, many of us do.

    But choosing to be an organizer might be the easy part.  The challenge is to be great organizers within philanthropy, to be both disciplined and thoughtful.  And so, we must intentionally find the ways to develop our organizing skills.  My hope is that there already exists curriculum, workshops and / or organizations that train us how to do so. Or, if not, that we can create them. Because, if we believe that what the community organizing groups we fund do is strategic, are acts that come as much from ones head as it does ones heart, then we can’t assume that we can be great organizers without ourselves being trained.  Developing our skills as organizers is an opportunity to more effectively and efficiently play our respective role in a larger social justice movement, while, at the same time, further developing our shared understanding and empathy with the thousands and thousands of other organizers in the country.

    On a related note: I’ve found the tendency to restrict who we consider to be an organizer, whether  just to paid organizers or those who work only in certain communities, to be a dangerous and limiting one.  The question shouldn’t be who can be considered an organizer, but rather, once we popularize the title of organizer, how do we support individuals to fulfill the responsibilities, the work and the appropriate level of accountability that comes with by being an organizer.

    4) Choose to be a Member

    To be clear, I would only share this last suggestion with those who already engage their jobs, philanthropy and the larger non-profit sector with a commitment to social justice values and practices.

    For those who do, I encourage us to see ourselves as members of a social justice movement rather than as something more removed, rather than to see ourselves simply as supporters.

    As I’ve been taught to understand it, membership implies mutuality – mutual investment in one another, mutual ownership of our shared work, mutual accountability to shared goals, and mutual discipline and care in our approach  - in ways that the role or term of supporter or even volunteer do not.  While maybe only a subtle distinction, I do believe that it matters and particularly so in regards to the limits of where we go as a social justice movement.

    As an example, a volunteer committee I was a part of became a membership committee of the community based organization with whom we worked.  To get to that point, it took years of working together, many missteps and months of consciously organizing ourselves as volunteers. It was a recognition of the trust, relationships and accountability built between us volunteers and the organization’s existing members and staff, but more importantly for all of us, it was an ask of us … it was an ask to not abdicate our respective positions, privileges or power, but to instead respectively bring them to bear in the organization’s grassroots organizing efforts and to tie our development, our growth and levels of commitment and responsibility with those of the organization’s other members.  As a funder, it’s also been the ask that I’ve been trying to answer in the affirmative.

    End note: I realized in drafting these four suggestions, that any one of us could be entirely successful in our foundation jobs without following any of them.  But, having been in philanthropy now for some time, I’ve increasingly come to believe that to be successful as social justice funders we must at least consider thoughtfully each of these four suggestions.  And, I guess my hope is that for an increasing number of us, success as social justice funders is what we’re working towards.


    Mario Lugay is an Impact Advisor/Program Officer with the Kapor Center for Social Impact. He has over 10 years of leadership experience in philanthropy, community organizing and civic engagement, notably as the co-founder of the New American Leaders Project in 2010. Mario serves on the boards of the APEN, Resource Generation and the American Prospect, as well as the Millennial Advisory Committee of the the Andrew Goodman Foundation.

  • April 28, 2014 9:00 AM | Dana Kawaoka-Chen (Administrator)

    As the director of a network of “justice funders,” I am often asked, “What is a Justice Funder?”  Since we are a relatively new network, I began to search for definitions of social justice philanthropy, and led an internal process for us to arrive at our own definition.

    However, once I started sharing what we came up with, I soon realized that a definition is not necessarily helpful to most folks . . . the answer to the question, “What is a Justice Funder?” is far more nuanced and complex, and I soon realized, that maybe we (collectively) don’t know.


    Even experienced leaders in the field, people who I think epitomize a “justice funder” have stumbled over their response to this question. Because there’s no school or training program for “justice funders,” and current research often offers yet another definition, we are dedicating this next year to hearing from both current practitioners in the field as well as those who engage with them to answer the question, “What is a Justice Funder?”

    • What do they think?
    • What do they do?
    • How do they do their grantmaking?
    What do you think a Justice Funder is?
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