Arming for justice: charge to philanthropy


Melanie R. Brown


Early into his address at the London School of Economics, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, posed a question I have felt tugging at my conscience many times over the past decade I’ve spent in the field of philanthropy: ‘What does it mean for a foundation, an organization of immense privilege, to address the root inequalities that have created and sustained it?’

For those of us who view our work through a justice lens, philanthropy can present personal and professional challenges.

While our field can position us to positively impact hundreds, thousands and even in some cases, millions of lives; the very platform that philanthropy gives us is often built on injustices that allow the unequal distribution and accumulation of wealth, access, rights, power and privilege to persist.

This is not to suggest that those who have amassed great wealth did not earn it, or that they have lived lives free of hardship, discrimination or even injustice.

There is also no attempt here to discredit, minimalize or trivialize their contributions to society. Instead, this post intends, just as Walker did in front of the LSE audience, to urge philanthropy to face head-on the injustices that allow us to exist and then, through a process of self-interrogation, determine what our role should be in eradicating them.

As iconic civil rights leader, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said – and as Darren Walker quoted -‘philanthropy is commendable; but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of (economic) injustice which make philanthropy necessary.’

The rapid, outrageous acceleration of global inequality across race, ethnicity, economics, gender and gender identity, religion, and within and between nations – among other things – has left the world at war with itself.

Who we will educate and how, who we will allow into our countries or communities and who we will keep out, whose bodies will we protect and whose will we exploit, are just some of the wars being waged.

It should feel impossible to stay comfortable in the current climate and, for Walker, this discomfort – and, at times, rage – should compel us abandon generosity for justice.

Walker asserts that a mark on our field has been the ways in which, ‘philanthropy has been permitted to choose generosity over justice’. A commitment to generosity allows those of us who occupy these seats of privilege to stay comfortable – ‘Justice makes us uncomfortable and forces us to look at ourselves’.

What might this self-interrogation look like? I drafted some probing questions of my own influenced by Walker’s comments:

  • Are race, class and/or gender at the center of our grantmaking priorities?
  • Do we strategize around root causes of issues or just merely their symptoms?
  • Are we more likely to support projects that accomplish a task, or provide general operating support to build healthy organizations able to meet the long-term needs of the communities they serve?
  • Do we adopt narratives that “other” the poor, the differently-abled, the migrant, the immigrant, people of color, the queer, the elderly, etc., or do we promote asset narratives of inclusivity that maintain dignity and affirm value?
  • Are we as committed to justice with the 95 percent we invest, as we are with the 5 percent we distribute as grants?

We are in a defining moment and questions abound about how global philanthropy will respond to our most pressing unjust and inhumane issues.

Will we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable and then use that discomfort to compel us to action? When we act, will we choose justice over generosity?

Let’s stop relying on weapons of generosity and start adequately arming ourselves to fight for justice.


Melanie R. Brown is an Atlantic Fellow in Social and Economic Equity at the London School of Economics and is Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Comments (4)

wordle unlimited

Thank you for spending your precious time sharing this rewarding information! We really need the same information! I hope you can share more.


Thanks for the post, Maria. This issue of trust is a BIG one! Plain and simple, I don't think there is enough trust in the relationship between grantee and grantor. We must begin to understand that we need each other- I can't do my job without solid grantees to invest in and my grantees can't do their jobs without long-term, reliable resources. The more in sync we are with what we are trying to accomplish- with the community at the table- the faster we get to defining success.


I agree, Denise. What a great image of chasing students with educational opportunities! I am wondering if you saw this piece in the NY Times Magazine about preschool teachers' pay?


I agree that the difficult questions must be asked. Are they following their money to see that the mission the strive to support is truly being supported. Sometimes their face in the place does more good than the funds. The struggle is very real. I opened a childcare center in a economically challenged area after working in a top of the line center that was in an affluent area. I learned quite a bit there and realize it is important for children to learn in preschool how to be successful. I believe if communities focus on the goals of their babies, the entire region benefits. Imagine if we chased children with educational opportunities. Less likely they will be chased by someone with a police baton. Love your communities by investing in and mentoring your area pre-school programs. ( Pre-School teachers do not make enough money to support themselves yet the spend a portion of their salary to support their classrooms). Get supplies together and drop them off or offer to teach a foreign language, sign language, art once a week. Everyone wins. That would be grass roots philosophy.

Maria Dautruche

Excellent reflection and summation of Mr. Walker's talk! I am most interested in how most foundations answer your third reflection point. It forces me (on the other side of the asking/giving table) to consider how we define success? Whose stories are the "success" stories? And how do we accept and leverage a one-time grant or short-term funding relationship to do the ongoing work of removing barriers to equity and opportunity for all? Do we trust each other enough - grantee to grantor - to accept the answers we come up with?

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