Conference puts social justice grantmaking permanently on map of Brazilian philanthropy


John Harvey


Social justice-oriented grantmaking foundations in Brazil are truly a vanguard movement within emerging market philanthropy. Their social justice orientation sets them apart from the vast majority of foundations, which tend to favour work that is more charity than change, ameliorating the negative effects of current political, economic and other systems rather than fundamentally changing those systems. And their modus operandi as grantmakers – funders to other organizations – is just as unusual within a philanthropic sector where a vast majority of foundations take a hands-on, operational approach to their work.

Brazil’s Network of Independent Funds for Social Justice brought together this vanguard movement for the first time in Rio de Janeiro this month for a three-day dialogue on the meaning and practice of social justice philanthropy in Brazil. Some 65 participants from around the country, with a small cohort of international guests, joined the gathering. All Brazil’s small but growing community of social justice-oriented grantmaking foundations sent representatives, including ELAS Fundo de Investimento Social (a women’s fund), the Brazilian Human Rights Fund, Fundo PositHiVo (an HIV/AIDS fund) and Instituto Rio (a community foundation). Within the international cohort were representatives from the Ford Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation and the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace, which also played a role in organizing the event. According to several individuals I spoke with who are familiar with Brazilian philanthropy, ‘all the right people were there.’

Two leading thinkers within Brazil’s progressive community, Atila Roque and Sergio Leitao, opened the gathering with a somber assessment of contemporary Brazil. For them, 19th century Brazil still exists side-by-side with 21st century Brazil, with much of the country still rooted in a violent and unjust colonial past. Inequality profoundly shapes everyday life. Racism and sexism, too, are deeply rooted, as is violence – not street violence, though that of course exists, but violence as a tool for organizing society and keeping it in check. Meanwhile, Brazil’s political class, including the Workers Party, has shown itself incapable of moving the country forward.

A grim landscape now drawn, the conversation turned to philanthropy’s response. Lucia Carrasco of the International Network of Women’s Funds shared recent research[1] on the state of human rights funding in Latin. Overall, human rights-oriented work in Latin America is woefully underfunded. Out of a total of $1.8 billion granted worldwide to advance human rights, $133 million went to Latin America (including Mexico), just 7 per cent of the total. There are 115 funders in the region supporting human rights. The top issues funded were:

  • Sexual and reproductive rights: $24.5 million
  • Equality rights and freedom from discrimination: $22.9 million
  • Environmental and resource rights: $18.5 million

Throughout the conference, participants grappled with the meaning of ‘social justice philanthropy’. Among the key features within the Brazilian context would seem to be these: it is grantmaking rather than operating; it is targeted at the root causes of injustice; governance includes representation from the field; processes are highly engaged and empowering of social actors, and are as important as outcomes; and the work is inherently political.

Much of the first two days of the conference was taken up by small group strategizing sessions. As I don’t speak Portuguese, I was not able to participate in these sessions (plenary sessions featured skilful interpretation), but I was able to glean a few things from the report backs. Perhaps the most compelling issue I heard: the urgent need for better communications strategies to tell the story of social justice and how grantmaking can play a positive role in enabling it.

While the first two days of the conference were designed as internal conversations among members of the Network and their close allies, the third day was open to philanthropic organizations outside this immediate circle. Among these were the members of GIFE, Brazil’s largest philanthropic association, bringing together mainstream Brazilian philanthropy, including many corporate foundations. The goal was to introduce this broader community to social justice grantmaking and to show how effective it can be in bringing about positive change. While the two plenaries were excellent, I’m not sure the day met its goal of attracting new advocates. As was noted during the prior two days, much work needs to be done to communicate better why social justice grantmaking is an extremely effective tool for philanthropy.

The inevitable limitations of a gathering like this aside, this event may well be remembered as a watershed for Brazilian philanthropy. Notes Cindy Lessa, the Network’s coordinator: ‘The members of the Network are a powerful group, individually and collectively. Their work is revolutionary but also very simple: make small investments to creative activists to transform Brazilian society.’ According to Cindy, this first-of-its kind conference put social justice grantmaking permanently on the map of Brazilian philanthropy.

John Harvey is an independent global philanthropy professional.


  1. ^ Data collected for the Advancing Human Rights project for 2012 by IHRFG, INWF, Ariadne and Foundation Center.

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