Wokeness has not ‘gone too far’ – in fact, it’s underfunded


Nani Jansen Reventlow


Whether it’s institutional racism, homophobia, and misogyny in the UK; the targeting of transgender rights in both the US and Europe; or Islamophobia in France, Germany and Scandinavia, the need for action from progressive funders has rarely seemed so acute.

Global philanthropy, despite its promises to help combat racism, inequality, and injustice – promises which surged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd – is spending a minuscule amount of money tackling society’s most endemic problems. Black feminist movements which tackle the intersecting oppressive systems of racism and sexism received in 2021 a mere 0.1 per cent – 0.35 per cent of foundation giving globally.

Despite this, there are those who will have us believe that progressive movements and their ‘woke agendas’ have gone too far – that it is the struggle for equality and social justice that is in fact the oppressor. Used to describe those conscious of systemic racism and injustice, ‘woke’ has now been turned on its head and weaponised by reactionaries as part of efforts to stir up a moral panic.

Work that seeks to deepen inequality and systemic oppression on the other hand, continues to be well-funded by right-wing funders. For example, European organisations seeking to curtail and roll-back gender-related rights have received over €650 million between 2009 and 2018 from funders in the US, Russia, and Europe, according to the European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

What about the philanthropic foundations who do fund progressive causes? They are largely failing those who resist the most systemic of harms: racism and sexism. Let’s look at the numbers the Black Feminist Fund recently published in ‘Where is the Money for Black Feminist Movements?‘, a study that examined the global picture of the funding ecosystem of Black feminist movements. This research showed that, in 2021, for example:

  • A mere 0.1 per cent – 0.35 per cent of foundation giving globally went to Black women, girls, and trans people.
  • Nearly 60 per cent of Black feminist organisations have never received core funding.
  • 81 per cent of Black feminist organisations do not have enough money to meet their goals. 

This is a first-of-its-kind study focused on funding and Black feminist movements globally, but similar findings have come out of research on funding to progressive causes including anti-racism and LGBTQI+ rights. The Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity found in 2018 that only 1 per cent of philanthropic dollars in the US supported racial justice work. Global funding to LGBTQI+ movements – while well-funded compared to anti-racism work – is dwarfed by funding to anti-gender movements at a 3:1 ratio, according to the Global Philanthropy Project.

What these numbers show is that, far from taking over, ‘wokeness’ – work to make this world an equitable and just place – is barely being supported. In fact, the inaction by philanthropy on this front serves to uphold the systemic racism and inequality that permeates our societies.

This inaction stems from a position of ultimate privilege: unlike the many activists that are working every day to serve the needs of their communities out of necessity, philanthropy is a career choice for the many (white, privileged) people with decision-making power over whether or not to resource this work. The fact that so many foundations are able to negate the bold statements and promises made in 2020 without repercussions – some closing down programmes that do dedicated racial justice work altogether  – says all anyone needs to know about the sincerity to make the world a better place.

This also places a heavy burden on the funders who do fund progressive causes and whose work is rooted in proper power analysis instead of window dressing. They are left to pick up the tab for what is hard, long-term, systemic work that needs to be robustly supported in order to succeed.

So what can progressive funders who want to move beyond window dressing do? As pointed out by non-profit blogger Vu Le, they can actually learn a thing or two from reactionary, conservative funders: focus on the big picture, act quickly, do not micromanage, provide significant general operating funds, fund for twenty or thirty years, support leaders and movements, and treat grantees as equal partners.

If enough funders do that, the global fight for justice and equality might just go from underfunded to sufficiently resourced and funders could see their money contributing to a world that is a little more just and a little more equal.

Nani Jansen Reventlow is the Founder of Systemic Justice, which works to radically transform how the law works for communities fighting for racial, social, and economic justice. She previously founded and built the Digital Freedom Fund, which supports strategic litigation on digital rights in Europe.

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