Social Justice Philanthropy: The latest trend or a lasting lens for grantmaking?

As the June 2005 issue of Alliance shows, the concept of social justice philanthropy is increasingly generating discussion in the philanthropic community. What has been missing from the debate is research that explores the significance, scale, scope, practices and results of social justice philanthropy. The two reports published this year by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and by Independent Sector with the Foundation Center are therefore an important step in starting to fill this void.

NCRP’s research on social justice philanthropy was undertaken to encourage foundations to rethink their relationship with the individuals, populations and organizations they serve, and to incorporate notions of social, political and economic equity in their grantmaking. Unfortunately, the response to NCRP’s social justice philanthropy survey was so low that sound, generalized results could not be confidently reported. However, while the financial data and analysis in this report are not particularly enlightening, the analysis of the interviews with 14 foundation chief executive officers provides interesting insights into the practice of social justice philanthropy.

The report published by Independent Sector and the Foundation Center, Social Justice Grantmaking, complements NCRP’s report in that it explores the same general territory and provides an analysis of interviews held with 20 foundation leaders. Like NCRP’s report, it also profiles funders working in the field of social justice philanthropy. What distinguishes this report from NCRP’s is its attempt to establish a benchmark for tracking levels of social justice funding by applying the definition to the Foundation Center’s dataset of foundation grants.

This mapping exercise found that social justice funding represented 11 per cent ($1.8 billion) of overall foundation support sampled ($15.9 billion).[1] Given the rhetoric that suggests that relatively few foundations engage in social justice grantmaking, these figures come as a surprise.

The quantitative analysis illustrates how this funding is distributed among fields and beneficiary groups and by types of support. For example, economic and community development attracted the biggest share of social justice grant dollars (19 per cent) and civil rights and civil liberties led by number of grants (19.7 per cent). Ethnic or racial minorities were the focus of close to one-third of grant dollars and grants. The largest social justice funders are the Ford Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which together accounted for nearly a quarter of social justice support.

The report acknowledges that the process used to apply the definition of social justice philanthropy to the Foundation Center’s subject-based coding system has its limitations. There are clearly significant challenges involved in mapping what is essentially a value-based practice against objective coding criteria for grants. As a result, some of what the report has classified as social justice grants may fall outside what the definition of social justice philanthropy warrants, suggesting a higher percentage of social justice grantmaking than there actually is.

Nevertheless, the quantitative analysis in this report represents a significant step forward in understanding the scale and scope of social justice grantmaking in the US. However, without an analysis  of the social justice deficit in the US, this quantitative analysis is likely to be of more interest to a US audience than a non-US one.

Despite progress made in quantifying social justice philanthropy, it is the qualitative analysis in the reports that I believe is most valuable. Both reports explore the definition of social justice philanthropy, concluding that it is the practice of making philanthropic contributions to non-profit organizations that work for structural change in order to increase opportunities for those who are least well off politically, economically and socially.

It is, however, clear from interviews conducted with foundation staff that social justice philanthropy is a contested concept. Moreover, it is a label with which there is great discomfort and with which many foundations do not identify – even those whose work clearly contributes to structural change. NCRP’s report states: ‘It is clear that many people inside and outside of “social justice” work find the language around social justice loaded or meaningless.’

Despite the challenges associated with the label, both reports draw on the experiences of practitioners to provide some practical insights into how the work of social justice funders can be enhanced. For the most part, this focuses on the need to enhance the practices of grant-giving, such as collaboration between funders, providing more long-term core support to grantees, and embracing the values of social justice in the relationships foundations have with their grantees.

Both reports will be of value to foundations working in any context. However, I hope that they represent just the start of a research agenda that can enhance the dialogue and practice of philanthropy in this area. For example, what is missing from both reports is an analysis of the degree to which philanthropic funds have actually enabled some form of structural change that has resolved an aspect of the social justice deficit. Without this evidence, it may be hard to persuade the philanthropic community that its limited resources can be applied effectively to help societies become more just.

This evidence could be gathered in the form of case studies that illustrate the results of social justice philanthropy, exploring the ‘ingredients’ that enabled non-profits to progress towards the desired results (or indeed distinguishing what has worked from what has not). Such case studies would make visible what can be achieved with philanthropic funds and could be used to strengthen the confidence of funders already active in this field and to inspire more foundations to engage in it.

1 The analysis examined social justice funding trends based on the Foundation Center’s grants sample database. This includes all of the grants of $10,000 or more reported by a sample of just over 1,000 of the largest US private and community foundations in 1998 and 2002 (which accounted for more than half of overall foundation giving in each year).

Lenka Setkova is a trustee of Allavida and a Research Analyst at New Philanthropy Capital. She can be contacted at

Social Justice Philanthropy: The latest trend or a lasting lens for grantmaking? National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy $20 (members $10)

Social Justice Grantmaking: A report on foundation trends
Independent Sector and the Foundation Center $24.95
ISBN 1595420525

To order the NCRP report, visit

To order the Foundation Center report, visit

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