Social justice and philanthropy – still an uneasy relationship

Charles Keidan

Is there really such a thing as social justice philanthropy? 

That’s one of the big philosophical questions facing our field. It’s one which those of us working in philanthropy will have reflected on, at least periodically. For me, it’s been a defining tension during my career first working for a billionaire committing resources to the public good and now as executive editor of Alliance. 

I reconsidered these questions through a new lens while reading a powerful call to arms from British philanthropy practitioner, Fozia Irfan*, titled Transformative Philanthropy: a new manual for social change. The work and an accompanying workbook reads essentially like a modern manifesto to place social justice at the heart of philanthropy. It draws impressively on a philosophical and historical framework – something essential but under-used by today’s foundation leaders. We need ‘a deeper learning of our history and a truer understanding of our present… to help us build a more specific vision for our work’, Irfan states. 

Like many of us who have visited the US – Irfan did so as part of a fellowship – the author returned inspired by the energy and critiques pulsing through US debates, sometimes markedly absent from the clubbable world of philanthropy circles elsewhere.  

Irfan says in her manual that ‘the time has come for transformative change, a revolution in philanthropy that transcends the performative and addresses the core issues which afflict our society’. That in turn requires ‘reimagining the structures and approach of philanthropy to provide a more just and equitable framework’. 

This reforming passion took me back to heated discussions of the Woburn Place Collaborative – then a meeting point of progressive CEOs in UK philanthropy circles. Then, as now, the search was to formulate a vision of philanthropy rooted in social justice which didn’t seem to over-claim our ability to create change or seem outright contradictory. 

And there’s the rub.

Social justice depends on the equitable distribution of public resources, something which can only be delivered at scale and with equity by the state. The key philosophical frameworks here derive from John Rawls and Will Kymlicka who, in different works, both set out inherent tensions between philanthropy and justice. In short, we can infer from their arguments that philanthropy depends on the preferences of individuals who act based on their conceptions of the public good in support of an extraordinary range of causes – the bedrock of associational life and civil society. While some of those causes may be distributive, there is no categorical mandate or requirement for them to be so. In practice, they rarely are distributive in intention or effect. Rather, what distinguishes philanthropy is not redistribution or social justice but pluralism.  

The task of progressive philanthropy practitioners like Irfan is to exert a gravitational pull in favour of social, racial, and climate justice.

So, are the proposals on offer from today’s reformers bringing us closer to reconciling philanthropy and social justice? Personally, I’m unpersuaded. The theoretical tensions are too steep and the practical reality tells a different story. A progressive critique of philanthropic orthodoxy and measures for reform – of the kind outlined in Irfan’s manifesto – does not in itself achieve social justice.  

But that isn’t to say that the pursuit of social justice through philanthropy is a lost cause. Rather, the new calls for the transformation of philanthropy can build on earlier conversations to offer something new in response to today’s challenges.  

On this reading, Irfan’s practice-centred body of work opens up a new set of issues. The progressive philanthropy conversation today has brought new critical challenges into greater focus. Top of the list is climate change which was on the margins of social justice philanthropy 20 years ago but centre-stage now. The same can also be said of mental health. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the call for investment in mental health and well-being within our field and in society at large are more visible. Or consider issues of funding practice which bear on power relations, and thus have a social justice dimension. The dialogue between donors and recipients today is more equally matched with greater appreciation of the value of longer-term funding and easing of restrictions. 

Perhaps the biggest advance is on the issue of racial justice. Attention to the legacy of colonialism and calls for reparations are a new and relevant addition to questions of social justice. They show that philanthropy is not some immutable force but is subject to gravitational pulls. The task of progressive philanthropy practitioners like Irfan is to exert a gravitational pull in favour of social, racial, and climate justice. 

So the progressive endeavour is not for social justice itself but for a greater social justice orientation to philanthropy. The fact that certain social movements have prospered despite philanthropy rather than because of it – which echoes Alliance’s earlier coverage – shows there is some way to go to release the potential for more philanthropy to be rooted in social justice. 

More broadly, the biggest chance for the transformation of philanthropy, and the kind of far-reaching change may depend on compulsion as well as culture change. Debates about gender quotas on foundation boards, mandatory payouts, and reparations being embedded in regulatory processes are just some examples. 

But progressives should be wary of over-playing their hand. In the end, it’s the state which needs to focus on the equitable distribution of resources. Philanthropy should do something else. 

 Charles Keidan is executive editor at Alliance

*Full disclosure: Fozia Irfan is a Trustee of Alliance Publishing Trust, the publisher of Alliance magazine. Her essay is available at:

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