Business as usual no longer good enough

Christopher Harris

This issue of Alliance looks at a variety of activities whose aim is to direct more philanthropic resources to support work on rights and justice. Why this increasing interest in grantmaking for social justice, and why now?

I believe there are two major, linked reasons for this. First, there seems to be a growing popular frustration about the increasing scale and depth of injustices – in the shadow of increasingly concentrated wealth and freedoms for a small minority. Second, most philanthropic giving does not seem to be addressing this growing misery. This failure to respond appropriately is spurring increasingly urgent calls for foundations and other charities to no longer do business as usual.

A discussion of social justice and philanthropy should perhaps begin with some examples of economic, social and political injustice. The shortlist could include increasing rates of hunger in countries that should be self-sufficient like Zimbabwe and Nigeria; decreasing rates of primary school attendance in developing countries, especially for girls; the horrific expansion of HIV/AIDS; and sustained violence against women and girls.

From service delivery to attacking root causes

How can philanthropy address these issues and other serious consequences of injustice? The answer, I believe, is a continuum of types of intervention – from dealing with the consequences of injustice through service delivery to organizing strong movements to attack root causes. Hungry or wounded people need food or medical attention immediately. Arab Americans who have been unfairly imprisoned in the post-September 11 security sweeps in the US need legal representation. Battered women need protection and a safe place. It is vital that philanthropic resources are used to ensure the rapid, fair and effective delivery of needed services – and this is where the great majority of philanthropic resources go, whether from Western foundations, corporate giving programmes, traditional Islamic charities and waqfs, or other charitable systems.

The area where there is typically too little engagement by organized philanthropy is addressing the fundamental reasons why such services are needed in the first place. Too few foundations put resources into efforts that challenge structures and powerful interests. Some funders posit that social change can occur through assistance to individuals and small groups, yet such giving leaves in place oppressive political power that disenfranchises certain people, economic arrangements that disadvantage some groups, and media interests that leave these arrangements largely unquestioned. It is very difficult to find philanthropic support for organizations that struggle to protect the human and civil rights of groups on the margins, or for social movements of indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups organizing to gain real political strength to represent themselves. One need only examine philanthropic giving in the US as analysed by the Foundation Center to see that foundations are not providing sufficient support for such work.[1] Available resources grow; injustices grow; and funding stays almost flat.

Funders interested in supporting social justice must consider different strategies from those that provide or leverage services. US or European foundations, for example, will fund modest social and economic projects in Africa, but often ignore groups that are fighting to get fairer trade agreements between the US or the EU and African states – yet the scale of resources involved totally dwarfs foundation assets. Only a very few will fund increased public sector capacity in those African states to debate global trade agreements on an equal footing with OECD states. Few fund organizations that work to stop the widespread trade in small arms and light weapons.

There is a slowly growing list of organizations and funders that support social justice, but it remains to be seen if the work that emerges actually challenges unjust structures and relationships or simply ameliorates their effects. But the list should be longer and growing faster. One effort to get more foundations involved in social justice is the Ford Foundation’s three strategies to expand funding in this area.[2] The first is modest support to help link existing social justice funders. The second is designed to increase the pool of funders. The third seeks to legitimize social justice philanthropy by developing a stronger analytic capacity and literature on the field.

Expanding and deepening work for social justice remains an unfulfilled potential and responsibility for organized philanthropy.

1 While US foundations’ assets and giving have grown fivefold since 1985, support for African Americans and other African descendants stayed flat (and recently dropped); funding for Native Americans saw a steady decline to a low of 0.5 per cent of total giving, while resources to address issues faced by gays and lesbians received only 0.1 per cent. In the specific subcategory of ‘poor, indigent’, funding from 1995 to 1999 rose by just 1 per cent on average per year.

2 For details of the Ford Foundation grants related to these three strategies, please see Christopher Harris, ‘The Social Justice Gap’, Ford Foundation Report, summer 2003, p. 46. It is available online at Alliance Extra also includes brief descriptions of this and some other programmes designed to increase social justice grantmaking.

Christopher Harris is Program Officer, Governance and Civil Society, Ford Foundation, USA. He can be contacted at

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