The socially just foundation – Doing good and being good

Andrew Milner

Social justice philanthropy ‘addresses the root causes of social and economic inequities, and respects and includes the communities it serves in the governance and decision-making process’, declares Yeshica Weerasekera of Changemakers in the US. In other words, foundations that fund social change should practise what they preach – with all the implications this has for decisions about strategic direction, grants and evaluation, among other things. Alliance asked a number of social justice funders how seriously they take this and how they go about it.

On the face of it, the elements involved in the guidance and operational decisions of a social justice funder might not differ much from those of a traditional foundation – board, grants committee, programme officers, etc. It is in the balance of these forces and the composition of the first two that differences are likely to occur.

Board membership – deciding who gets to decide

It’s difficult territory. ‘Board members should consist of people that have done significant work in the field of social justice,’ feels Alexander Irwan (Tifa Foundation, Indonesia). ‘Civil society organizations could nominate people to become new board members, but the decision to select board members should stay in the hands of old board members in order to minimize conflicts of interest.’ This question of conflict of interest is a vital one and we will return to it later.

Meantime, many of those we spoke to have put the first of his recommendations into practice. Colin Greer (New World Foundation, US) remarked: ‘We have, over time, moved our board from family and friends of an original donor to a board made up mostly of people of colour and individuals who have been, are, or might be grantees of the Foundation.’

‘A diverse board of directors that is representative and inclusive, in the broadest possible way, of our constituents, governs Changemakers,’ says Yeshica Weerasekera. ‘There is an internal nomination process for recruiting new board members. We also check in periodically with our grantees to request names of people we should consider. We use a selection chart to assess where we have gaps in representation and experience.’

At Southern Partners Fund (SPF) in the US, there are seven board members, ‘with the potential to have eleven,’ says Joan Garner. ‘The [wider SFP] membership guides the strategic direction for the organization. The board sets policy. Every year there is a recruitment process to bring on new members. At least 80 per cent of our membership comes from currently or previously funded grassroots organizations. Our members elect the board of directors, serve on board committees, and play an active role in the organization.’

For the Nirnaya Trust (India), says Indira Jena, board membership is a difficult balancing act, since members need to include both people who ‘have the resources and can mobilize resources’ and members of the stakeholder community. ‘While maintaining the balance between the two categories of people is not easy, it is inescapable.’

Even where the involvement of the foundation’s constituency is less direct, it is none the less important. The current programme priorities of the Barrow Cadbury Trust in the UK are all drawn following extensive consultation with groups funded by Barrow Cadbury, says Sukhvinder Stubbs.

Conflict of interest

But if the grantees and would-be grantees are the ones deciding who gets the money, how do social justice funders guarantee a fair and impartial distribution of resources? As Alexander Irwan remarked, it’s important for socially just foundations to be heedful of the needs of their beneficiaries, but those beneficiaries will naturally want to put their own case most strongly. He suggests that ultimately strategic direction should come from the executive committee, and that beneficiary input should be sought through participatory monitoring and evaluation. He also advocates adoption of a conflict of interest policy.

Southern Partners Fund have found a way of resolving this difficulty. ‘There are two panels that determine how grants are awarded,’ says Joan Garner, ‘and if a member of the committee has a proposal pending, they do not serve on the panel that reviews their proposal.’

Programme officer involvement

If the beneficiaries of a socially just foundation are involved in its decision-making processes, surely the foundation’s staff ought to be too. At the Tifa Foundation, says Alexander Irwan, programme officers play a crucial role in grantmaking decisions. They essentially select the programmes to be funded then argue for them before the board.

At the Nirnaya Trust, ‘programme officers/associates do the initial application appraisal’, says Indira Jena. ‘A visit indicates that our fund is inclined to support the applicant.’ While the board meets twice a year to make the grants, its decisions are ‘in line with the recommendations in the programme officer’s report’.

Barrow Cadbury grants are clustered around each of the foundation’s priority areas. ‘Officers have primary responsibility for assessing individual projects being considered for grants,’ says Sukhvinder Stubbs. Similarly, Joan Garner says that at Southern Partners Fund programme officers work closely with the grants committee, screening applications, making site visits and taking part in the panel discussions for final funding.

Policy dovetailing with prudence

This is clearly a matter of good sense as well as principle, and one which applies to traditional funders as well as those that consider themselves to be social justice grantmakers. Programme officers often have in-depth knowledge of applicants which board members generally can’t have. There is another practical reason too. Yeshica Weerasekera at Changemakers feels that ‘ideally’ the grants committee would look at all proposals, but beyond a certain number it is inevitable that programme officers make the initial assessment and filter applications. Necessity as well as policy thus dictates the latitude given to programme officers.

Where their role might diverge from the role of their counterparts in traditional foundations is in their involvement in deciding the foundation’s overall direction. Alexander Irwan, among others, feels board members should involve programme officers in deciding strategy. At Southern Partners Fund, ‘they also participate fully in conversations regarding funding and programmatic strategies for the organization.’

Casting the net more widely

Most of those we talked to, then, have some formal means of incorporating the views of their beneficiaries into their policy and programme decisions, but obviously it’s not possible for all the beneficiaries to be represented, either directly or indirectly, on the board or the various committees that steer the foundation. How do socially just foundations solicit the opinions of these others?

‘Southern Partners Fund hosts regional gatherings of our grantee partners on a regular basis,’ says Joan Garner. Their purpose is to ‘provide opportunities for networking and skill building and to gather information about the needs of our grantee partners’. The Kenya Community Development Foundation’s (KCDF) strategy is decided by a combination of staff, board and trustees. In addition, explains Janet Mawiyoo: ‘Lessons learnt through interaction with the communities that we serve are also incorporated to ensure that the Strategic Plan is sufficiently responsive.’ KCDF holds an annual stakeholders’ forum, which serves as an important means of gathering stakeholder views, and ‘is in the process of setting up mechanisms for broadening the membership of the foundation to include a wider cross-section of stakeholders’.

‘A two-way participatory impact assessment, involving the stakeholder community and our fund, takes place at least once a year,’ says Indira Jena of Nirnaya. ‘This sets the benchmark for future direction of both grant giver and grantee. It gives us the guidelines on strategies to be retained/changed and emerging needs that should be addressed in order to sustain the “successful changes”.’


This brings us on to the question of evaluation and monitoring, an area that provokes much heart-searching among foundations in general. For social justice funders, these heart-searchings are, if anything, more intense. Given the importance of process, it seems logical that grantees should take an active part in any evaluation. What is the practice among those we spoke to?

At Nirnaya, says Indira Jena, ‘the terms of reference are jointly set for the assessment and the programme officer does it after consultation with me. There is a baseline which serves as a benchmark for success and this is set by the grantees and the fund representative – the programme officers or sometimes me. It is what the grantees see as possible, concrete and measurable in some way or other.’ Similarly, at New World Foundation: ‘Criteria for evaluation are jointly devised by our field staff and our partners/grantees. The consequent strength of these relationships is crucial to the assessment of effectiveness and the development of strategy.’ As a variant, Alexander Irwan agrees that evaluation ‘should be designed through consultation with stakeholders’, but, he argues, it should be carried out by an independent body.

Changemakers reviews its programmes, when feasible, on an annual basis. ‘For our grants programme, we conduct assessments by sending questionnaires to our grant recipients and applicants to seek feedback about our grantmaking and application process. One question we have asked is “how would you describe an ideal foundation?” which resulted in some interesting feedback.’ In other words, it’s not just a matter of the grantees’ accounting for what they have done, but of what the foundation can learn too.

For KCDF, says Janet Mawiyoo, the emphasis is on what the grantee can learn. The important thing is not so much that the evaluation should be participatory as that grantees should benefit from it. ‘After KCDF has identified potential grantees, a thorough and participatory capacity assessment exercise is undertaken. The objective is to establish areas of weakness in order to ensure that grantees can do what they do better. The results of the capacity assessment exercise inform the process of developing Detailed Implementation Plans (DIPs), which are also developed in close consultation with KCDF. Key milestones during the life of the partnership are identified and incorporated in the DIPs. These form the basis for monitoring and evaluation.’

This concern with the development of the grantee is also reflected in the practice of the Barrow Cadbury Trust. ‘All grantees are subject to annual review, which includes a visit from their programme officer,’ says Sukhvinder Stubbs. ‘Officers are required to help in the organizational development of the group, especially with regard to governance, succession of key staff and fundraising.’

As well as these annual reviews, Barrow Cadbury will also ‘evaluate each programme against impact on the stated policy objective’ after a period of 3-6 years. ‘We have not yet reached this stage for any programme,’ explains Stubbs, ‘but we will look to consider changes in that policy area over that period of time and attempt to assess what developments might be directly or partly attributable to Barrow Cadbury.’ The final piece in the puzzle is a stakeholder review, four years on from each strategy review, to ‘assess the Trust’s reputation among its key stakeholders’.

A special difficulty

Social justice grantmakers often face a particular difficulty when it comes to evaluation. It’s a commonplace that the effects of social justice philanthropy can be hard to assess, both because they might be long-term and because they are often not readily translatable into concrete aims.

Moreover, social justice funders tend to give organizational rather than project funding. As Joan Garner remarked, ‘Southern Partners Fund provides general operating support not programme support.’ In addition, SPF’s special focus is on rural communities, and ‘it’s often difficult for groups to set benchmarks when working on survival issues in small rural communities’. Similarly, New World Foundation supports organizations ‘for the long haul, no “three years and you’re out”. We fund only with general support grants, rather than simply funding projects,’ says Colin Greer.

Ensuring access

How do social justice funders reach their constituency? Should programmes be widely advertised, or should the foundation decide on its priority areas and then have programme officers identify suitable groups to implement programmes?

Changemakers come down firmly for the former approach: ‘A social justice foundation should try to publicize its grants programmes to potential grantee groups widely, and reach as many as possible.’ This might include getting information circulated through networks. ‘Referrals are another option, as well as presentations and making materials available at conferences and other gatherings.’

KCDF is in broad agreement: ‘Opportunities to access grants from KCDF are publicized widely through the use of the KCDF database of past applicants, the use of government offices, other NGOs, and publication in select media.’

Nirnaya began without any conscious publicity campaign, but the publicity given to its work by others has perforce meant that the number of applications the Trust receives has increased. ‘In the beginning we did not have any publicity campaign. It was through word of mouth. Subsequently the media would cover our work and there would be regular news items about our fund and the kind of support it gives.’ There are more applications now that the Trust has a website, adds Indira Jena.

Just investments

Means being as important as ends, most of our respondents felt it was absolutely essential that social justice grantmakers invest their endowment funds in areas in which the principles of social justice are observed. ‘There should not be any grey area here,’ says Alexander Irwan. ‘The foundation should not invest in commercial entities that go against social justice principles, especially if its beneficiaries are against those entities.’ At Southern Partners Fund, too, ‘investments are made using a socially responsible screen. Our policies reflect our social justice agenda.’

Changemakers agree, even to the extent of using a ‘community development bank rather than a commercial one’ for cash management. They also feel that payout rates from investments should be higher than the minimum required by the law, a view shared by New World Foundation, whose payout rates, says Colin Greer, are usually twice the required legal minimum.

Beyond grantmaking

Supporting social justice movements can often mean more than simply providing funding. Advocacy, technical assistance and publicity are also part of the armoury of techniques social justice funders use to support their beneficiaries – and that’s not all. As Colin Greer explains: ‘We at New World Foundation have learned that social justice leaders often work close to the edge of poverty, as well as the edge of exhaustion. While we can’t make a great difference to the overall level of compensation in the field, what we can do is create space for spiritual and physical recovery and opportunities for intellectual re-engagement with theory, history and networking by providing sabbatical awards. The Alston/Bannerman awards are given by a panel, the great majority of whom are former fellows of the programme. This helps build mutual respect, confirms the value of each other’s work, and offers opportunities to become part of long-term movement building.’

Foundations can promote grantee groups, says Yeshica Weerasekera, so that they can ‘leverage additional resources from other funding sources, by either making referrals or writing references or helping set up meetings. Providing technical assistance grants or direct advice and support is also growing in popularity in the US.’

KCDF has an interesting take on this. One of its principal activities is asset building in order to build permanent funds for grantmaking for community development. ‘The Foundation has therefore set up an institutional framework which it makes available to development initiatives whose ultimate beneficiaries are the wider community,’ says Janet Mawiyoo. ‘Community initiatives can set up funds within the KCDF endowment and benefit from the services of investment managers, fund custodians and fund administrators. Communities and other non-profit fund builders are thus relieved of the headache of having to set up their own endowment management structures.’

According to Joan Garner, ‘Southern Partners Fund has established democratic systems for learning, sharing and decision-making, which opens up philanthropy to everyone. By expanding the “family of philanthropy”, SPF is developing best practices, policies and protocols that demonstrate the effectiveness and impact of engaging a broader set of people and institutions in all aspects of philanthropy.’

Growing into a socially just organization

Trying to be a socially just foundation means at least confronting, if not resolving, a number of large and perplexing questions, abandoning the distinction which normally exists, to a greater or lesser extent, between funder and funded, and applying the principles you are endorsing to your own foundation. None of this is easy. As Indira Jena remarks about Nirnaya’s attempts to strike a balance on its board between those capable of mobilizing funds and those in need of them: ‘We continue to maintain the diversity with all the pitfalls and guilt pangs.’ But if you want to be a socially just foundation, it’s no good boggling at the difficult moral questions that arise, because it is precisely in grappling with them that the heart of the matter lies. As Joan Garner remarks: ‘We truly believe that for philanthropy to result in change, philanthropy itself must be open to change.’

A fitting last word on this comes from Colin Greer, talking about the principles he and his colleagues at New World Foundation try to apply: ‘Does any of this mean we are never high-handed? That we make decisions our grantee allies always cheer? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that we, and a few solid colleague foundations, have begun to establish an order of criteria and practice which recognizes the need for foundations supporting social justice work, just like their grantees, to grow into social justice organizations themselves.’

Alliance would like to thank the following for contributing to this article:

Joan Garner Executive Director, Southern Partners Fund, USA
Colin Greer President, New World Foundation, USA
Alexander Irwan Executive Director, Tifa Foundation, Indonesia
Indira Jena Founder and Managing Trustee, Nirnaya Trust, India
Janet Mawiyoo Director, Kenya Community Development Foundation
Sukhvinder Stubbs Director, Barrow Cadbury Trust, UK
Yeshica Weerasekera Grants Manager, Changemakers, USA

Andrew Milner is Alliance Associate Editor. He can be contacted at

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