This way for structural change

Karen Zelermyer

I’m a social justice philanthroholic. I admit it. Most of what I think about each day is how grantmakers can be more strategic and have greater impact in the service of social justice. With hindsight, I can trace the beginnings of my obsession to a series of events that took place in 2007.

The first was the adoption of a new mission and strategic plan that made explicit the commitment of my organization, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, to social justice and the importance of connecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights to other social justice struggles. This required me to rethink our programmes. The second event was the Unity Summit, organized by the Joint Affinity Groups, a collaboration of six identity-based funder networks, which challenged the effectiveness of silo-based grantmaking. The third was an invitation to join the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace.

I talked with hundreds of social justice grantmakers that year, and for me two issues stood out. The first was the difference between grantmakers who are well-intentioned about their work and those who are intentional. The second was the gap between understanding in theory the value of working more intersectionally and actually putting this into practice.

Launch of Common Vision

In late 2007, we launched the Common Vision initiative. The idea was to establish two regionally based learning cohorts of social justice grantmakers who would model and document a grantmaking process for ‘creating healthy communities with widespread equity for all’. In early 2008, two cohorts were formed, one in the Midwest and one in New England. With support from the Ford Foundation, we provided each with $100,000 for grantmaking. This article will focus on the New England cohort.

We chose the issue of food security. Since deep structural change would be necessary to affect the kinds of results we wanted to see, we would utilize a structural change approach to our grantmaking. Over the next two years, we developed a grantmaking process that methodically linked analysis to strategy development to grantmaking to evaluation. Out of this, three steps emerged that I believe must be undertaken much more rigorously if we are to achieve structural transformation. Too often, these steps are assumed, abbreviated or skipped over.

Step one: define your terms

Although we all shared a language that included terms like ‘root causes’, ‘social justice’, ‘systemic change’ and ‘structural change’, we were using them interchangeably. Most of us claimed to be doing structural change grantmaking, but we had to take a step back and articulate a clear definition of what it meant.

This was more challenging than we’d expected. It turned out that there is very little written about broad-based structural change and almost nothing about structural change grantmaking. What we did learn came from individuals and organizations working in the area of structural race theory, like the Center for Social Inclusion, Kirwan Institute, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity and the Aspen Institute.  

A particular ‘aha moment’ came when one cohort member grasped that ‘structural change’ is not synonymous with ‘social justice’ but rather a theoretical framework for achieving it. Understanding root causes is critical to developing an analysis, but it is not, in itself, a guarantee that any given strategy will actually achieve social justice or result in structural change.

As simple as this seems, it helped us turn a corner in our thinking and to develop our structural change analysis. Later, it also helped us to articulate exactly what we wanted grantees to address in their work.

Step two: analyse the issue

In the absence of such analysis, one can easily end up with grantmaking strategies that mitigate a present inequity without preventing future inequity. When we decided to focus on food security, our first inclination was to fund farmers’ markets. Valuable as these are for getting fresh, healthy foods into communities and creating self-contained markets for local farmers, our analysis told us that this would affect only 2 per cent of the food system and would have no impact on how most people get their food.

We looked at all the elements of food production, processing, distribution and commerce, and all those involved in the food system: policymakers, corporations, government agencies, investors, farmers, farm workers, and, of course, consumers. Finally, taking a historical view, we came to see that the US food system was built on slave labour and that the legacy of that history is the exploitation of immigrant workers.

It was not until we had completed our analysis that we began to see how complex the process of structural change is. We also realized that our analysis was necessary but not sufficient to determine our grantmaking strategy.

Step three: map the analysis, map the field

Our mapping process included several steps. First, we used a tool being developed by the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace to identify our ‘end’ goal (a just and sustainable food system in which safe, nutritious, sustainable and culturally appropriate food is secure and accessible to everyone) and intermediate goals (governments and corporations acknowledge that current food systems are not sustainable or accessible to all; civil society organizations promote holistic, intersectional approaches and build collective power across issues typically considered to be conflicting, such as conventional and organic agriculture).

We also identified indicators of progress towards those goals (like widespread participation in anti-hunger and anti-poverty campaigns, or increased neighbourhood organizing and engagement around food security). We plotted these indicators along a non-linear continuum that included three groups (institutions, CSOs and the general population) and three levels of impact (knowing, organizing and transforming). Using the matrix, we identified who was working in these areas and the strategies needed to reach our goals.

During this process, we realized the need to consider unintended consequences. Funding farmers’ markets, for example, eliminates jobs for those who work in the distribution part of the system and does not necessarily deal with crucial labour issues. The point here is not to rule out strategies that affect others, but to be rigorous enough to identify the full range of implications for each strategy.

Moving out of our silos

It was at this stage that we saw how our foundations’ individual approach to grantmaking works against our structural analysis: foundations based in rural states do not consider urban food distribution and pricing issues; urban funders who want to increase the quality and availability of food in poor communities do not consider labour standards for farm workers or the impact of low pricing on small farmers. If we had not been collaborating, we would not have made those connections.

In the case of food security, we found that it was easy to make the connections to issues of gender, race, age and class. Ironically, we were never able to connect the issue directly to LGBTQ-specific concerns other than to highlight the value of aligning ourselves with an issue that affects everyone, including LGBTQ people.

Developing a request for proposals

We spent a long time developing an RFP that clearly articulated our analysis and our understanding of structural change, and we asked applicants for their understanding of the issue and how their proposed work would lead to structural change. The most striking thing about this was how challenged groups on the ground were to articulate a structural change analysis even though they, like us, all claimed to do ‘it’.

We decided to fund two groups that bridge grassroots organizing, research and advocacy. The first was Food Solutions New England, which promotes comprehensive, systemic approaches linking farming, food, nutrition, health, food access, and social justice issues. Second was Nuestras Raíces (Our Roots), a grassroots organization that promotes economic, human and community development through projects relating to food, agriculture and the environment.

A foundation for structural change grantmaking

These three steps lay the foundation for structural change grantmaking. They help us determine where to focus our efforts, what questions to ask in RFPs, what criteria to use in evaluating proposals, and what metrics to use in assessing our work. They are also a pathway to collaboration. If we take short-cuts, or work in isolation, we run a high risk of supporting well-intentioned efforts that perpetuate the problems we seek to solve.

The Common Vision cohorts completed their work in early 2010. Our online Guide to Grantmaking for Structural Change: Tools, resources and the story of common vision offers lessons learned from our experience, a set of downloadable tools, and links to the resources that informed our work. It offers a clear, step-by-step process that can be entered at any point. Our vision is that grantmakers will use and improve the tools, document and share their work, and add to the woefully inadequate bank of resources available on this topic.

I am still obsessed but I do now see clear pathways for those of us committed to this work and who, like me, believe we can and must do better.  

Karen Zelermyer is executive director of Funders for LGBTQ Issues. Email

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