Why does social justice so often lose out?

Stephen Pittam

At the inaugural meeting of Philanthropy Ireland in 1998, Hugh Frazer, founding Director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, spoke of two broad traditions within the foundation world. On the one hand, the conservative or elitist foundations essentially mirror the background and interests of their founders (predominantly male, middle-class and white).

They support safe causes and palliative actions, ultimately contributing towards preserving the status quo rather than challenging or changing the world they live in. The progressive or creative foundations, on the other hand, try to reflect the pluralist world they are part of and to contribute to solving some of the major problems facing society. The question this article will attempt to answer is why more foundations – and indeed other funders – do not belong to the second tradition.

Hugh pointed out that this was a ‘rather simplistic generalization’. It is nevertheless a recognizable description of the foundation world in the UK and Ireland. The whole sector is modest in size; the conservative foundations are mainly passive in nature; there are a fair number of foundations with a generally progressive outlook and a handful actively pursuing structural social change and economic, social and political fairness.

Does it matter that much of the foundation world is not oriented towards social justice? That depends on what kind of society we want to create. If we are not troubled by the ever widening gap between rich and poor, the discrimination and political alienation experienced by some communities, or the erosion of the human rights and civil liberties of all of us, then no – it doesn’t matter. But if our vision is of a society that can welcome difference and diversity and if we want to see the benefits of change and growth being shared more equally – then it may matter.

Not that foundations, alone, can make a great impact on these big issues. But in a society where market forces are growing ever stronger, and state institutions are embracing this while at the same time captivating much of the voluntary and community sector into service delivery, there is a strong case to be made for the resources of independent foundations supporting those working for a social justice agenda.

Is this happening? Many foundations would argue that at least some of their funding is targeted at promoting social justice. Few, however, would openly espouse a social justice ethos. And if we look at the way in which our societies have been moving in recent years, it is hard to argue that any of us have been very successful in effecting the kinds of changes that are needed. There has of course been some progress here in the UK, but there must also be a profound sense of disappointment that in many areas there has been no significant change and in some areas things have definitely got worse.

So what holds back foundations, and particularly new players in the field, from making a stronger commitment to social justice philanthropy? I want to discuss four factors that have an impact.

Do funders want to be agents for social justice?

The very act of creating a foundation demonstrates that a founder has an interest in promoting the public good. But there is a big difference between wanting to ‘do good’ and recognizing that there needs to be systemic change to create a fairer society. Those that have created wealth may want to open up opportunities for others and improve the lot of the disadvantaged, but they may not want to address some of the more challenging issues that are at the heart of the inequalities in our society or to support those who are interested in changing the system.

Do the new venture philanthropists offer greater hope? The language of venture philanthropy is largely the language of the market – investment, loans, financial and human capital, growth potential, social return on investments. But the market is well known for its short-termism, and those looking for social returns on their investments are likely to choose service delivery projects where results can be more easily measured. It is hardly surprising, then, that those inspired by the language of the market don’t often choose to champion social justice causes. Venture philanthropy advocates for much that can be accepted as good practice. Projects usually welcome funders taking an interest in their progress. But there is a fine line between taking an interest and attempting to control. The ‘active engagement’ style of venture philanthropy, combined with an emphasis on setting targets and measuring results, can easily lead to a new kind of paternalism that does not fit comfortably with a social justice ethos.p

The debate in the community foundation world about whether they are there to serve the donors or the community raises similar issues about donor interests. Perhaps inevitably, UK community foundations have adopted the US model of giving priority to building a strong donor base, largely through donor advised funds. Perhaps equally inevitably, this dilutes the power of community foundations to work with their community on setting the agenda and to build a social justice ethos. This is not to deny that some community foundations have adopted a social justice agenda. It is to say that few donors are likely to stipulate a social justice agenda in defining the terms of their fund.

Who determines the ethos?

Founders of foundations have a huge impact, whether dead or alive. Most are responsible for selecting the first trustees and for establishing the ethos of their creation. Foundations are often established to pursue the personal interests of the founder. This can be a strength, in that the commitment that goes with the personal interest can add to the foundation’s impact. It is often a weakness as far as social justice is concerned in that few people with the resources to create a foundation are likely to have much contact with those who are socially excluded or to be interested in looking at the underlying causes of social problems in their communities.

Most foundations later become self-appointing oligarchies. The tendency to appoint like-minded people has meant that until fairly recently Hugh Frazer’s description of foundations being run by white, middle-class, middle-aged men was true – and not only for the more conservative foundations. There has been some real progress in promoting diversity among board members and staff in the UK, especially as regards gender (less so with ethnicity), which becomes very noticeable when attending gatherings of European foundations where little appears to have changed. But the changes are limited. There are few foundations where activists or people who have experienced poverty and social exclusion play a part in the decision-making process.

Research in the US has shown that the significant success of the conservative foundations can be put down partly to a sense of unity of purpose between boards and staff as to what needs to be achieved. I have recently been struck by discussions with foundation staff interested in promoting a more adventurous agenda who have indicated that it wouldn’t get past their board. My sense is that there are very few foundations in the UK which can openly say that there is a unity of purpose between board and staff about promoting a social justice agenda.

How is power used?

The stewardship of significant sums of unearned wealth gives foundations power. This is relative. Foundations have nothing like the power of governments or corporations, but they have more power than many institutions. How they exert that power is important.

There will always be a power relationship between those with money and those seeking it, but foundations with an interest in promoting social justice are more likely to want to share some of that power and to foster partnerships with those they fund – building ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’. It is likely that they will be more willing to take risks in supporting organizations wanting to challenge the status quo and those operating at the edge of what is legal in charity law. ‘Power with’ implies an openness to building networks, to standing side by side with those engaged in the work, to taking the flak when things go wrong. To work in this way requires a foundation to be confident about its values and its mission. It may take time for a foundation to mature sufficiently to do this. The current trend for philanthropists to ‘spend down’ in relatively short timeframes might well militate against institutions reaching this level of institutional maturity. Another brake on the foundation motor for social change!

There is an interesting trend moving in a different direction – that of foundations using their power to promote their own agenda, sometimes a social justice one. Such foundations are defining their role more in terms of commissioning work than of grantmaking. Can foundations galvanize a movement around themselves for promoting social change? There is little evidence to suggest that they can. Most effective social justice movements have received crucial foundation support at key moments, but the engine for change has been those with passion for the issue, not the foundations. Foundations need to keep in close touch with developments in their fields of interest, and there may well be times when it is appropriate for them to be proactive. But the primary role must remain responding positively to those on the ground who know what needs to happen and are better placed to make a difference.

Is there too much pressure for results?

The trend to foundation proactivity may be linked to the pressure to produce results. The foundation sector has huge freedom in that it does not need to constantly seek funds. It should be using this freedom to experiment and take risks. Yet foundations have been enthusiastic in adopting the business culture of target setting, defining outputs and outcomes and various systems of performance monitoring, in relation to those they fund. A little bit of all this can be a good thing. Of course we want to discover what works and what doesn’t. But fundamentally this culture is inimical to a social justice agenda. We know too little about how we can intervene to change society to place great emphasis on what is usually the measurement of short-term results. We are so caught up in trying to achieve over-optimistic short-term targets that we lose sight of the vision of what might be possible in the long term.

Foundations need to make judgements on both the organizations and the projects that they support. They need to have sufficient knowledge of the field to be able to practise a process of ‘informed discernment’ about what to fund. They need to keep in touch with those they fund to learn from their successes and failures and sometimes to act as a critical friend. But to be truly effective in promoting social change, foundations need to take risks and to encourage those they fund to do likewise. They need to liberate organizations to follow their vision. Above all, they need to allow them time to find the opportunities to make an impact. This view feels counter-cultural to current trends in the foundation world, but then so does social justice philanthropy.


This article has focused on the reasons why few foundations are seriously engaged in promoting a social justice agenda. It is perhaps a little too pessimistic. It focuses on generalities, and of course there are significant exceptions which give grounds for hope.

One hundred years ago Joseph Rowntree was a businessman, part of the corporate sector. This didn’t stop him from looking for radical solutions to social problems or from focusing his philanthropy on promoting social justice. He challenged the trustees of the three foundations he created to search out the underlying causes of problems rather than to remedy their superficial manifestations, writing:

Charity as ordinarily practised, the charity of endowment, the charity of emotion, the charity which takes the place of justice, creates much of the misery it relieves, but does not relieve all the misery it creates.

A century later these words inspire the trustees and staff of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to refocus our commitment to stand alongside those working for a fairer and more just world and to place the theme of social justice at the heart of all we do.

Stephen Pittam is Secretary of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. He can be contacted at sep@jrct.org.uk

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