Philanthropy and law: a note to funders

Thomas Hilbink

Cover for Alliance magazine's March 2021 issue on law and philanthropy.I came to philanthropy as a result of studying the ways lawyers, social movements and the funders that support them interacted to shape social change in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. Therefore, your Law, philanthropy and justice issue (Alliance, March 2021) found in me an eager audience.

I could not agree more with the guidance that emerges from your pages: remembering that ‘courtroom judgments are only part of the solution’, using an ‘ecosystems approach’, providing long-term funding, core support, and using ‘people-centred strategies’. These and other ideas are essential if law is to play a valuable and effective role within larger efforts to advance social justice.

Learning from my work, I would emphasise that foundations be attuned to the ways their funding can shape how legal actors engage with movements. The question ‘who is my client?’ can be murky when a foundation is paying the lawyer and becomes a powerful agent of accountability. Also, funders should consider not just the lawyers’ professional skills, but also the attitudes and behaviours lawyers bring into work with people and movements. Lawyers who bring humility and a sense of deference to clients are more likely to meaningfully integrate legal work into the broader strategy for change.

Thomas Hilbink
Director, Grant Making Support Group
Open Society Foundations


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