What is philanthropy for social justice?

Should philanthropy for social justice focus only on the most marginalized – and does this raise questions of fairness? How do we ascribe relative importance to process versus results? How do we weigh the value of advocacy versus service provision? What would characterize success and how would we measure it? How much influence does the nature of funding have on approaches and outcomes?

These were some of the compelling questions raised by a ten-member international team of senior foundation leaders, researchers and activists brought together by the Synergos Institute in New York last August to explore how local philanthropy in Asia, Africa and Latin America can advance social justice. The group brought a rich diversity of perspectives from eight countries.[1] Discussions centred on opportunities for local philanthropy in the global South to play a larger role in addressing poverty at the level of root causes.

Asked to describe a foundation grant or activity that they believed had advanced social justice in their society, four case presenters offered strikingly different stories, thus presenting a snapshot of the range of different viewpoints on this emerging sub-field in philanthropy. Cases illustrated change within the foundation (South Africa), results through community institution-building (Puerto Rico), a focus on values and investing in people (Ghana), and national-level advocacy efforts (Philippines).

The meeting formed the centrepiece of a five-month planning process at Synergos on the issue of philanthropy for social justice, made possible by the Ford Foundation. This also included a research paper and survey of foundations in Ecuador, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines and Zimbabwe. Synergos is currently working with the international meeting participants and local foundations in Mexico and the Philippines to design a programme of further convening, research and learning on the topic. Concepts and reflections from the planning process will feed into the development of this next stage project.

1 Brazil, Canada, Ghana, Mexico, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, South Africa and the US.

John Heller is Deputy Director, Foundation Building at Synergos. He can be contacted at jheller@synergos.org

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