Activist Philanthropy:
A Systems Approach to Social Change

By Joshua Avedon

Philanthropy has evolved significantly from its noblesse oblige origins, through federated giving, to the competitive venture philanthropy model which now predominates. In those approaches charities set agendas and funders respond with philanthropic support. More recently, funders have begun to take the lead on agenda-setting, embracing an activist ethos – backed up by financial firepower. Philanthro-activism recognizes that social issues are rarely discrete problems but rather the results of complex systems failing those in need. So it follows that funding individual organizations, often pitting those with similar foci against each other for limited funds, is a particularly unhelpful way to create systemic change.

Instead, philanthro-activists see deficiencies in systems and try to remedy them, not just by supporting causes, but by transforming the entire system. They identify a lacuna in current funding (e.g. the issue isn’t an established category of giving, or affects a population that hasn’t been adequately addressed). They embrace the role of public advocate to grow awareness and prioritize the issue. And they look to effect widespread change rather than just attempt to ameliorate an immediate problem. By setting the agenda, and then defining the terms for success, activist funders make philanthropy proactive rather than reactive.

“Running a foundation is usually passive in the fact you fund others to create change, but I began to see that you could use a foundation as a platform for social change.” recounts Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. His foundation’s mission for disability inclusion requires both strategic grantmaking, and a good deal of public advocacy to help Jewish organizations understand the nature of the problem and the need for change. Ruderman’s background as prosecutor and activist uniquely prepared him to tackle this challenge. While working with local organizations to improve their inclusivity he realized fostering change in specific schools or synagogues wasn’t enough. By reframing inclusion as not just a social issue within organizations but as a matter of civil rights throughout the system, the Ruderman Family Foundation embarked on an effort that has transformed the Jewish landscape – and funding is just one part of that process. “Funding is very money-intensive in order to impact a finite number of lives, and you frequently aren’t actually changing society as a whole.”

Lisa Eisen, President of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s U.S. Jewish portfolio, was motivated by a similar insight when she catalyzed the creation of the Safety Respect Equity Coalition. Tackling #MeToo in the Jewish communal system was simply too large and extensive a problem to believe that tactical grantmaking could address it. As Eisen sees it: “When it comes to dealing with pervasive issues and entrenched power dynamics, the problem is embedded in leaders, organizations, and the system. While it might be possible to convince many organizations to try and change individually on their own, change can happen much more efficiently by using a collective impact approach.” Unlike traditional foundation work, this requires building relationships behind the scenes before launching a public response. According to Eisen, “One of the hardest things to do when working at the systems level is to create alignment among individual stakeholders that come to the table with their own agenda… sometimes you need to be willing to go slow to go fast – slow down enough to create alignment but move fast enough to make progress and inspire commitment.”

This kind of philanthropy marks a deliberate shift to prioritize capacity over program. When the goal of philanthropic strategy is to bring together multiple nonprofits and funders as a team, the overhead myth is exposed as the red herring it is. In reality, “overhead” equals capacity to execute programs. Creating capacity – in organizations and their leadership – is a better long-term investment than generating disparate program outputs.

Nonprofit leaders are often focused on optimizing the performance of their own organization rather than examining the systems in which they operate. Conventional thinking posits that if everyone improves their organizational unit that will improve the system. However, since most social problems are created by systems themselves, a broader view is required. The systems-thinking perspective is that each unit needs to understand its contribution to the current system (which is homeostatic and defaults to self-preservation) in order to think about what needs to change in order to optimize the system. Sometimes optimization can result from just intelligently connecting elements which need to be in relationship. The programs of individual organizations may be less important than the quality of their leaders and the connections between them.

The Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York (JWFNY) recently completely overhauled their strategy to focus on leadership capacity and field-building. CEO Jamie Allen Black had an epiphany: “I woke up one day and said ‘We should be the national center for Jewish women social entrepreneurs.’ I knew we needed to focus on the women. And we needed to stop looking just at the programs. $80,000 a year for one program is not going to make social change, it’s just not.” By shifting their grantmaking from a number of discrete projects to a model that focuses on developing the skills and connectedness of women social entrepreneurs, JWFNY builds capacity across the system. “If you are a philanthropist who is an activist, you don’t have to live with the status quo. I’m interested in growing the leaders we need right now. And I don’t just mean for the Jewish community, I mean everywhere. That’s what gets me out of bed, it’s my pure conviction that this world would be better off if we had better leaders and that the Jewish community could provide those people.”

Philanthro-activists become force-multipliers for the issues they care about, catalyzing new partnerships and alliances to focus on their priorities. This approach requires funders to acquire new skillsets as communicators, public diplomats, and coalition-builders. The benefits redound both to the issue areas they focus on, and to the entire ecosystem in which they operate. Emerging funders, particularly ones who have achieved success in business or the public sector, may be bored with boardroom philanthropy. Activist philanthropy provides a way for them to shape the conversations they care about. For a driven and impatient funder looking to ignite measurable change, this way of working has a unique appeal.

As Jay Ruderman explained, “Things never happen unless you try. Unless you talk to the community and challenge the community, it’s not going to change. I wanted a more activist role because I came from an activist background and I saw that I couldn’t do it without getting involved. Philanthropists have an enormous amount of freedom, if they use it in the right way.”

Joshua Avedon is the co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart Labs a global research and design laboratory for creative philanthropy and social change. He works with both emerging and established changemakers – philanthropists and organiztaional leaders alike – to develop the knowledge and connections necessary to realize their visions.