Social Justice Philanthropy Seeing a Resurgence

After a number of years of declining faith in the efficacy of social justice philanthropy, grantmakers and practitioners alike are showing renewed optimism, according to Social Justice Grantmaking II, a benchmarking study released today by the Foundation Center that provides an in-depth look at current attitudes and giving patterns of social justice philanthropists.

The report updates the Foundation Center’s groundbreaking 2005 study on this topic and includes numerous recommendations based on interviews with social justice grantmakers and practitioners. They cite a changed political environment, the success of community organizing in the recent election, and new ideas and energy in the field among a number of factors reinvigorating a commitment to social justice philanthropy. Among other recommendations, they point to a move away from funding large, often contentious and unwieldy coalitions to instead support smaller, nimble collaboratives that more effectively advance issues of race, class, background, region, and generation.

“In 2005 many of us wondered about the prospects for social justice philanthropy because the field itself was so pessimistic about its future. Today, social justice is experiencing a resurgence, fueled by philanthropists whose passion won’t let them stand by when there is injustice and whose pragmatism demands results,” said Bradford Smith, president of the Foundation Center.

Signs of this resurgence began to appear even before the recent change in the national political climate. The report finds that between 2002 and 2006, social justice-related giving rose nearly 31 percent to $2.3 billion, surpassing the 20 percent increase in foundation giving overall during that time. In 2006, social justice funding accounted for 12 percent of foundation grant dollars, up from 11 percent four years earlier.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation accounted for over half of the growth in social justice grant dollars during this period, as it ramped up funding for economic and community development – primarily to establish a new “Green Revolution” in Africa in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation – and for health care access and affordability. Even without Gates, though, social justice giving still rose faster than overall foundation funding during this period.

Social justice giving fared even better in 2007 – reaching $3 billion, or 13.7 percent of overall grant dollars – and estimates suggest that it held steady in 2008. The outlook for the current year and beyond is less positive, however, not just for social justice grantmaking but for all areas of foundation activity.

“Social justice philanthropy is not immune to the current economic crisis,” said Steven Lawrence, senior director of research at the Foundation Center and editor of the new report. “Yet, while grant dollars will certainly be down, we do not expect that social justice-related grantmaking will be disproportionately affected by the downturn.”

This latest update of the Foundation Center’s benchmark series on social justice grantmaking examines changes in grantmakers’ strategies and practices based on late 2008 interviews with 19 leading funders and eight advocates/practitioners. It also documents trends in giving based on actual grants awarded by over 1,000 of the largest U.S. foundations.

The report can be purchased ($40) at the Gain Knowledge area of the Foundation Center’s web site. “Highlights” of the study can be accessed at no charge.