Pioneer: How Meg Gage Has Changed Philanthropy—and the World

When it comes to improving the world, you’re batting way above average if you can make just one signature contribution toward that end. Well, in her long career, Meg Gage has made two really notable contributions—helping not only to change philanthropy, but society as a whole.

Gage just stepped down as president of the Proteus Fund, which she founded in 1995. Before that, she had co-founded the Peace Development Fund in 1981 and served as its executive director until 1992.

So what did Meg Gage do that was so special? Well, in her first role, during the 1980s, she was a pioneer in mobilizing philanthropic dollars to advance peace and security work. That effort came at a dangerous moment in the Cold War, with an escalating nuclear arms race and proxy wars unfolding in several parts of the world. Many of us remember big foundations like MacArthur working on security issues during this period. But smaller funders were on the scene first, building up a social movement that called for a nuclear freeze and challenged U.S. policy in Central America. The Peace Development Fund was at the center of these efforts, giving small grants that could go a long way for activists, and providing vital training to grassroots groups around the country. (Here’s a full list of PDF’s grants during Gage’s years there.)

It’s hard to say for sure what U.S. peace activists achieved in the 1980s, but many credit the nuclear freeze movement in particular with pushing the Reagan Administration to back off from its hawkish rhetoric and take a more conciliatory stance on arms control—a shift that later led to the historic U.S.-Soviet deal to reduce nuclear weapons at Reykjavik in 1986.

I’ve written a bit lately about the role in philanthropy in social movements, wondering if funders can help catalyze such movements—or simply play catch up. Well, the peace movement of the early 1980s is a great case study of funders getting in super-early and really playing a key role in igniting activist efforts that ended up on the front page. But again, it wasn’t the big foundations offering the grants at first. It was Meg Gage and other small social change funders that had their ears to the ground.

Gage didn’t just play this role on peace in the 1980s. She played it again and again through her decades in philanthropy. Gara LaMarche credits Gage with “increasing philanthropic attention and support for social justice issues like money in politics, civil liberties and national security, and the death penalty." Especially notable is her role on money in politics. Jason Franklin says that Gage “helped jumpstart the current movement to get money out of politics when she wrote The Funders Handbook on Money in Politics and started the Piper Fund at Proteus.” That was in 1997, well before major foundations came to this issue in a big way. Under Gage’s leadership, Proteus was also an early and critical player in the battle for marriage equality, housing the Civil Marriage Collaborative—a joint funding effort started in 2004.

Meg Gage’s other signature contribution in philanthropy was to help invent the funding intermediaries that now play such a key role in the sector. LaMarche says she led the “development of strategic pooled funds that make it possible for larger foundations to direct money to grassroots efforts and for individual donors to collaborate with like-minded others.”

These days, we take intermediaries for granted, but the rise of such outfits was a big deal, and solved two important problems: First, major foundations often aren’t set up to do the leg work needed to identify and fund lots of small groups at the local level. They may also shy away from the risks or controversy of funding such work. Through the creation of Proteus, Meg Gage helped navigate around that challenge, resulting in more philanthropic dollars flowing to grassroots activism and community-based efforts. (Public Interest Projects, now NEO Philanthropy, was another early player in this space, along with Tides.)

The other problem intermediaries solved was organizing individual donors into a stronger force. Lots of wealthy people are ready to write checks for change, but those funds will go further if they bolster a larger, well-planned grantmaking effort. In turn, individuals are likely to give more if they’re part of a donor community with a shared sense of purpose. Meg Gage excelled at creating that community and purpose. And the money mobilized from individual donors was particularly important when it came to funding the edgier progressive work that mainstream foundations steered away from.

These are pretty impressive greatest hits in Gage’s long career. Along the way, Gage mentored and inspired any number of younger people in social change philanthropy.

Jason Franklin, who serves on the board of Proteus, says: “Meg has been an inspiration to me and a pioneer of social justice philanthropy for as long as I've been alive. She has an incredible legacy of leadership and embodies a pragmatic optimism and cheerful tenacity that I think are some of the hallmarks of an effective change agent.”

Effective change agent. In the end, no better term may describe Meg Gage.