Inside NEO Philanthropy: An Unusual Funding Group Works to Unify the Social Justice World

Let’s say you want to give away money to make America a fairer, more just place. But you don’t have a lot of time, and the last thing you want is to set up your own foundation. What do you do?

Or say you already have a foundation, or you work for one, and you’re looking to tackle a new social justice issue without adding more internal capacity. Who do you turn to?

Or what about this scenario: You’re a small grantmaker who wants to pool your money with other funders so you can have a bigger impact on a cause you care about. Who can help?

For a growing number of funders, the answer to all these questions is an outfit called NEO Philanthropy. This unusual organization, which for years was known as Public Interest Projects, or PIP, does a bunch of things that you don’t often find in one place: It runs projects for major foundations; it brings together funders of all sizes to collaborate on causes; it hosts donor-advised funds; and it offers fiscal sponsorship and membership services. Last year, it moved nearly $30 million, working with 277 grantees.

That’s a lot of money—and a lot of moving parts. And because NEO is bustling these days, yet tends to fly beneath the radar, it seemed like a good idea to try to figure this place out. So recently, I sat down to talk with NEO’s co-presidents Berta Colón and Michele Lord, as well as vice president Melinda Fine, in their offices in Manhattan.

Now, just for starters, you can tell a lot about NEO by looking at the backgrounds of these three women, all of whom have spent many years in the social justice world. Colón worked on women’s and childcare issues before joining the Ms. Foundation in 1997 and later moving to PIP in 2002. Lord came to the funding world in 1993, after years in government, and oversaw PIP’s dramatic growth during the first decade of the 2000s, before transitioning to a co-leadership role with Colón. Lord is a long-time leader on democracy and immigration issues who formerly chaired the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation. Melinda Fine started out in the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s before getting a doctorate in education, an area where she led NEO’s work in recent years, prior to assuming a broader role at the organization.

Together, NEO’s high command has a lot of experience in social justice work, across many issues, and that shared background explains an overriding mission of NEO: To push equity advocates to work more collaboratively and effectively.

Funding for Movement

If you’ve spent any time in the progressive funding world, you know the problem: This is a fragmented area with too many siloed issues and organizations that has less overall influence than it should. The various divides are well known: Between national and local groups, between policy wonks and activists, and between constituencies that should be linked up but often aren’t. Progressivism, goes the familiar complaint, can feel more like a laundry list of causes than any kind of cohesive movement with a shared vision. What’s more, it’s often been easy for the right to deploy wedge issues to divide different groups that should be united in common cause.

Funders have exacerbated the problem by working in isolation and doling out project support by issue—as opposed to backing efforts that cut across issues and bankrolling long-term movement building. Conservative funders, it must be noted, haven’t made this same mistake. They’ve long grasped the importance of infrastructure and movement building, giving tons of general support to multi-issue policy groups and leadership institutes.

In its earlier years, Public Interest Projects mirrored some of the problems of social justice funding, as the name might imply. Berta Colón says that directors within the organization—along with the funders who backed their projects—weren’t coming together to make key linkages. But around seven years ago, says Colón, “we started talking about alliance building and the need to connect organizations that were working with different constituencies to get them to think about how they were being pitted against each other.” The leaders of PIP began trying to bring together funders that weren’t collaborating even though they often supported the exact same issues and groups. And, as well, they began working internally at PIP to “figure out mechanisms for how our folks can be talking together.”

These efforts led eventually to a strategic planning effort at PIP aimed at bringing more cohesion to the group’s work. The organization rebranded itself as NEO, and now describes itself as looking to “strengthen intersections of social justice issues, aligning the diverse interests of donors and advocates while nurturing collective action across areas that are too often pursued in isolation.”

That’s a mouthful, for sure. A simplified version might go like this: We’re in the business of backing movements, not projects.

Building Alliances

In some recent years, NEO has worked with over 100 funders. Those relationships, along with its ties to a vast array of social justice groups, places NEO at a unique crossroads in the nonprofit sector. It gives the group an unusual ability to try to get funders and grantees on the same page—and advance its vision of a more cohesive push for social justice. You can’t break down silos without getting both sides to buy in. Yes, advocates need to improve at working across issues and sectors, but it’s hard to do that unless funders get behind such efforts.

Alliance building is central to NEO’s model. It looks to “build the capacity of multi-issue and multi-constituency alliances, and leverage aligned work across fields.” As importantly, it aims to foster collaborative efforts that go on for years—since few problems are solved quickly—and it tries to ensure that alliances can endure over an extended period. Real collaboration doesn’t just happen; it requires constant pick-and-shovel work to organize conference calls, put together convenings, write joint funding proposals, and so on. That all takes staff time and resources, and if somebody’s not footing the bill, it often doesn’t happen.

But the dividends of sticking together are real, and NEO’s work on immigrants, through its Four Freedoms Fund, is an example of this. Immigration has, at times, been a highly divisive issue on the left. In particular, immigrants and African-Americans are two constituencies that have historically been pitted against each other. These days, though, it’s fair to say that no push for social justice is likely to get very far if America’s various marginalized communities, native and non-native, can’t work well together for common goals. NEO has sought to help make that happen.

So for example, Colón describes how NEO linked up LGBTQ funders worried about how immigration issues were affecting their community with the traditional immigrant rights funders, creating new collaboration among two parts of the social justice world that previously hadn’t talked much.

Another of NEO’s funding collaborations, the State Infrastructure Fund, aims to boost civic participation and voting rates. This area is a prime example of why it’s crucial for the social justice world to be more than the sum of its parts. Every group has a keen interest in leveling the playing field of civic life, limiting the influence of wealthy elites and corporate interests. And yet this fight has often been left to a handful of a single-issue “democracy” groups that worked in relative isolation.

NEO has sought to broaden the battle, bringing more constituencies together to push for democracy reform and amplify the voice of the so-called “rising American electorate” of people of color, women, and low-income communities.

“We Function as a Bridge”

These two efforts are among a number of funder collaboratives that NEO has run in recent years, and managing such pooled funds is a big focal point of the group’s work. Michele Lord says that this model was developed in response to how traditional programmatic grantmaking gives short shrift to long-term capacity building. The aim is to provide more “comprehensive support” to groups working in a given area—which, of course, all nonprofits have long been asking for. “Yes, there are program grants” from NEO’s collaborative funds, says Lord, “but also support for building capacity.” That capacity support is not limited to individual organizations, it also goes to “movements of groups, helping them to work together.”

In effect, NEO is the kind of full-service funder that nonprofit leaders dream about: It supports projects, but also the unsexy stuff that many funders shy away from, like communications and fundraising. Lord says that NEO encourages nonprofits to view it as an ally, not as a traditional funder, and to speak honestly about their needs—especially when it comes to organizational capacity. NEO tells the groups it works with: “If you don’t have the capacity to do something, tell us.”

To reiterate, NEO is an intermediary that doesn’t have its own assets for grantmaking. Money comes in the door from funders and goes out the door to social justice groups. As a go-between, NEO is able to talk to both grantmakers and grantees with unusual candor. That’s a big deal in in a nonprofit world where a huge power differential separates funders and non-funders, leading each side to watch what they say. Nonprofits tend to tell funders what they think they want to hear and may fear talking about their real challenges. Funders, in turn, often worry that off-hand ideas or suggestions will be taken as a directive by groups desperate to curry favor. Both sides can feel like they’re part of fraught and transactional relationships, often tied to grant cycles, as opposed to part of deep and lasting partnerships that are about advancing a shared mission.

“We function as a bridge,” says Melinda Fine, in describing NEO’s unusual ability to cross the divide between funders and grantees. “We’re able to have the candid conversations that are really critical.” Those conversations may be about long-term strategy and capacity, looking honestly at what’s really needed to move an issue—including who should or shouldn’t be at the table. Or they may be about nettlesome issues in the here and now. As any veteran of the social justice world knows, the competition for resources and credit, along with different theories of change, can lead to plenty of conflict that draws in nonprofits and funders alike. NEO is well-positioned to sort out these sticky situations.

“We have a richer model,” says Lord, by which she means that NEO is more enmeshed in its projects than many funders, enabling it to be helpful in different ways.

More Than the Sum Of Its Parts

The new energy at NEO is notable at a time when social justice funding has been in decline. What accounts for that trend when philanthropy is otherwise on an upswing? Fine suggests that the growing focus on metrics and evaluation may be one factor, since movement building and social change are harder things to measure. Amid a shift toward more technocratic grantmaking, when everyone is anxious to show impact, the basic quest by marginalized people to have a bigger say over the decisions that affect their lives has received less attention.

To be clear, the crew of NEO does feel that there are clear metrics to show the value of social justice work, but they’re often not ones that foundations are used to relying on in the context of short-term grant cycles. Advancing social justice, say Colón, is often about “building relationships over years” through the kinds of activities that don’t translate well into grant proposals or evaluation reports. “It’s messy,” she says.

Whatever the case, a decline in giving for social justice makes it all the more important to help coordinate those funders who do care about this area—and to make sure their money is well used. One particular challenge for funders is identifying and working with grassroots groups on the frontlines of emerging struggles. Staff at big national foundations face that challenge, sitting in their coiffed offices in Manhattan or San Francisco, but so do smaller funders, with little capacity.

Where NEO can help out is doing the legwork to connect with small local players. A great example of this is its education collaborative, Communities for Public Education Reform (CPER), which has recently wrapped up its work, and which IP wrote about not long ago.

Organizing on Education

The ed wars of recent years have largely been dominated by big, center-right funders like the Walton, Gates, and Broad foundations. In fact, though, many smaller foundations have a different view of how to improve education, and a vast array of local advocates have pushed back against the drive for more charter schools and test-based standards of accountability.

What NEO did, over eight years, was to organize disparate efforts through a national donor collaborative that ultimately gave $34 million in grants to 140 groups. This collaborative wasn’t just a clearinghouse for cutting checks; it was, says NEO, a movement-building effort that sought to empower the parents and community residents most affected by education reform. It drew in some name brand funders, but also a great many smaller, more obscure funders who were able to hook into a sophisticated grantmaking operation.

Beyond providing money, CPER sought to build the infrastructure of an “educational justice movement” in a variety of ways, including connecting up different players, helping them work together through convening and facilitating, and ensuring that best practices were shared. Overall, Fine said that its ed work helped to “build field infrastructure and to support groups in developing a shared identity and vision.”

A final report on CPER’s impact said that the collaborative helped bring about some 90 policy reforms on a wide range of educational issues. CPER's work helped fuel another collaboration that NEO launched in the ed space, the Just and Fair Schools Fund (JFSF), which has aimed to modify draconian “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that critics say create a “school-to-prison pipeline.” Atlantic Philanthropies has been the largest funder of JFSF, pumping millions through NEO for this effort. 

Why does a behemoth like Atlantic turn to a shop like NEO to do its work? Well, apart from everything else, intermediaries like NEO have nimbleness that big foundations don’t, and that’s super-helpful in policy fights that can move quickly. If this or that local group needs some extra cash to seize an opening, a place like NEO can provide help in the same time that it might take a group to get on a program officer’s calendar for a meeting. “We can move on a dime,” says Lord, about NEO’s operating model, which sets aside discretionary money to be responsive. Lord cites the way that NEO was able to swing quickly behind the nascent movement of immigrant “DREAMers” a few years ago. NEO provided these activists with some of the first grants they got, and also helped out with capacity building challenges as they built new organizations.

The upside for foundations of putting funds with NEO is that they can outsource some of the work involved in moving an issue. In this sense, NEO is like an investment broker for foundations, offering returns on their money without the hassles of picking stocks and tracking the market’s ups and downs. That said, NEO’s leaders emphasize that most of its funders are closely involved in its work, and they don’t think of NEO as in the outsourcing business.

What’s Next for NEO?

Lately, NEO has been developing new work on gender-based violence. It’s become closely involved in efforts to address human trafficking, sexual assault on college campuses, and domestic violence. Among other things, NEO has become the fiscal sponsor of the No More campaign, a public awareness effort aimed at ending domestic violence and sexual assault, and intends in the future to develop No More’s capacity for grantmaking, allowing it to support the wide range of groups working on these issues at different levels.

This effort plays to NEO’s strength in identifying and working with grantees, including scrappy local players, but has also connected it with what Fine calls “new constellations” of players outside its usual orbit, including corporate funders and some well-known public figures. As well, through its work with the creators of The Hunting Ground, a film on sexual assault on campuses, NEO has lately gotten involved in directly raising money from the public. Contributions raised by the film are being deposited in the Hunting Ground Fund, which is hosted by NEO, and will eventually be granted out to groups in the field. 

Whatever the future holds for NEO, one thing seems clear: Intermediary groups are likely to play an ever larger role in philanthropy. Many of the new donors emerging today are still involved in their business careers and don’t have the time, or desire, to build their own grantmaking operations. The big foundations, in turn, are often maxed out in terms of how much internal capacity they can reasonably put in place. At the same time, though, every funder is looking to be more strategic and have more impact. Many funders also want to reach grantees who are off the beaten path, working on the frontlines.

Put those trends together and you get more money flowing to places like NEO, community foundations, and other kinds of intermediaries, like the Democracy Alliance. As well, of course, the Proteus Fund is a long-time player of this kind on the progressive side, and like NEO, runs different funding collaboratives and offers other philanthropic services as well. 

It’s significant that NEO is giving more attention these days to hosting donor-advised funds, and looking ahead, it seems likely that mission-driven groups will command a bigger share of the DAF market. To be sure, places like Tides and Donors Trust have long offered ideologically friendly places to set up DAFs, but the model seems to be spreading lately, in step with the broader expansion of DAFs.

Social justice funding may be in decline. But my bet is that NEO will remain on an upward trajectory.