Power Shift: A Funders Group Works to Up Philanthropy's Social Justice Game

photo: a katz/shutterstock

photo: a katz/shutterstock

As conveners and spaces for learning, funder affinity groups have been an important part of the philanthropic ecosystem for a long time. But in the current national environment, more philanthropy-supporting organizations are exploring how to augment and even transcend their typical roles. That’s especially true in the progressive funding arena, and the Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG) is a prime example of an affinity group that wants to play a more proactive part in the broader movement for social change. “Philanthropic infrastructure groups have forever been useful as spaces for learning and education,” said Dennis Quirin, NFG’s president. “But increasingly, we’ve been doing things like asking folks to make commitments.” 

When NFG got up and running 38 years ago, the philanthropic sector looked very different than it does today. But the group’s genesis in neighborhood organizing remains a key part of its DNA. Back in the 1990s, Quirin told me, community organizing was still a cutting-edge niche in the foundation world. NFG’s long-term aim since then has been to make organizing a “credible, fundable strategy within philanthropy.”

When Quirin came on board in 2012, things had changed to a degree. A former community organizer occupied the Oval Office, and the 2008 recession gave rise to resurgent grassroots activism on both sides of the political divide. Fast-forward to the politically contentious present, and there's a surge in funding to support vulnerable communities and institutions, often at the grassroots level. Overall, Quirin told me, philanthropy is moving in the right direction as people think “more aggressively” about funding at-risk communities and incorporating racial justice into those conversations. “It wasn’t like this 10 years ago. Not even five years ago, frankly.”

Nevertheless, most grantmakers still proceed from an individualistic starting line, crafting missions and funding strategies internally rather than through a collaborative process. “We need to think more collectively about our role as the finance mechanism for social change,” Quirin said. NFG’s job, given what may be at stake, is to step up by moving “new, additional dollars in more coordinated ways to funnel resources to communities.”

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For NFG, one way to get there is to disburse grants directly—a very unconventional move for an affinity group. Through its new Amplify Fund, which we covered in detail early this year, NFG wants to support efforts on the community level that give residents a greater voice in local development decisions. For starters, Amplify will work in California, Puerto Rico, Missouri and North Carolina. While NFG is still sussing out its strategy, the project has already achieved significant buy-in from major players like the Surdna Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations. 

At the heart of projects like the Amplify Fund, Quirin told me, is a belief in democratizing the way our society allocates power. The first step, he said, is to elevate voices from the community and give them greater agency. Concrete changes to policy can flow from there. As we’ve reported, there's a lot of talk in philanthropy right now along these same lines, and not just from familiar progressive players like women's foundations; we're hearing similar language from newer funders like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Ballmer Group, as well as some community foundations. Even the Gates Foundation recently pivoted its K-12 work to place more emphasis on locally grown solutions. 

But this shift toward a more bottom-up model is most advanced among funders that are already deeply involved in supporting community organizing. “Among NFG’s members, those folks can’t do their best grantmaking without being in close contact with voices from the field,” Quirin said. “And increasingly, more infrastructure groups are engaging in that work.” 

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NFG’s current programs organize funders around priorities like labor rights, community-led development, racial justice, and place-based community change. NFG calls Funders for Justice one of its most successful programs, drawing together over 450 funders who’ve committed over $10 million for grassroots racial justice and police accountability. Recently, the program has led the charge on rapid response grantmaking and collective funding avenues for communities at risk. Along with partners including Solidaire, the Marisla Foundation, and the Overbrook Foundation, NFG created JustFund.us, a portal through which grassroots organizers can request funding. 

Then there’s Funders for a Just Economy (previously the Working Group on Labor and Community Partnerships). This is one of the only philanthropic spaces bringing together funders who support the new labor movement and related work. With a small group of member organizations in the lead—think Open Society, Ford, NoVo, Public Welfare—the program seeks ways to “redesign what it means to fund economic justice,” as Quirin put it. 

There are a few bright spots on the philanthropic map for labor organizing, particularly around groups like domestic workers and farm workers. But Quirin didn’t seem too optimistic. “The labor movement been under sustained attack, and the reality is that it’ll take a major hit when upcoming Supreme Court decisions radically reduce the amount of money it has to work with.” Many funders who value economic justice, he said, “don’t seem to grasp what that means in the world.” (I spoke to Quirin before the court ruled on June 27 against public sector unions in a case that's likely to reduce their membership dues.) 

A big problem is the experiential chasm separating well-meaning elites from community leaders on the ground, which is a tough nut to crack. But there is more interest in doing just that. In the quest for power parity between philanthropic gatekeepers and the groups they fund, a chorus of advocates has been calling for remedies like more general operating support, more honest and equitable funder-grantee relationships, and greater transparency and accountability. Even participatory grantmaking, a once fringe idea, has been making inroads at more foundations. 

Quirin, though, emphasized how difficult it can be to truly whittle away at existing hierarchies. For instance, general support isn’t awarded in a vacuum. Grantees keep an eye on what their funders favor, and those preferences can influence the way nonprofits use supposedly unconditional gifts. 

Language itself can put up walls. By emphasizing the relationship between “grantmaker” and “grantee,” Quirin said, we may inadvertently box organizations into a binary power dynamic that isn’t the best or only way to proceed. And the “grantee” moniker cements the notion that it’s OK for philanthropy’s beneficiaries to spend more time fundraising than actually staying on mission. “I wonder: How can funders really double down and make bets on the folks that are already leading on organizing? ‘I-believe-in-you’ money is still super-rare within the progressive space,” Quirin said.

At a national convening it held earlier this month in St. Louis, NFG announced three new initiatives that it hopes will help build a more equitable funding community. In the first, called the Harmony Initiative, NFG is partnering with Justice Funders to help a cohort of funders from around the Midwest develop a community of practice around social justice grantmaking. NFG also launched an Integrated Rural Strategies Group—according to NFG, this is “in response to a growing interest within philanthropy for opportunities to connect, learn and act together to resource justice-oriented grassroots organizing in rural communities.” Although there’s been a definite uptick in funder attention to rural problems since the 2016 election, NFG insists this isn’t about politics—it’s about the fact that rural organizations tend to be “desperately underfunded.” (See IP's recent deep dive into rural philanthropy.)

The third new program is Philanthropy Forward, a leadership cohort program for foundation CEOs. According to Quirin, program officers tend to be the ones who interact with community leaders while foundation executives supervise from on high. In partnership with the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, Philanthropy Forward is meant to be a learning space for foundation CEOs who want to “stay close to quick changes” on the ground. 

NFG also wants to roll out peer coaching circles for foundation staff at all levels, and to find ways to incorporate “community advisors” from affected communities into the grantmaking process, initially through its Amplify Fund. 

At the end of the day, organizations like NFG have the potential to drive a new form of progressive philanthropy that’s more cohesive, intersectional, and dedicated to concrete power-building within disadvantaged communities. The strength of such a movement may depend on the sector’s capacity to move beyond its comfort zones and operate with the urgency this moment demands. The wider network of philanthropy-supporting organizations has a definite role to play in that story. As Quirin put it, “this the marketplace where funders connect and come to do work together. The relational aspect of these spaces is the closest thing you have to accountability in philanthropy.”