Behind the Creation of the New Social Justice Fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation

In July 2018, the Pittsburgh Foundation awarded its first round of grants through its newly created Social Justice Fund. The fund was co-designed in partnership with nine social justice leaders to support those working on social justice issues in the Pittsburgh region. Michelle McMurray, senior program officer at the Pittsburgh Foundation, led the creation and implementation of this project. Justin Laing of Hillombo, LLC, was retained by the foundation to develop and facilitate the design process. In this article, Michelle and Justin reflect on the creation of the Social Justice Fund and offer their insights into what it means to work in partnership with Black/POC communities.

JUSTIN: What led to the beginning of the Social Justice Fund at the Pittsburgh Foundation?

MICHELLE: In 2017, my colleagues and I in the foundation’s Program Department were trying to better understand how we could increase support for people working to advance social justice in our region. Community-led activism and organizing brought national attention to issues like police brutality, mass incarceration, gun violence, and immigrant rights. That made us want to better understand what was happening locally. Anecdotally, we knew that grassroots movements, particularly those led by people of color, were not significantly represented in our grantmaking portfolio, and we wanted to change that. And as you know, we wanted to understand how to most effectively work alongside these individuals, collectives and organizations, so we brought you into the project to help us design and facilitate a half-day learning session with 10 local advocates and activists, board members and community partners. We heard their poignant critiques of philanthropy and, ultimately, realized we would have to employ a different model of engagement and grantmaking if we were to be viewed as credible partners in their efforts.

MICHELLE: Reflecting back, what kind of concerns did you have about advancing this work when I told you the Pittsburgh Foundation wanted to design a Social Justice Fund?

JUSTIN: I was getting Hillombo going, and I was really excited to work with you and the other African- and Indigenous-descended women who came into the project to help design the fund. Also, I was discussing a design with you that was building from the work I had done with the Heinz Endowments, and so I had confidence about how this work could go. But I think where I was feeling anxiety was around our designing a process that critically thinking activists would feel was worthy of their time and the term "social justice." 

My memory of the beginning of our time together was that you were willing to break some conventions around black program officers partnering with black and Latinx activists who publicly named issues like white supremacy and police violence and were involved in a lot of direct action. I think that took some professional guts.

JUSTIN: Can you talk a little about why you did this and any strategies you had to stay in partnership with the activists?

MICHELLE: As you know, aside from a small number of independent and family foundations like Ford, NoVo and Hill-Snowdon, there has not been broad philanthropic support for social justice philanthropy and black-led organizations. The creation of this fund was a new undertaking for the Pittsburgh Foundation, as was designing it in partnership with local activists. That lack of history in this funding space did give me some reservations about accepting leadership responsibility for this work. I had concerns about being viewed as advancing my own agenda, and as a result, being marginalized. However, as part of the foundation’s 100 Percent Pittsburgh organizing principle, we adopted two values that supported this type of project.

The first value we call “voice,” which translates as “people who are closest to the issues we seek to address should be at the center of creating solutions.” The other is racial equity. When you put those two values together, it just makes sense that we engage black and Latinx grassroots advocates and activists who reflect the experiences of those who are disproportionately impacted by injustice.

In terms of staying in partnership, it really came down to honest and transparent communication. In the beginning, it was about discussing the historical and current inequities in philanthropy that negatively impact black and brown communities and understanding how they might impact our work together. It was important not to interpret critiques as personal attacks, but rather to see them as valid observations that could inform decision making. I also agreed to manage expectations and to broker compromises between the foundation’s institutional priorities and limitations, and the activists’ desire for a fund design that radically deviated from traditional philanthropic practice. I had to be honest about what I was willing to advocate for, and the limits of the committee’s decision-making authority. This kind of transparency allowed the activists to make informed decisions about their association with the foundation. We also paid the activists as professional consultants, which you and I discussed at the outset as essential to make it clear that we understood the value of their contributions to the design process.

MICHELLE: As a consultant, what do you see as your role as a consultant in helping black staff navigate or manage these risks once they decide to take on this work?

JUSTIN: I think I am trying to balance a few things that are in tension, and may even be in opposition to one another. I try to support the program officer’s effort to create outcomes that allow the foundation to contribute to the community and also advances their careers. I think this is a bit of protection or risk reduction. I also want to work with them to build a learning community or “experiment” with ALAIME (African, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous and Middle Eastern) grantees, because I think one way to reduce risk is to reduce isolation. I also try to be aware of the level of disruption the work could be creating. Borrowing from the Adaptive Leadership model, I try to pay attention to this because when it is too high, the institution will come down with “correctives” that could end the project or cause a program officer significant problems. Of course, I’m working with them to achieve the benchmarks we laid out, which were created with the support of the organization’s leadership, so hopefully, that’s a bit of risk reduction too, but not always as much as we’d want to think.

JUSTIN: You worked with some amazing black and Latinx women on this project. Was there a special moment you can share—a point at which some new insight occurred to you? 

MICHELLE: At the end of one of our last meetings, I talked with one of the young activists who I sensed from a few Facebook posts was dealing with the emotional aftermath of leading an action a few days earlier in honor of a young black woman who was murdered. I hugged her as she cried, and, moved by the tragedy, I cried with her. We were soon joined by several other activists who wrapped their arms around us and spoke words of affirmation and love over the young woman.

A professional standard for our field seems to be that we’re not supposed to get too close to the people we serve. In my experience, this message is internalized differently by black staff who may perceive that identifying too strongly with the communities we come from will cause us to be viewed as less credible. But what became clear to me during the design process is that keeping communities at arms length often serves to maintain a system’s control and power, and limits a deeper, more meaningful engagement.

The legacy and present-day examples of structural and institutional racism have led to distrust of systems, including philanthropy. Therefore, foundations must accept that our work includes proving that we are trustworthy. In this case, it meant demonstrating that the creation of this fund was about more than just advancing an institutional agenda or following the latest foundation trends. To do so, it was necessary to deviate from traditional notions of professionalism. I had to agree that our interactions would not only include the business of designing the fund, but also getting to know me personally, outside of my formal role as a program officer. After all, for these activists and advocates, the line between personal and professional often doesn’t exist. Their work is fighting for their lives and the lives of those they love. How could they share that with me if I wasn’t willing to be my most authentic self?

MICHELLE: In your work, you advocate for and try to foster power sharing among foundations, community members and nonprofits. In your experience, what are some of the anxieties that foundation staff have about sharing power and, as a consultant, how do you help them overcome their concerns?

JUSTIN: I remember observing moments like the one you describe, but I didn't know the specifics. I think that story shows a sensibility and capacity that a black woman, and few others, could bring to that situation. At least that would be hard for me as a cis-straight black man. As to my advocacy for power sharing, I feel like it’s important to say that not all projects are so challenging to philanthropic culture that they create a high level of anxiety in the program officer, nor is challenging the culture to that degree always an appropriate goal. However, one concern that I’ve encountered is that staff worry about being perceived as too clearly on the side of black and brown grantees. Of course, the other side of that concern is that white grantees will feel that their funding is threatened by a foundation’s focus on racial equity. In these cases, I don’t try to help the program officer get over these concerns, but rather to use them as data to make adjustments to the strategy, or even to make adjustments to the goal, because I would feel terrible if I encouraged someone to ignore a signal or feeling and it ended up having a real negative consequence for them at work.

JUSTIN: Before we close, could you explain what’s next now that the first round of grants have been made?

MICHELLE:  I’m excited about the eight organizations and collectives that received grants through the fund’s operating support program. By design, financial support is only one part of our strategy. One of the strongest messages we heard from activists and advocates is how little time and resources they have to invest in themselves and their organizations. They wanted to ensure that the Social Justice Fund offered additional supports beyond the grant dollars to facilitate more focus on their personal healing and growth, as well as building their organizational infrastructure. Over the next few months, we will be working with the Social Justice Fund’s advisory committee to organize, with input from grantees, a series of networking, peer-learning, and skill-building opportunities that will strengthen their social justice practice and capacity to advance their work. I’m really looking forward to learning from this amazing group of leaders. We’ve learned so much already, and I can’t wait to see what we’ll know this time next year about how philanthropy can be more responsive to the needs of those advancing social justice in our communities.

JUSTIN: This has been great, Michelle, thank you for inviting me to work with you on this project and for having this conversation.