Philanthropy and Organizing: My Journey
Organizing is centered in the power of people and communities. Historically — and still, to a considerable extent, today — it has been fueled by the contributions of grassroots members, in time, energy, and dollars. Until recent years, few foundations were willing to support organizing, with its inherent critique of the systems and structures which gave rise to the huge fortunes that philanthropy is drawn from. That’s beginning to change. But as more foundations invest in organizing — and begin to question some of the systems and structures underlying philanthropy — there remain deep gaps in power and culture. If philanthropy wants to center the power of people and communities, many practices and attitudes must change.
This edition of The Forge, which I’ve helped to curate as guest editor, examines the relationship between philanthropy and organizing — sometimes distant, sometimes fractious, sometimes constructive, but always deserving of scrutiny. It is critical to look into the tensions and contradictions of these relationships and to lift up what’s working well in the hope that others will replicate it. More funders should give more money to organizing, which donors have been far more hesitant to support than other sectors in the social change ecosystem, like policy analysis and litigation. But even as some donors have begun to embrace organizing as a critical means of making change, they have not always done so in the right way — led by the knowledge, energy, and experience of those closest to the ground and with the respect and deference they have earned.
Our contributors include working organizers, former organizers who went into philanthropy, scholars of philanthropy and organizing, and funders experimenting with innovative and more democratic approaches to funding movement work. We asked them to be candid, which is always challenging when it comes to foundations and wealthy donors, because foundations are powerful, and it is hard to speak truth to those who control your funding. Since The Forge is a publication by and for organizers, I hope that organizers reading this will come away with a better understanding of the often opaque and unaccountable world of philanthropy. But I also hope that funders pay careful attention to what organizers have to say here about donors’ practices and requirements that often do more harm than good.
I wanted to guest edit this issue because I have been grappling with these questions about money and power for over twenty-five years, since I went to work for George Soros as the founding director of U.S. philanthropy. My eleven years there were followed by almost five years as the president of The Atlantic Philanthropies and seven years as the president of The Democracy Alliance, a role I am stepping down from this month. When I came to the Open Society Institute, I had little professional experience with organizing, having worked for two of the leading human rights institutions: the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch. A number of our partners on the ground engaged in organizing. In Texas, for instance, the ACLU supported farmworkers fighting for workers’ compensation and Black families protesting police violence; at Human Rights Watch, we worked with LGBT groups in Uganda and Russia and women fighting sexual violence in Pakistan and Brazil. But our own tools centered on litigation and public exposure. My personal experience with organizing was limited to a ragtag effort in college to push for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. I had a lot to learn.
But I approached my work at Open Society with a core belief that whatever we did should be most informed and shaped by those closest to the need. I also brought a skepticism of many academics and consultants, who seemed either clinically removed from the issues or motivated by fees. Keeping my eyes and ears open, I began to build my understanding of the power of organizing.
Each lesson was a bit serendipitous. In the first case, we wanted to work on improving schools for kids in poor communities. The foundation already supported a program of math and science education for Black students in South Africa. I opened my issue of The Nation one day to find an article about the work of Bob Moses, the veteran civil rights organizer and teacher, to build The Algebra Project, based in Mississippi and working across a number of states. Moses brought an organizing approach to the work, involving students and their families in a community effort to center algebra as a gateway to economic success. I showed the article to Open Society’s President, we raised it with Soros and the board, and, after getting to know the initiative better, we committed $9 million over a couple of years.
Bob Moses could be taciturn and almost sphinxlike, and I’m sure he grated under some of the oversight the foundation’s board required of such a large grant. The amount was huge for us at the time and involved some degree of risk, but Moses and his team likely experienced the oversight as a lack of trust in the capacity of a Black-led effort. The lack of imagination among foundations about how to cede power to Black-led movements has been an ongoing issue in philanthropy, one that Megan Ming Francis and Erica Kohl-Arenas draw attention to in their article on “movement capture” and the failure of philanthropy to meaningfully invest in some of the key demands of the Movement for Black Lives.
Unlike virtually every other grantee I’ve worked with, for whom obsequiousness and supplication toward the funder were the norms, Moses rarely even said thank you and was always pushing for more. The same was true of Ernie Cortez, the longtime Industrial Areas Foundation leader, whom we also supported. Moses and Cortez were established enough to treat the foundation less as a benefactor and more as another power center to organize. It was refreshing, and rarely repeated in the years since.
Moses and Cortez were national “brands,” but I remained largely ignorant of more localized grassroots efforts. Then one day, a board member of what was then called the Jewish Fund for Justice (now Bend the Arc) asked if she could come to see me with the Fund’s director, Marlene Provizer, to tell me about their work. I said I’d be happy to learn but that support was unlikely, as it didn’t seem to fit into any of our articulated program areas.
They came to my office one afternoon and walked me through the organization’s approach, which at the time involved wealthy, mostly Jewish donors, motivated by the social justice tradition of their faith, donating to a pooled fund that in turn made grants to mostly Black and brown groups around the country working on poverty, education, and justice system issues. I was dazzled by the array of groups and drawn to their redistributionist approach. When, at the end of our meeting, my friend asked for a million dollars, I said, “Nice try.” But after they left, I shared my enthusiasm with others at Open Society, and we ended up offering the Fund a multi-million, multi-year challenge grant.
All of this happened a quarter-century ago, but it set Open Society on a course that led it to become a key supporter of bottom-up approaches to social change. George Soros, and what was at the time a somewhat conventionally elite board dominated by academics, came to appreciate the impact of organizing, which helped shape the foundation’s approach to such issues as immigration and criminal justice as well as its emergency work in response to the crises of 9/11, Katrina, and COVID.
I left Open Society in 2007 eager to bring a similar approach to Atlantic Philanthropies’s work in seven countries on human rights, youth, aging, and health. Atlantic’s U.S. work was heavily policy focused, but in learning about its global activities, I was pleased to find it supported grassroots actions by older people fighting for pensions in Ireland and AIDS activists in South Africa. I was able to cite those precedents in making a case for support (again, with an elite board heavy with former college presidents) for similar work in the U.S. When activists I’d funded at Open Society came to see me in the early months of my Atlantic tenure to urge our backing for a massive grassroots effort to push the victor of the coming 2008 presidential election to make universal, affordable health care a key priority, we were primed to say yes to Health Care for America Now (HCAN), whose campaign centered on a strong field effort in almost all fifty states. Over a few years, we granted $26.5 million to HCAN and attracted about $20 million more from other foundations and labor.
As veterans of the Affordable Care Act fight know, there were times during the debate over its passage when things looked bleak, and Atlantic questioned whether to keep its support going. We stayed the course, but I didn’t realize until after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law just how nervous our establishment board had been. If HCAN hadn’t been successful, I’m not sure the board would have had the appetite to fund more organizing efforts. Even in success, they were initially skeptical of some of the other large organizing grants we later proposed, like a $20 million, three-state effort to build power on the ground in key battlegrounds. In overcoming that skepticism, we were greatly aided by a series of timely reports from the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy making the case for the “return on investment” in policy change and public funding from grants to organizers in New Mexico (one of the states we proposed to focus on) and several other states.
When I came to the Democracy Alliance in 2013, its portfolio was heavily weighted toward policy groups, most of them white led. In the 2014 “vision” process I launched to change that, a number of organizers I knew well from my previous positions helped me make the case for the centrality of year-round organizing in securing enduring progressive change, resulting in a set of investment recommendations that included the Working Families Party, People’s Action, Faith in Action, Color of Change, and Working America, as well as movement-connected think/action tanks like Demos, the Roosevelt Institute, and the Economic Policy Institute. We strengthened and consolidated the several pooled funds we had started on grassroots BIPOC organizing in key states and launched another on Climate and Equity.
What I’ve learned from all this, as I near the end of a 45-year career, is … a little complicated. To start, I can list a few things that might be said to constitute “best practices” for philanthropy as it relates to organizing:
- Trust in the groups on the ground and give them the support they need, keep bureaucracy and earmarking to an absolute minimum, and spread commitments out over at least several years so recipients can plan ahead with some measure of stability. (The Chorus Foundation, whose founder, Farhad Ebrahimi, writes elsewhere in this issue, recently committed to ten-year grants.)
- Stay the course when you are backing campaigns. Change takes time, and no battle is ever truly won. I’m sorry we couldn’t persuade George Soros to extend the life of the Emma Lazarus Fund, which we launched in 1996 to restore social safety net benefits to immigrants, once that goal had been achieved. In the following years, nativism and xenophobia became more deeply entrenched. When Open Society moved to return to immigrant rights work, the key organizing and policy groups had suffered greatly from the start-and-stop funding.
- Ideally, build foundation boards with members who reflect real and deep experience with power building, like Deepak Bhargava, who serves on several foundation boards, and Cecile Richards and Cecilia Munoz, who discuss their board experiences in a conversation with me in this issue. But understanding that most foundation boards have few or none of those kinds of leaders serving on them, staff advocating for organizing investments have to make the case in terms that board members can relate to, whether it is a “return on investment” calculus or the examples that board members and donors are more familiar with, like Atlantic’s work with pensioner activists in Ireland or George Soros’s sense of connection with the Roma minority in Europe.
I could go on, and in the world we live in, in order to effect even a modest redistribution of the huge wealth in foundations toward bottom-up power building, that’s important. But what about in the world we wish to live in — the road we want to make by walking? In that world, it’s unacceptable that the resources needed to build power are dependent on occasional allies like me or the foundation leaders I spoke to for this issue, like Bill Vandenberg, Urvashi Vaid, and Jee Kim. The grassroots fund at Atlantic came to an end after I left over a dispute with Atlantic’s donor, who preferred that more of his fortune be used for the kind of brick and mortar investments he was more comfortable with. At the DA, it’s proven difficult to get most high-net-worth donors to allocate truly meaningful funds to BIPOC groups, particularly at the grassroots level, at anything like the scale of their giving to white-led groups based in the Beltway.
Whether campaigns for equity and justice have the power they need should not depend on rattling a tin cup before the one percent. It requires a power shift in the way that money flows — whether that be through organizing philanthropy, as Farhad Ebrahimi argues we must do, through more effective collaboration, as Sarita Gupta discusses, through a radically different approach to relating to movement organizations, as Manisha Vaze and Adriana Vocha suggest, or through the more democratized, decentralized approach proposed by Phil Radford. Traditional philanthropy is improving, and there are encouraging examples of dramatic shifts in the scale, speed, and practice of grantmaking seen in the support for COVID response, Black lives, and democracy protection in this past transformational year. But it will always be insufficient, palliative, and fickle without a shift in power that puts those most urgently in need of change in control of their own destinies.