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Philanthropy as solidarity

Colin Greer
20 April 2008


Michael Edwards is right to be critical of entrepreneur philanthropy - both in his openDemocracy essay, "Philanthrocapitalism: after the goldrush" (19 March 2008) and in the book on which it draws, Just Another Emperor: the Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism (Demos/Young Foundation, 2008). This form of philanthropy - "philanthrocapitalism" - is indeed full of misconceptions, overblown expectations, and inexperienced (mis)application of market conventions to social-justice activism. Gara LaMarche, in his response - "Philanthropy for social change" (9 April 2008) - is also right to argue that the critique of philanthrocapitalism should not allow conventional philanthropy by default to be portrayed as "the" effective and pristine social-justice partner.

Colin Greer is president of the New World Foundation in New York. He was a founding editor of Change and Social Policy magazines, a professor for many years in the CUNY system, and has written several award-winning books on education and public policy. His bestselling book A Call to Character (HarperCollins, 1997) is a progressive response to William Bennett's The Book of Virtues (Simon & Schuster , 1996) Also by Colin Greer in openDemocracy:

"How the Democrats can win: an interview" (22 December 2004)

"A new majority for the American left" (8
December 2005)

"The politics of calm" (6 June 2006

Yet these two positions - and others in openDemocracy's ongoing debate - leave untouched the fact that the acquisitive agenda of business success is a dangerous substrate for funding social-justice organisations. The insatiable desire to create and possess wealth - also known as greed - remains the source of much of the world's troubles. At the same time, much of philanthropy has been produced by the very acquisitive drive it is trying to deal with.

That's the challenge - especially in an era where, more and more, public problems are expected to have private solutions. The trends are clear: public services are increasingly privatised; wealth increasingly stays in the hands of those who make it; and social reform increasingly becomes dependent - philosophically and practically - on private wealth.

The how, not just the what

In the context of my work at the New World Foundation (NWF), the question about philanthropy thus starts for me with recognising that philanthropy is a creature of the profit-driven market. This implies a further question: how much of a corrective can it be?

The answer begins by recognising that social-justice philanthropy must seek to develop strategies able to lead to a forceful mandate from the public for governments to pursue a social-justice agenda. That means including support for cross-sector activism to build a powerful opposition force which confronts government and moves it towards an equity agenda. The agenda must be developed through local policy experimentation and the gradual transfer of that to the national and global stage. In this way policy options are tested at a level close to the experience of problems and with the involvement of people who live them.

The demand for change from the bottom up is as necessary to philanthropic purpose as support for top-down policy-building. Foundations must invest in advocacy of two kinds:

* the kind organised on behalf of people living in severe conditions

* the kind organised by people living in severe conditions.

At the heart of any such movement are the people who suffer injustice, who organise to oppose it, and who build organisations that transform victims into empowered agents. When successful, such movements can produce extraordinary leaps of progress, even in the most daunting times. There must - if an ever-expanding constituency for change is to be built - be links between grassroots organising and policy development.

This means that foundations should support both intra- and inter-sectoral dialogue across professions and across race and class boundaries (boundaries that philanthropy has yet to challenge seriously). Meanwhile, at the community level, new policy models and tools must be developed to reform economic and governance systems that might lead to a new social contract. This is a period where there is no clear alternative to global capitalism or super-corporate politics. But that vacuum is being addressed and answers are being invented by both base-building activist organisations and think-tank and advocacy groups.

Also in openDemocracy's debate on philanthrocapitalism:

Michael Edwards, "Philanthrocapitalism: after the goldrush" (19 March 2008)

Gara LaMarche, "Philanthropy for social change" (9 April 2008)

Geoff Mulgan, "The new philanthropy: power, inequality, democracy" (10 April 2008)

Simon Zadek, "Civil society and capitalism: a new landscape" (14 April 2008)

Stewart J Paperin, "Philanthropy's business benefit" (16 April 2008)

Mark Surman, "Philanthropy on the commons" (18 April 2007)

Michael Edwards's essay draws on his book - Just Another Emperor: the Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism (Demos/Young Foundation, March 2008) The New World Foundation focuses its grantmaking on such base-building organisations, which are often desperately short of resources. In a recent survey, we found that among more than fifty base-building activist organisations (some of the strongest in the field by our lights), close to 90% were dependent on limited foundation support, with minimal sources of other tax-exempt money, and many of their executive directors and senior staff lived very close to the poverty line.

For foundations who think of themselves as practising social-justice philanthropy (as is the case with the New World Foundation), attention must be paid to the "how" as well as the "what" - to the evolution of sympathetic organisational practices that press beyond funding social-justice projects to establishing philanthropic institutions that are themselves social-justice organisations working in partnership with others, including grantees in base-building community activism.

Colleagues, not patrons

The NWF over the past twenty years has evolved a series of basic principles that defines our approach to becoming a reliable and trusted partner of social-justice advocates. Those principles include:

* Accountability to social-justice activists, including building grantee participation into the foundation's decision-making. We have taken seriously the proposition that we must aim to be the change we seek and that this is as important a goal for the foundation as for its grantees. To do that, we have chosen to be accountable to those we fund, recognising that such accountability is our choice, since there are few legal requirements for philanthropic accountability.

We have, over time, moved our board from family and friends of an original donor to a board made up mostly of people of colour and individuals who have been, are, or might be grantees of the foundation. This board both gives the foundation legitimacy in the field and ensures that its decision-making includes the experience of work on the ground.

* Sharing risk with grantees. Social-justice activists work in organisations that are, for the most part, desperately underfunded, with a chronically overworked senior staff. The risk of burnout is ever present and every budget year brings the risk of shrinkage. The foundation has tried to share that risk by maintaining a high payout level, usually twice the required legal minimum. We do not operate on the principle that our long-term survival is the most significant consideration in the use of our resources.

* Finding a balance between assessment and partnership through reciprocal responsibility. We aim, not always successfully, for reliable and respectful communication with grantees; this demands of ourselves speedy, clear and supportive standards when asking grantees for information or responding to their requests for information and help from us. The NWF supports organisations for the long haul (thus no "three years and you're out"). We fund only with general support grants, not project grants, and we encourage and support collaborations among grantees, trying to limit competition for resources and maximise solidarity. We commit our staff to supporting the fundraising efforts of grantees from colleagues with whom we have closer relationships, so that we add a powerful resource to the financial development of social-justice organisations.

The criteria for evaluation are jointly devised by our field staff and our partners/grantees. The consequent strength of these relationships is crucial to the assessment of effectiveness and the development of strategy. We do not select on the basis of written proposals, and we do not judge on the basis of written reports. We aim to be colleagues, and we demand from our grantees leadership and democratic participation in respect of both their organisation and our continuing work.

* Stability in the organisational life of grantees who are dependent on foundations. We've learned that social-justice leaders often work close to the edge of poverty, as well as to the edge of exhaustion. While we can't make a great difference to the overall level of compensation in the field, we can create space for spiritual and physical recovery and opportunities for intellectual re-engagement with theory, history and networking by providing sabbatical awards.

The Alston/Bannerman awards, which both provide respite and encourage the development of secondary leadership, are given by a panel, the great majority of whom are former fellows of the programme. This helps build mutual respect, confirms the value of each other's work, and offers opportunities to become part of long-term movement building, as a counterpoint to the day-to-day grind of the work. We encourage and support cross-sectoral partnerships between social-justice community-based organisations (CBOs) and human-service professionals and those working in the political arena. Our goal is to limit competition and maximise cooperation and solidarity among social-justice activists, and to advance social-justice expectations in a wider public.

This does not mean that we are never high-handed, nor always make decisions our grantee allies cheer. But it does mean that we, and a few solid colleague foundations, have begun to establish an order of criteria and practice, which recognises the need for foundations supporting social-justice work themselves to grow into social-justice organisations - just like their grantees.

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