carolinesmithSocial Justice Philanthropy: Are We Playing to Win?

By: Caroline Altman Smith In: 2010 Annual Conference

26 Apr 2010

Sunday’s mini-plenary session “Social Justice—From Here to 2030” of the first-ever Council on Foundations annual conference Social Justice track was a breath of fresh air for many folks who have long wanted to make social justice a more explicit part of our collegial conversation.

The moderator was Gara LaMarche, fresh off his closing plenary address at the Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy National Conference. (Gara, my latest Facebook friend, should be made an honorary millennial for his zeal for technology and obvious fluency with social networking tools.)

My initial big draw to this session was green movement rockstar and Green for All founder Van Jones (don’t try to deny it, it was for you, too!). Turns out, Van was only one of nine bright lights on stage, part of an incredible lineup of passionate and brilliant activists, advocates, and philanthropy folks. Any one of them would have made a terrific plenary speaker, and hats off to Council on Foundations and session designers for convening such an inspiring group. All had varying views of what social justice meant to them.

Van, who is “hanging out at Princeton” after an all-too-brief stint in the Obama administration, believes it is enshrined in the Pledge of Allegiance: “liberty and justice for all.” Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change believes the three pillars of social justice philanthropy are:

  1. A moral focus on people who are most marginalized in society
  2. A commitment to organizing and empowerment
  3. A commitment to structural change

This session was packed with thought-provoking conversation, but I’ll hit a few highlights that stood out for me:

  • Connie Rice of the Advancement Project said we need to give marginalized communities the power, capacity, and lawyers needed to make change. She challenged us to think of how we can connect the provision of direct service with the bigger picture of the need for comprehensive social change. This idea of helping philanthropy move from being transactional to transformational sparked much debate about the value of funding direct service versus policy and advocacy change.
  • Kumi Naidoo, the South African head of Greenpeace, said philanthropic dollars disproportionally go to micro-level service delivery instead of macro issues of fundamental transformation.
  • Akwasi Aidoo of TrustAfrica offered an interesting counterpoint that you can’t neglect context; direct service can be a critical part of the social justice continuum. The example he offered was of enabling Nigerian girls to go to school, which sets them on an entirely different life path. Helping may start as service delivery but doing so can be transformative, depending on the strategy used.

The panel offered advice to funders wanting to support social justice:

  • Take your allies where you can find them, no matter how unlikely.
  • Figure out what type of world, 10 or 20 years from now, that you want to live in—and think about what it will take to get there. What does it mean to play to win?
  • Invest in the vision of strong leaders and organizations and stick with them over the long haul; only “foolanthropy” would think we can make meaningful change in the short term.
  • Fund more strategic media outreach and training for progressive organizations.
  • Read the ubiquitous “Change Philanthropy” book.

There was also a heated discussion of the use of metrics in the social justice field. Is it appropriate or fruitful to use metrics to measure social progress? Kumi said that social justice is a process, not the delivery of a set of products. Akwasi shared that in his native Ashanti, the word for measurement is both a quantitative and qualitative concept, and that we should look beyond the numbers to determine what the new narrative or story or reality is. Eboo Patel of the Interfaith Youth Core urged us all to focus on the bigger picture of determining what success looks like. What are the strategies to get to it, how long will it take to reasonably get there, and what will it cost?

Keep looking for the blue “SJ” symbol for more great sessions in this vein throughout the annual conference!

Caroline Altman Smith is the program officer at The Kresge Foundation and board chair of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy.

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