It's been ten years since NCRP released Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best. As I reflect on the animated response to the report, I'm struck by how far the sector has come since 2009 — and, paradoxically, by how little has changed.
Our decision to publish Criteria was, shall we say, controversial. That NCRP had the temerity to assert that any set of criteria be applied to the field of philanthropy, let alone criteria grounded in our belief that grantmakers needed to prioritize marginalized communities and support grassroots-led problem solving to address the systemic inequities and injustices confronting communities in America every day, had more than a few people aghast.
Here's a sampling of the some of the pushback:
"[NCRP's] hierarchy of ends is breathtakingly arrogant." — Paul Brest, former president, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in the Huffington Post, 2009
"We reject the use of a single template to promote effective philanthropy." — Steve Gunderson, former president, Council on Foundations, 2009
"In the NCRP worldview, philanthropic freedom is not only at risk, it's an oxymoron." — Heather Higgins, former VP, Philanthropy Roundtable, in Forbes, 2009
Criteria earned NCRP new fans and more than a few critics. But when I consider the many books published in the last few years that have been critical of the field, I'm pretty sure that if we released the report today, few would bat an eyelash.
It has become commonplace for foundation staff to talk publicly about trusting grantees with long-term general support, investing in marginalized communities, and funding structural change.
Philanthropic sector discourse has come a long way in the last decade
An ecosystem of philanthropic support organizations devoted to spotlighting the unique needs of marginalized people has flourished with the help of foundation funding.
Equity, justice, and even power have become watchwords for an ascendant progressive philanthropy that is happy to speak openly in the digital pages of sector publications and the well-lit stages of the conference circuit about the kinds of values Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best embodies.
The core idea expressed in the publication — that foundations should be held to a higher standard of equity and community impact — has moved from the margins of sectoral discourse to its center.
The bottom line: The money didn't follow
NCRP's analysis of Candid data shows that the share of domestic foundation giving by the country's one thousand largest foundations for the intentional benefit of marginalized people — a category that, statistically speaking, includes most of the country — inched up from 28 percent to 33 percent between 2009 and 2015.
And general support grantmaking has remained flat at around 20 percent of domestic giving.Over the same period, foundation support for structural change strategies, the work that truly transforms systems of deprivation and injustice, declined to less than 10 percent.
Some notable funders stepping up
A handful of innovative, courageous institutions have deeply transformed the way they make grants, and many of those with the least wealth and power in this country are better for it.
The California Endowment, once a skeptic about funding advocacy, is now a field leader as it pursues its mission to expand access to affordable, quality health care for marginalized Californians.
In 2003, 17 percent of the foundation’s grantmaking was for social justice work. In 2015, that number had jumped to 73 percent.
The NoVo Foundation has accelerated institutional change in support of marginalized communities and social justice.
In 2004, 31 percent of the foundation’s grantmaking supported marginalized communities and 14 percent went to social justice causes. By 2015, 100 percent of NoVo's grantmaking supported social justice for women and girls, Indigenous communities, and other marginalized people.
The Bush Foundation stepped up its efforts to make Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota better places to live for all residents, including members of the twenty-three Native nations in the three-state region.
Between 2003 and 2015, the foundation increased the share of its grantmaking that benefits the region's marginalized communities from 39 percent to 83 percent.
The Weingart Foundation has made a public commitment to funding equity efforts in Southern California.
Between 2003 and 2015, the foundation’s support for marginalized communities increased from 41 percent to 76 percent of its grantmaking. And in 2016, the foundation announced "a long-term commitment to base all of our policy and program decisions on achieving the goal to advance fairness, inclusion, and opportunity for all Southern Californians — especially those communities hit hardest by persistent poverty."
While the above examples can be considered clear signs of progress, the data and my own observations of the sector suggest that while the majority of foundations have grown comfortable with the language and concepts embodied in Criteria, not much has changed.
A shift in philanthropic rhetoric is a necessary first step toward a more just and equitable sector. But without accompanying actions, the words ring hollow.
Two lessons for changing philanthropic norms and practices
NCRP's board, staff, and allies firmly believe that now is the time for grantmakers to walk the talk. Our democracy is increasingly threatened by growing economic inequality, political disenfranchisement, and the resurgence of white nationalist rhetoric and violence.
We have had deep, reflective conversations among ourselves about how to get the sector to take action and have identified two takeaways that will inform our strategies in the years ahead:
1. Social movements — people power — are the best hope for changing the way money and power moves in philanthropy. Mass movements, from labor to civil rights to LGBTQ rights, have wrought the deepest transformations in American society — and the philanthropic sector has been similarly shaped, at least in part, by those societal shifts.
Through our nonprofit membership program, we've renewed our focus on building a vibrant community of grassroots nonprofit organizations eager to advocate for foundations to support their rhetoric with their resources.
A few weeks ago, we launched the Movement Investment Project, which articulates new data, new norms, and a new vision for how foundations and donors can and should relate to and support social movements, grounded in the experience, needs, and knowledge of grantee leaders on the frontlines of those movements.
2. Unless the philanthropic sector reckons with its power, grantmaking is unlikely to change for the better. The concentration of resources and certain kinds of expertise at foundations lends them significant power in the broader social sector. That concentration of power will continue to be an impediment to systemic change to grantmaking trends until foundations choose to build power among their grantees, share power with communities, and wield their power, in the form of their social and political capital, to benefit marginalized people.
If you're a foundation leader comfortable with the language of equity and justice, I hope you'll be inspired to take a hard look at your grantmaking through the lens of NCRP's Power Moves toolkit, or resources such as:
- "Journey Towards Intersectional Grant-Making" (Funders for a Just Economy)
- "Awake to Woke to Work: Building a Race Equity Culture" (Equity in the Center)
- "The Case for Funding Black-Led Social Change" (Black Social Change Funders Network)
- The forthcoming "Grantmaking with a Racial Justice Lens" (Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity)
Pop the hood, do a deep dive into the data, and ask yourself whether your current reality matches your rhetoric.
In times of crisis, it can be challenging to think beyond the daily headlines. But consider your legacy: In a decade or two, when you look back on this time, a time when the fate of American democracy — indeed, the fate of many species, including our own — seemed uncertain, what do you hope to be able to say about your work?
Now is not the time for business as usual. The philanthropic community has a significant amount of money and power at its disposal. It is time to start using it to support grassroots social movements.
Aaron Dorfman is president and CEO of NCRP.