Social Justice Grantmaking Seeing a Resurgence, Report Finds

After a number of years of declining faith in the efficacy of social justice philanthropy, grantmakers and practitioners are showing renewed interest in the field, a new report from the Foundation Center finds.

A follow up to a 2005 report, Social Justice Grantmaking II (highlights, 12 pages, PDF) found that between 2002 and 2006 social justice-related giving rose by nearly 31 percent, to $2.3 billion, surpassing the 20 percent increase in overall foundation giving during that period. In 2006, social justice giving accounted for 12 percent of foundation grant dollars, up from 11 percent four years earlier. It fared even better in 2007 — reaching $3 billion, or 13.7 percent of overall grant dollars — while estimates suggest that it held steady in 2008.

According to social justice grantmakers and practitioners interviewed for the report, the field has been reinvigorated by a changed political environment, the success of community organizing in the recent election, and an influx of new ideas and energy. "In 2005, many of us wondered about the prospects for social justice philanthropy because the field itself was so pessimistic about its future," said Bradford Smith, president of the Foundation Center. "Today social justice is experiencing a resurgence, fueled by philanthropists whose passion won't let them stand by when there is injustice and whose pragmatism demands results."

To help advance the field, the practitioners interviewed recommended moving away from funding large, often unwieldy coalitions and instead supporting smaller collaboratives that can more effectively address issues of race, class, background, region, and generation.

The outlook for 2009 and beyond, however, is less positive, both for social justice grantmaking and foundation giving overall. "Social justice philanthropy is not immune to the current economic crisis," said senior director of research Steven Lawrence, who edited the report. "Yet, while grant dollars will certainly be down, we do not expect that social justice-related grantmaking will be disproportionately affected by the downturn."