Progressive funders, you may be part of the problem

[Image description: A statue of an angel, with shoulder-length wavy hair and wings. The angel has one hand raised up and looks sad. Image obtained from]
I’m still angry due to Charlottesville and our president’s horrifying words that are fueling the rise of neo-Nazis, the KKK, White Supremacists, anti-Semites, and other groups that breed hate and violence. And now the terrorism in Barcelona and Finland. I’ll try to move back to grace and humor, but it may take a while. It is difficult to do so when my organization’s work is to develop leaders of color and to build the power of communities of color to fight injustice, and these past few months it has been seeming like the currents we are pushing against are only getting stronger.

In the midst of feeling weary and hopeless, I read and re-read this on a grant application:

“We are pleased to accept proposals you’ve submitted to other funders. Please share a recent, complete proposal that represents you well and that reflects our interest. The foundation’s grants are unrestricted, general operating resources, though our focus and interest is on leadership and network development. On the backside, we will accept final reports you’ve submitted to other funders.”

The previous week, I had shared these above incredulous words on NAF’s Facebook page. Within 24 hours, it received over 2,000 likes, the only NAF Facebook post to have ever achieved that feat. Colleagues all over the country expressed disbelief—“Don’t give them your credit card information. Or meet them in a remote parking lot”—and unfettered joy—“All my Nonprofit Unicorn dreams come true!”

This was the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, who allowed me to share their name. RSCF has been implementing The Whitman Institute’s Trust-Based Grantmaking Model, which I wrote about earlier. [Disclaimer: My organization currently gets funding from both RSCF and TWI].

The fact that there was so much surprise and delight in a funder’s trusting nonprofits is revealing about the dynamics between funders and nonprofits. In light of Charlottesville, we have to examine these dynamics closer. I was talking to a colleague about the differences between right-wing and progressive funders. For right-wing funders, it seems that as long as you align with their values, they’ll go “That’s great! Here’s a million dollars! Make it happen!”

Unfortunately, those values are often anti-Immigrant/refugees, anti-women’s-rights, anti-LGBTQ, anti-climate, anti-unions, anti-taxes, anti-science, etc.

For progressive funders, however, you can align with values of social justice, equity, environmental protection, etc., and the response is often:

OK, that’s great, but what’s your data? What’s your track record? Have you been around at least three years? Are you scalable? Who else is doing this, and are you getting along with them? Where’s your logic model? Who else is funding this because we don’t want to be the only one? Can you 100% guarantee this is going to work? Where’s your research? Do you have a control group? How does this align with our priorities? How are you accountable? Why don’t you fill out this application, and we’re going to need to see your financials for the past three years to make sure you’re stable. Is there 100% board giving? It’ll take us nine months to make a decision. And if we do approve you, it’ll be for one year, and with lots of restrictions, because we wouldn’t want you to be unsustainable.

Look, it’s understandable that you do due diligence. You can’t just throw money at everyone who asks for it. But the balance is off. Way off. In the effort to be fair and to not make mistakes, many progressive funders have given up speed, agility, responsiveness to current dynamics, and the ability to accept risk and failure. The incredible irony is that liberal funders are more conservative in their funding strategies, and conservative funders are being bolder and less risk-averse.

Don’t just take my word for it. Many leaders in the sector have pointed this out over the years. This article discusses a critical report by Sally Covington, published by NCRP, that shows the differences between conservative and progressive funders:

“First, nearly half the total money [given by conservative funders] was given as general support — as distinct from specific project support — which allowed the grantees both respite from fundraising and the luxury of deciding how to spend the money. Second, grants were focused on building institutions, not programs, with funders remaining faithful to their grantees year after year, sometimes for decades at a time.”

Here’s a quote from another article:

“[R]ight-wing funders are offering support with fewer strings attached, with an eye toward the long-term health of the conservative movement. While progressive funders tend to support specific projects […] conservative funders are more likely to focus on leadership development, capacity building, or to give unrestricted funds. […] This has paid off through a new generation of conservative elected officials, judges, and thought leaders who have been trained by a well-oiled conservative leadership pipeline.”

Here’s an eye-opening analysis:

“[W]hile conservative funders usually treat their grantees like peers, whose work deserves long-term support, respect and trust, too many progressive funders treat their grantees like disobedient children who need to be constantly watched and disciplined.”

Sadly, these reports and criticisms have spanned over decades. The Covington report was written two decades ago. I don’t know how much progress has been made since then. From my experience and from talking to other leaders, not much, and we might be regressing. For example, conservative funders are outpacing progressive ones in terms of funding conservative youth leadership. This report shows:

“Between 2008 and 2014, conservative youth organizations received nearly $500 million more in contributions than progressive youth organizations. The largest conservative youth organization’s total revenue is larger than the combined revenues of the wealthiest four progressive youth organizations. The disparity is growing: in 2008, conservatives held a 2-to-1 financial advantage; by 2014, it had grown to nearly 3-to-1.”

Conservative funders fund faster, with more focus, with more money as general operating funds, with investment in infrastructure and institutions instead of just projects and single-issues, over longer periods of time, and view grantees as partners, not as freeloaders. 

Charlottesville must be a wake-up call. The way many progressive funders are funding may actually be preventing progress. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we nonprofits are like firefighters trying to put out the fires of injustice, and every three or four steps trying to get to the fire, we are stopped and asked “What’s your hose-to-water ratio? I want to make sure most of the money is spent on the water, not the hose.” You might not be pouring gasoline on the fire, but by delaying us from our work of putting it out, you are helping it to grow stronger and to spread.

I’ve already written about what progressive funders must do in this current political landscape. But so have many others. Over and over again. We are getting tired. We are tired of spending 80% of our time fundraising and Frankensteining bits of funding here and there together in a desperate gamble for survival while the forces of evil run down good people. We’re tired of proposing brilliant ideas only for them to get shot down again and again in the abyss of “due diligence” and “accountability” while our community members die. We’re tired of having to justify our work on a daily basis. We’re tired of giving the same feedback year after year, only for incremental change that often comes too little too late. We’re tired of the words of condemnation that sound good while masking the fact that funders and politicians and corporations and many nonprofits will continue to do things business-as-usual. 

Communities of color and other communities most affected by injustice are especially tired. I don’t mean a “we’re tired and fed up and we’re not going to take it anymore rabble rabble” inspiring sort of tired. I mean a sad, resigned tiredness that comes from lack of hope that anything will change, that our efforts are futile, that we are losing the battle, that our voices are raspy from saying the same things again and again, that our hearts can not be put together yet one more time after being broken. This week I saw in many leaders, and in myself, an existential weariness and a sense of despair that I hadn’t seen before. It’s frightening.

The vast majority of program officers and trustees that I know are wonderful, caring people. Foundations have provided the significant portion of the support for my organization’s work. In addition, many program officers and trustees are my friends and mentors, people whom I care deeply about and who have helped to shape my work. And I know many funders, like Robert Sterling Clark and The Whitman Institute, have been changing the dynamics and allowing nonprofits to focus on our work and doing other awesome things. Some funders are increasing their payout rates; as a friend of mine says, “When a house is on fire, do you want to put all your resources into putting out the fire, or use only 5% of your resources so that you can put out future house fires?”

But they still seem the rare exceptions. In light of recent events and the looming waves of hate and violence that threaten to wash over our country and world, we all need to examine our actions. We nonprofits must ask ourselves if we are fighting injustice or causing it, if we are building up people for the movement or driving them out of the sector, if we’re eliminating poverty or perpetuating poverty tourism, if we’re getting donors to feel they’re a part of the community or if we’re reinforcing otherness, if we’re working for our community or only for our organization’s own survival, if we’re just talking about equity or actually doing things.

As we nonprofits ask ourselves these questions, foundation program officers and trustees must do the same. Because good intentions are no longer enough. Good intentions, in fact, may be adding fuel to the fires of hate and terrorism. Every foundation must gather their trustees and staff and ask themselves these and other questions:

  • What are ways we might be unintentionally adding to the problem?
  • Are we allowing leaders to do their work, or forcing them to spend precious time in paperwork and hoop-jumping? How do we free up leaders’ time? 
  • Are we building infrastructure or forcing nonprofits into a state of constant survival?
  • Are we helping build morale of the sector or destroying it?
  • Are our processes forcing nonprofits to compete with one another instead of collaborating?
  • Are we remaining politically and ideologically neutral at the detriment of our society?
  • Are we too narrowly focused on a single issue when all these societal issues are interrelated?
  • Do we take enough risks? Have we failed enough to say that we do?
  • Are we investing enough in progressive leaders?
  • Are we treating our grantees like peers, or like children who must “be constantly watched and disciplined”?
  • Why are we still so hesitant about providing general operating funds?
  • Why are we saving for a rainy day when it looks like there’s a monsoon outside?

Bertrand Russell said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubt.” White supremacists and neo-Nazis and KKK members and anti-Semites and other hate groups are very, very certain, and they have been energized in ways we have not seen in a long time. Things will get worse before they get better; Charlottesville may only be the beginning. Each of us must be honest with ourselves as we examine whether our processes and philosophies are contributing to stopping the fires of injustice or unintentionally helping them to proliferate. And then we must act. 

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