Hi everyone, I’ll be taking a break next month, so this will be the last post until August 1st. It’s probably good for me to take a break, because considering the rage I’m feeling, I might say things I’ll regret later. I know many of you are devasted by the overturning of Roe v Wade, and fearful of what is sure to come next: The reversal of marriage equality, the ending of rights to contraception, the further erosion of speech and other freedoms, among other horrible things.
(By the way, if you are a supporter of forced pregnancy who is celebrating this decision by five fascist Supreme Court Justices, get the hell off my blog and out of my life; you are not pro-life, you are pro-death, because this decision will kill millions of people, especially those of marginalized identities. I am not here to debate with you about basic human rights; take your 1850’s-era morality elsewhere).
Justice has been dealt a significant blow. Many of us are distraught, wondering how we can continue when an unceasing barrage of death and violence continues raining down on our communities day after day. However, many of us are more pissed off than anything. We’re going to keep fighting. The Supreme Court has made horrendous decisions before, such as in the case of Dredd Scott, where the Court ruled 7-2 that no Black person could ever be a US citizen. People didn’t just give up after that. They continued organizing and fighting. That’s what we will do.
However, we need the resources, support, and trust to do our work. And those things have always been in short supply for progressive organizations and movements. We have been running on fumes, on shoestring budgets, on hope and prayer and duct tape, because so many funders continue to be completely oblivious to how destructive their practices are. There are some great funders, but they are rare. The majority just constantly make our work harder, and we need to have a serious discussion.
I know there are a lot of factors that went into how we got here, and it is not fair to single out any group. At the same time, I need the funders who claim to be fighting for justice and equity to understand the role they played that led to this, and what they need to do moving forward.
A decade ago, I remember nonprofits sounding the alarm about voter engagement. Many communities of color were not getting the support they needed to vote, and so the voting rates among them were abysmal. The response from many funders were along the lines of “Sorry, that’s great and all, but that’s not one of our priorities this year. We’re trying to be strategic.”
Fast forward to a conversation I had with a program officer at the request of a community leader who was upset that the grant contract forbid advocacy and lobbying efforts. The power dynamics were such that this leader could not talk to the funder directly, so she asked me to step in. “It’s not that we don’t like advocacy and lobbying,” said the program officer, “it’s just that we don’t want any of our money to be spent on it.”
In a conversation I had with a program officer of another foundation, I had said we needed funders to support electing more progressive leaders of color, especially women of color, into political leadership, as that is one critical lever of power that would affect every issue we care about. “That’s too political,” he said, “And how do we even know that would work? Do you have any data supporting your theory?”
In another conversation, I tried to convince a program officer that foundations needed to spend out more money each year, instead of their 5% legal minimum. “We have to save for future societal issues,” he insisted. We got into a friendly but heated argument. This was an environmental funder. I left tired and demoralized, because if an environmental funder did not understand the importance of using every possible dollar right now to save the planet before climate change is irreversible, what hope did we have to convince other people with wealth and power?
This has been the pattern: funders indicate you want to partner with nonprofits to advance equity, yet you continue to shoot down efforts that would advance equity. And not just terrible funders, but genuinely nice and well-meaning one. You keep doing the same horrible, ineffective, or destructive stuff and rationalizing it:
We ask for you to fund voting rights and engagement; you say it’s too political.
We ask for support for community organizers and mobilizers so they could keep going; you say it’s not in your theory of change.
We ask for you to give multi-year funding so we could plan; you say there’s only so much money to go around (while most of you hoard 90 to 95% of your endowments).
We ask for you to cut down on the burdensome grant proposals and reports, accept the documents we already wrote, and let us to do our jobs; you continue to micromanage.
Over decades, across pervasive situations like the above, you’ve worn the sector down to a ragtag band of passionate fighters who never have what they need to fully fight against injustice. While right-wing forces had everything at their disposal to do their work, we have been left wasting time trying to prove ourselves by jumping through the various ridiculous hoops that many of you, even the nice funders, insisted we jump through, to get tiny, restricted one-year grants that we had to use on issues you determined were important. Activists on the front lines have been screaming into the wind before burning out and leaving the sector.
So this horrific SCOTUS decision, and the many more awful ones to come, “progressive” funders you need to own the fact that YOU contributed to it. Wake up and look around at the horrors all around you, at our crumbling democracy, at the reversal of hundreds of years of civil rights, at the US and rest of the world’s rapid slide into fascism and religious minority rule, at the continual massacres of children and grocery shoppers through gun violence, at the climate-related deaths and displacement. Then acknowledge how your philosophies and actions have contributed to worsening our sector’s ability to do its work to counter these injustices. Wake up, admit the role you’ve played in worsening inequity, then change.
There is already a roadmap for effective philanthropy, and it is brilliantly simple: Fund the way that right-wing funders have been funding. I wrote about it here in “10 things progressive funders must learn from conservative ones or we are screwed.” The right wields philanthropy like a weapon to advance their agenda. The left often uses philanthropy as a hobby for rich mostly white donors/trustees and satisfy their various whims and particular areas of interests, or as a mean for wealthy families to get some family bonding time or group therapy.
The way right-wing foundations fund has been devastating effective. We need progressive funders to do the same. We lost this battle, but the war against injustice is far from over. If funders who claim to be aligned with equity and justice want to be helpful, here, again, are some things we need you to do:
Fund abortion orgs: Every single foundation must carve out funding for abortion organizations. This includes funding to provide support for people getting abortions in states where it is still legal, helping nonprofits survive and fight in states where it is now illegal, bolstering advocacy around abortion rights, etc.
Fund organizing and mobilizing: One of the most effective things we can do is political organizing: inundating elected officials with messages, protesting in front of their offices, sit-ins, etc. These activities take resources to pull off. Many activists have been doing them on shoestring budgets. Help out by setting aside funding for these leaders and efforts.
Fund voting rights: If Republicans win the House and Senate, they promise to make abortion illegal across all states, restrict voting rights, probably gut the ADA, end tribal sovereignty, and so many more awful things. The midterm is one of our last lines of defense, and probably our last chance at a free election. Every funder who cares about justice needs to move significant money into ensuring people can and are voting.
Rethink your strategic plans. It doesn’t matter if funding abortion services and advocacy doesn’t align with your current funding “priorities” or whatever. Your priorities need to change based on community needs. Read the room. If you’re not funding abortion access, voting rights, organizing, and related efforts to secure other basic civil and human rights, your plans are not strategic, they are delusional.
Get political: Progressive funders have been severely avoidant of politics while conservative funders have fully embraced it, and look at the results. You are not morally better in having your foundation avoid politics. You are enabling injustice by creating organizations and movements that do not have the tools and resources they need to fight. Support 501c4 orgs and other efforts to elect more progressive leaders.
Create legal defense funds for progressive activists: The right protects and supports their leaders and figureheads (even heinous, evil ones like Rittenhouse). The left leaves their leaders to fend for themselves at the slightest thing going awry. Create funds for if and when our activists and leaders get arrested, sued, and attacked. And the more effective they are, the more of a target they will become.
Give multi-year, general operating funds: I don’t mean like two or three years that so many of you are so proud of. Fund like conservative funders and make 10- and 20+ year commitments. Give organizations and movements the opportunity to plan and strategize as effectively as conservative forces.
Fund outside your geographic area also: This “fund local” philosophy has caused significant damage over the years, concentrating resources in wealthy cities and neighborhoods and creating silos. Elections in swing states and other key geographic areas are critical and will determine every issue you care about. Carve out funding to support vital movements in other areas.
Collaborate with trusted intermediaries so you can get funds out faster: If you can’t disperse significant funds out yourself, then work with those who can. There are many intermediaries led by marginalized communities who could allocate funds much faster. Collaborate with them.
Increase your payout now: If you’re wondering how you’re going to fund all these things, the answer is simple: Stop hoarding your funds for the future and spend out more right now. If most of you had spent out more over the past few decades and invested in organizing, etc., maybe we wouldn’t be in this current dystopian nightmare. Learn from your mistakes and act on it.
Democracy is dying right before our eyes. As hopeless as it feels, we have a chance of saving it. For us to be effective, though, every funder must have an honest conversation among its trustees, staff, and donors. If you are still clinging to your minimum payout rate of 5% or 10%, you are part of the problem. If you are still focused on your own single-issue “priorities” instead of taking lead from communities, you are part of the problem. If you are still obsessed with meaningless bullshit like character counts or whether a grantee has 100% board giving or whether they turned a grant proposal in on time, you are a part of the problem. If you refuse to engage in things you think are too “political,” you are a part of the problem.
Don’t release any statements expressing how shocked and heartbroken and concerned you are that Roe has been overturned. Any statement you make is meaningless unless you forcefully condemn the SCOTUS decision and proclaim that your foundation will not respect it and will be fighting against it with everything you got. We need funding partners who understand how much even worse things will get and who are willing to do whatever it takes to preserve and grow the last shred of equity and justice we have left.
Progressive nonprofit activists, leaders, organizations, and movements are feeling devastated right now. But we will summon the last ounce of our energy and get up and fight. We will continue to do our part. Progressive foundation leaders, you need to wake up and do yours.