Funders: Do a better job of protecting and supporting leaders and organizations who take risks in standing up for justice

[Image description: People marching on the streets, the ones in front holding Palestine flags and a large sign that says “STOP GENOCIDE, FREE PALESTINE.” Image by Janne Leimola on Unsplash.]

Over the past few months, people and organizations who have been public in supporting a permanent ceasefire and an end to Israel’s US-funded genocide of Palestinians have been experiencing consequences. I know colleagues who have faced harassment and intimidation at work for wearing a keffiyeh. Others whose organizations have been losing funding from existing funders because they put out a statement calling for a ceasefire. A colleague told me a donor who had committed to hosting a fundraising event pulled out last minute because one of the org’s founders and board members have been vocal in condemning Israel’s genocidal actions. I’ve lost a few thousand followers, had keynote invitations rescinded, and have had to deal with online harassment since my post on October 17th.

None of this, of course, is going to stop us. The things we face are nowhere near the horrors Palestinians are experiencing right now, and we all need to be even more forceful in speaking up. Israel is now carpet-bombing Rafah, where Palestinians civilians had been ordered to evacuate to. All of us in the US are funding it, as our elected officials get ready to approve sending more than $17B dollars to Israel to continue its genocide of Palestinians. It should horrify all of us in this sector that we could solve homelessness and have universal healthcare and education, but instead, our tax dollars are being used to massacre children and civilians in Palestine every day.

All of this backlash has been highlighting a serious weakness in our sector, and that is the lack of support and protection from funders for progressive leaders and organizations who speak up against injustice. Not just on this genocide and during this time, but across a range of issues and for decades. This has been the default pattern: The right-wing will rally around their leaders, knowing their figureheads are their most important assets. Just look at all the support generated for Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two people who were protesting racial injustice. He received a ton of money for his legal defense, got invited to Mar-a-Lago, and gets booked for speaking engagements. He’ll likely get a book deal, possibly be invited to be a contributor on various new channels.

Meanwhile liberal-and-progressive-leaning funders will back away, leaving defenseless those who take risks in standing up for justice and equity. A few years ago, for instance, some colleagues told me one of their board members said something that offended a right-wing pundit with a large national platform. This pundit went on their air and blasted the board member and the organization. For weeks, the board and staff were getting violent messages, including death threats. When they approached their funders asking for help, the funders did nothing, terrified that they would be in the crosshairs too. The lack of support makes it harder for people and orgs to speak up, which makes us all less effective in effecting change.

Last week, I read this article, “Racial Justice Programs Under Fire: Foundations Are Running Scared When They Should Double Down,” by colleagues Lori Villarosa, Ben Francisco Maulbeck, and Gihan Perera. The article notes that after the Supreme Court took down affirmative action, it emboldened the right wing to expand their scope, targeting DEI efforts in general, such as suing Fearless Fund, a venture capital firm focused on supporting Black businesswomen. And instead of standing firm in alignment with their values, many funders start waffling and backsliding, asking their grantees to tone down language, placing harsher limitations on advocacy, pausing their internal DEI work, etc.  

Progressive-leaning funders’ general aversion to anything that’s “political” or controversial or deemed risky, combined with their fear of supporting the leaders, organizations, and movements that are willing to put themselves on the line, is a significant contributor to why the far right has been gaining so much ground in recent years. With democracy on its dying breath and multiple genocides to stop, we need progressive-leaning funders to get out of their self-protectionistic, risk-averse, cover-your-ass mentality and be on the front lines with the people and organizations that are tackling injustice head on. And if you’re not going to be on the front lines, then at least support the people and orgs that are. Here are a few things funders can do:

Keep using an equity lens in funding: As Cora Daniels says in the article “A Post-Affirmative Action World Demands More — Not Less — Funding for Black Leaders,” “What if instead of cowering in the face of the affirmative-action ruling, philanthropy doubled down on its support of leaders of color?” That would be great. Funders, please increase your payout rate and send more money to organizations led by marginalized communities. Continue funding them, and when possible increase support, especially when they’re targeted by right-wing conservatives, as they’ll have their attention divided and won’t be able to fundraise like normal

Fund individual progressive leaders: Many progressive-leaning funders are fine with funding organizations and fiscally sponsored movements but run screaming when faced with the prospect of funding individual leaders. Take some notes from conservative funders and invest in individuals too, especially the ones putting themselves at risk to fight for justice. They don’t have the same level of protection as leaders who work within organizations. If you don’t know how to fund individuals, seek help from your peers who have been doing it.

Set up and increase funding for legal defense: If you don’t already do this, start providing financial support for grantees’ legal defense if they get into trouble for standing with their values. If you already are doing it, increase your budget for it and get other funders to pool funds. Let grantees know this resource is available. Provide funding for litigation too, since sometimes the only way to deter attacks is to go on the offense and sue racists and bigots into oblivion. Allow this funding to be accessed individual leaders and movements, not just organizations.

Connect leaders and orgs with professional assistance: People may not know what to do when they’re under attack, which is where advice and connections from funders could be very helpful. Chances are, you have a lot more access to lawyers, media firms, publicists, etc. who can play pivotal roles in crises. Allow your legal counsels to help your grantees, provided these legal professionals are trained in equity and are not reinforcing risk-aversion like many of them tend to do.

Provide media support: A lot of the battles happen in the media and the right-wing are very good at shaping and weaponizing stories and messages. Help to counter this by amplifying leaders and organizations’ messages when they do speak up, and again when they are facing backlash. Provide funding for media training, media campaigns, and help facilitation connections with journalists and media experts who may be helpful.

Use your name and credibility to protect leaders and orgs: Funders’ names and reputations carry a lot of weight, which is probably why so many funders are reluctant to do anything that would jeopardize their image. But especially when leaders and orgs are under scrutiny or attack, funders standing by them publicly and advocating for them increase their credibility and ability to weather these challenges.

Check in on your grantees and colleagues who are vocal in condemning injustice: They’re likely facing a slew of angry comments, lost donations, newsletter unsubscribes, etc. Over time it does wear people down, especially the realization that so many folks in this sector, which is about advancing justice, not only don’t get it, but are actively supporting things that are counter to justice. The occasional friendly and encouraging message can be a huge boost to morale. Check in on people, offer support, and follow through.

It’s been inspiring to see people and organizations speak up to call out injustice, despite the consequences. This is one of the most important and meaningful things we as humans can do. As MLK put it:

“one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid…. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer…. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

Thank you to my colleagues who take those words to heart and who are doing everything you can to try to stop the genocide and to support a free Palestine, and to fight other forms of oppression everywhere, in alignment with our sector’s values of equity and justice for all. And to do that effectively, funders we need you to summon the same amount of courage and work alongside these leaders and organizations.