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Bring Odd Bedfellows Together to Promote Social Change, Foundations Urged

Denver

Gara LaMarche, president of Atlantic Philanthropies, began a session on social-justice philanthropy here today with a lighthearted nod to what he called the “not uncontroversial” nature of the term social justice. 

The conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck recently likened social justice to communism. Mr. LaMarche had this message for people he joked might share Mr. Beck’s views: ”I’m giving people who feel that way and thought they’d wandered into a different panel an opportunity to leave.” 

But despite the beating the term “social justice” might be taking among conservative talk-show hosts, Mr. LaMarche said today was a “potent moment” for grant making devoted to promoting equality by creating structural change. 

Grant makers like Atlantic and the Ford Foundation are putting more money into social-justice grant making, he said, and groups like the Foundation Center are giving foundations the tools to figure just how much money goes to causes that promote major social changes. But many people still see a massive imbalance in the amount of money going to help progressive, activist groups.

Kumi Naidoo, international executive director of Greenpeace, said an estimated 80 percent of foundation money goes to groups that deliver services, 10 percent to efforts to promote public policy, and, “if you’re lucky, 5 percent to structural transformation.”

Mr. Naidoo was among a group of activists assembled by the Council on Foundations to discuss how grant makers can better support efforts to create a more just, equitable society. Among their suggestions:  

Bring together odd bedfellows. Some of the most effective organizing can be done by bringing together people who wouldn’t normally be allies, said Van Jones, a nonprofit founder and environmental advocate. He talked about how foundations concerned about climate change could create alliances between environmental activists and military veterans and generals who could speak to the security threats created by climate change.  

Likewise, Constance Rice, co-director of the Advancement Project-Los Angeles, talked about how her biggest success in fighting police brutality came not from suing the police—lawsuits she generally won—but from sitting down and talking to members of the police and helping to slowly influence their views and approaches. 

Invest in “people power.” “If people aren’t on the move and on the march, you won’t get the results you want to see,” said Deepak Bhargava, who leads the group Center for Community Change. He talked about how the government isn’t going to introduce and pass controversial legislation on issues such as immigration unless throngs of people are in the streets in their cities and in Washington. But Mr. Bhargava said that many foundations don’t recognize the importance of mobilizing people—or invest in the grass-roots groups and the networks that it takes to organize rallies. 

Accept risk. Supporting organizations that want to change the ways government and society work can land those groups—and the donors that support them—in hot water, said speakers. In Mexico, for example, human-rights activists are often fearful for their safety, said Ana Paula Hernandez, a consultant to the Angelica Foundation, a family foundation in California that supports progressive groups in Mexico as well as the United States.  

Play to win. Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, said he sometimes thinks that foundations are too comfortable and aren’t thinking enough about just what it will take to influence people or to really create change. What he wants to ask them, Mr. Patel said, “is what world do you want to live in in 10 years?” 

Consider the consequences of winning. “The second worst thing to happen to a funder is that a group does poorly,” said Mr. Jones. “The first worst thing is that it funds a group that does really, really well.” Success, Mr. Jones said, can make organizations the target of attacks from the news media and their political opponents, something that foundations often don’t take the time to consider or prepare for. 

Recognize the news media’s role. Conservative foundations seem to be far more willing to support communications, efforts to reach out to journalists, and training on how to talk to reporters than progressive foundations, said Ms. Rice of the Advancement Project-Los Angeles. Ms. Rice recalled being on a television show with three conservatives who had far more training than she. Others took an even broader message to foundations. Decrying the lack of news-media coverage in the United States of the rest of the world, Akwasi Aidoo, executive director of TrustAfrica, urged foundations to help support a true “global media.” 

Create success stories. Many people in the United States may be uncomfortable with changes the United States is sure to see in the near future—namely, declining economic prosperity and the growing numbers of people of different races and ethnicities, Mr. Jones said. He said those changes could fuel a backlash that could make progressives nostalgic for the Tea Party, the group of antitax activists who have organized rallies in Washington and elsewhere in the past year. To counter that backlash, Mr. Jones urged donors to find and support model communities and success stories that could provide hope and examples for overcoming the tough times. 

“I know where we’re going, and it’s going to be tough,” said Mr. Jones. 

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