Shifting Capital and Funder Behavior: What Philanthropic Advocacy Means to Us

The concept of philanthropic advocacy is not new — people, organizations, and coalitions inside and outside of philanthropy have been organizing funders for many years. However, more recently, the idea of organizing philanthropy has received more attention from mainstream philanthropic institutions, media outlets, and writers. The spotlight on this issue has resulted in thousands of words written, presentations at conferences, the formation of new organizations, and more.

In the midst of this discourse, we at Kataly want to think about what philanthropic advocacy means to us and how we want to organize within the field of philanthropy in alignment with the communities we serve. We engaged Jennifer Near, a longtime philanthropic advisor, organizational consultant, and grantmaker, to help us determine the impact we want to have and the path to arrive there.

In this Q&A, we talk with Jennifer about what funder organizing means to her, what can cause harm, and the opportunities to shift capital and funder behavior.

What do the concepts of philanthropic advocacy and funder organizing mean to you?

Organizing is about long-term relationships that build power and shift the material conditions of the lives of everyday people. Funder organizing means moving an individual donor or institutional funder from a specific stance or orientation on an issue into action through deep relationship building and politicization.

In social movement-aligned funder organizing, we are often accompanying folks on the journey to redistribute resources and adopt a solidarity philanthropy approach. The goal is resource mobilization! At Kataly, we define resource mobilization as supporting people who control, direct, or negotiate resources to advance in their own political journeys, evolve their practices, and be in community and authentic relationship with social movements. By mobilizing people who benefit from white privilege and generational wealth, we can build a deeper bench of people moving towards collective liberation.

Part of this process focuses on shifting hearts and minds, which is critical, but we also need to hold people and institutions accountable to taking specific actions that create real outcomes for their grantees. One of the key action steps is to shift resources to community and movement-governed structures, as this is the only way we can truly shift power from donors and foundations to grassroots communities and social movements.

What are some of the components of funder organizing that need to be prioritized?

Narrative strategy plays a key role in organizing. Narratives can identify blatant contradictions and create openings to build with folks who disagree with how people like Bezos and Gates are moving capital, but who don’t have clear language or analysis to support how they feel about it. Narratives can also shape what’s possible for the future. It is powerful to provide frameworks to help make sense of the systems we are living in and begin to shift worldviews, frameworks like Just Transition, Solidarity Economy, and Restorative Economics.

Ultimately, we’ve learned the importance of one-on-one relationship building across peer groups as well as the importance of a shared leadership approach. People of wealth are influenced by other people of wealth, and peers of similar power and privilege. And executives need spaces to connect with other executives about the challenges and opportunities to organize their boards. We also need to integrate and build shared leadership because we need alignment across institutions and structures to really shift funder behaviors and practices.

What are some of the pitfalls of philanthropic advocacy? What can cause harm?

I worry sometimes we’re just equipping folks with frameworks and language and then they are weaponizing them without an actual substantive practice that corresponds to the language. For example, sometimes funders will make a commitment to integrating racial justice into their grantmaking strategy and use justice-based language, but without shifting who and how they fund. This creates more breaks in relationship and trust as well as a false sense of what a justice-based approach to philanthropy looks like in practice.

There is a practice in philanthropy of “receiving” information without a commitment to specific changes or actions. There are these rituals of attending conferences and webinars or meeting with grassroots groups to get their feedback and then a practice of sharing some of the lessons learned with folks in power, who are making decisions over capital. This is what we think of as philanthropic advocacy, and there is a role for this kind of engagement. But all of this activity doesn’t result in individual or institutional behavior changes. We need deeper organizing to influence capital and shift harmful practices to ultimately transform our sector.

Ultimately, there is a lack of reciprocity and accountability to grassroots social movements. Oftentimes funders and donors are socialized to increase their control over resources and to use their power to execute a vision that continues to benefit their own interests, rather than to challenge their privilege and how they wield power in harmful ways. But it’s difficult for grantees to hold funders accountable since they are actively fundraising. Therefore funders need to be in relationship with value-aligned peers who can give constructive feedback and “call them in”.

How have you seen things shift in philanthropy in the past few years — during the pandemic, and after the racial justice uprisings in the summer of 2020?

The increased level of consciousness and political openings created by the 2020 racial justice uprisings have the potential to create behavior changes and transformation in philanthropy. Unfortunately, history has taught us that oftentimes these moments of increased social pressure through deep organizing by BIPOC communities and workers generate backlash and an increased commitment to incremental and “false solutions” that sustain the status quo. For example, we’ve seen the Democratic party advocating for increased police funding and the largest cities in America increase their police budgets in response to the racial justice uprisings.

We are seeing the same incremental and false solution approaches in philanthropy. After the racial justice uprisings, there was a shift towards applying a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) lens to everything and asking movement leaders to participate in the grantmaking process. Some of these trends have the ability to create change and shift power to frontline communities if those same foundations aligned their strategy with the demands of grassroots organizers, particularly around defunding the carceral system. However, if these initial efforts are not part of a larger strategy, philanthropy is staying in the same reformist approach. It’s similar to how accountability measures and other incremental reforms are not a reasonable or transformative response to police violence — DEI workshops and movement-advised boards are not going to move us closer to justice. We must fundamentally transform how we approach community safety, our economy, and who governs wealth in our country. This also requires that we transform our approach to philanthropy, not just tinker at the edges with small reforms. Let’s not confuse false solutions or potentially interim steps with the hard work required to move us closer to racial justice and collective liberation.

Where do you think there are opportunities to really shift capital and funder behavior?

More money is moving in this moment than I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime. But that does not mean that more money is moving directly to Black and Indigenous grassroots organizing, community loan funds, or worker-owned cooperatives or in aligned ways to aligned structures.

For example, how can we applaud the level of giving of someone like Mackenzie Scott but also call out the contradictions around the lack of transparency and how their decision-making over resources is inherently flawed? This is what it means to navigate the contradictions of philanthropy as an organizing strategy to continue to advance our sector. No individual or billionaire should be in a position to decide who and what gets funded, these resources must be governed by social movements in service of the public good.

And we need some assessment around how those resources might be further exacerbating dynamics of larger nonprofits being resourced over grassroots groups and furthering old power models and constructs of individualism, paternalism, and saviourism. We want money to move, but we want it to be moved in community and movement-governed structures, and in alignment with grassroots strategies that are linking community ownership and cooperative development to grassroots organizing and power building.

We must continue to applaud the increased level of giving while also organizing funders and donors to understand how the distribution of capital needs to be rooted in this shared prosperity approach that prioritizes the people and communities that have been most harmed by wealth accumulation. This is the core of Kataly’s work, and I think this is a wonderful moment to inspire and organize others to be in a shared practice toward the vision of restorative economics.

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The Kataly Foundation

The Kataly Foundation moves resources to support the economic, political, and cultural power of Black and Indigenous people, and all communities of color.