What Is Philanthropy for Social Justice?

Philanthropy has been defined as the act of giving and for the most part, it assumes that such act is the privilege of the rich or of few individuals and/or institutions. Other less common definitions of philanthropy mention that anybody, independently of their giving capacity (wealth), can participate in this act. As a growing number of local funds outside of the United States show, philanthropy can happen in the poorest countries of the world or in countries where little or no tradition of philanthropy exists, such as in Nepal and Mongolia, where individual donors –independently of their means— are choosing to contribute to local funds/philanthropic institutions that work for social change. These notions of giving in countries where regulatory environments and traditions are actually deterrents and obstacles for donor giving, are putting forward a notion of philanthropy that is purposeful (for social justice) and altruistic.

The field of philanthropy is therefore no longer an exclusively Northern and Western notion, nor it is exclusively paired with individual or organizational benefits (tax breaks), but is a vast and growing field that includes, among others, individual donors giving at any level, endowed philanthropic institutions for perpetuity, and non endowed institutions that are both resource mobilizers (seekers of financial support) and grantmakers (financial supporters). For the latter institutions, the “act of giving” doesn’t therefore fully describe their nature and contribution to the field. Yet, because of this “dual identity” nature, I argue that they are closer positioned to deal directly with the power dynamics inherent in philanthropy (giving and receiving) and they are therefore closer to the grant-seeker’ struggles. Nevertheless, independently of their nature, how philanthropists and the institutions they work for or lead deal with this power dynamic determines in my view, if the type of philanthropy they work for is for social justice or not. The how therefore is crucial and ought to be included in the definition of philanthropy for social justice because it would point to the values and practices of these organizations, the way they conduct their work, and the types of support they give.

Philanthropy for social justice
Philanthropy for social justice is in my view purposeful, political, and based on a set of ethical (as opposed to moral) principles and practices (ie: the how). I define it as the act and process by givers and receivers actively working towards the elimination of institutional, intimate (ie private/personal sphere), and ideological (epistemic, can be conscious or unconscious) oppression and domination. In taking a side or a position, philanthropy for social justice is also a political (as opposed to partisan) act encompassing a set of values and practices. Who defines the purpose (ie: the common good) and principles, under what circumstances, and towards whose benefit, are key questions to consider, among others, in defining philanthropy for social justice.

All societies have populations that are less well off politically, socially, and economically and these populations are most likely the ones living under most oppression and domination. In seeking the elimination of these forms of oppression and domination (ie: the purpose), philanthropy for social justice uses (or in the ideal world should use) an intersectoral approach, that consciously looks at the intersections of gender, ethnicity, race, language, sexuality, age, class, disability and ability, spirituality, religion or no religion, location in the world, etc.

If we agree with the purpose of philanthropy for social justice as the elimination of all forms of oppression and domination, then philanthropists and philanthropic institutions for social justice need to be the first ones to strive to be conscious of privilege and power relations and to abide by the principles that such philanthropic practice would entail. That is why I argue, as Anne F. Murray so eloquently notes in her book Paradigm Found, that the how philanthropists and philanthropic institutions do their work is equally or perhaps more important than the what the work is (who and what issues they support).

In an ideal scenario, philanthropy for social justice is an extremely powerful paradigm because it would be self aware of the very systems of domination and oppression that philanthropy itself can perpetuate (ie: philanthropy can replicate colonialist systems of oppression). Therefore, philanthropy for social justice needs to abide by basic ethical principles where philanthropy
– empowers more than provides for survival, (empowerment)
– respects (not undermine), (respect)
– trusts, (trust)
– is not hierarchical,
– promotes autonomy and self determination,
– is horizontal (not vertical),
– respects and actively promotes diversity in all its forms
– and thus consciously looks at the intersections of gender, ethnicity, race, language, sexuality, age, class, disability and ability, spirituality, religion (or no religion), location in the world, etc,
– includes (rather than excludes) (inclusiveness)
– listens,
– it’s flexible,
– takes risks (addresses controversial issues),
– supports processes rather than outcomes
– its long term focused (seven generation concept in indigenous philosophy/cosmology)
– is reciprocal
– conscious of privilege and power relations

How philanthropies operationalize these principles in their practices is key and ought to be looked at carefully. For example, if a philanthropic institution says is inclusive, it is necessary to ask if their operations reflect that value (are they accessible to the populations they are trying to reach? Are the grantmaking forms and RFPs in the languages these populations speak? Are their processes internally (staff) inclusive of diversity? Etc

Because the approach to philanthropy for social justice is intersectoral, it supports a multiplicity of issues which are interrelated and non fragmented and is aware and analytical of context. As such, general support towards the institutions, their processes, capacities, and modes of operations, and towards the movements for social justice that these institutions are part of and/or actively form is the best and ideal form of support by philanthropy for social justice. In focusing support towards the most controversial issues and “populations” in need, philanthropy for social justice tends to fund strategies geared towards advocacy and movement building. These “strategies” rather than issues are often undermined by main stream philanthropy which most likely replicates rather than eliminates the various systems of oppression.