Foundations & Social Justice
By John Heller
Participants represented a broad spectrum of viewpoints, cultures, and philanthropic traditions. They came from countries as far apart as Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, and Russia and represented a range of institutions including community and corporate foundations, environmental trusts, philanthropic support organizations, and national grantmakers. As a cross-section of emerging philanthropies from around the globe, the group offered a compelling snapshot of how foundations, particularly those in developing and transitional countries, are struggling with issues of justice, social change, and the positioning of philanthropy within new democracies. From this sampling, we can make three key observations:
"Poverty and social injustice can only take root in poorly organized communities."
Javeriana University (Colombia)
- Obstacles abound, but the resolve to address social justice is taking root. Participants acknowledged a number of challenges foundations face in seeking to address social justice. Among these were the fear of being controversial or offending donors, risk-averse boards and staff, the difficulties of bridging realities and power differentials, the complexities of working with government, the incongruity of relying on funding generated by the status quo while simultaneously seeking to change it, and the sheer enormity of some social justice concerns. Despite these issues, optimism far outweighed negativity in Oaxaca, with many of those gathered expressing a determination to deepen social justice work.
- Foundations are looking to mechanisms beyond grant-making to address social justice. While grant-making as a tool for leveraging change was never completely absent from thought, energy focused primarily on the non-financial support foundations can deliver to address social justice concerns. Participants identified a range of functions that foundations can perform in addressing social justice. These included foundations as convener, organizer, relationship broker, constituency builder, listener, policy promoter, and knowledge circulator.
While these observations tell us much about how foundations are beginning to think about social justice, what lessons can we learn about specific strategies that can make a difference on the ground? Participants offered many rich examples to illustrate steps their foundations were taking to advance social justice -- from securing land tenure for upland indigenous groups in rural Mexico, to advancing women's political participation across Africa, to mobilizing donors in support of children's rights in India. From these examples and others, we can identify three interconnected roles that foundations can play in advancing social justice: supporting community organizing and institution building, engaging government, and building constituencies.
Supporting Community Organizing and Institution Building
In his opening remarks, social thinker Bernardo Toro from Bogota, Colombia counseled that "the first step to overcome poverty and social exclusion is to create and strengthen organizations." According to Toro, organizations and associations help to guarantee that rights can be exercised and protected. At the same time, participation in organizations induces self-regulation through social ties which can restrain actions that could encroach on others' rights.
An example of this is the Oaxaca Community Foundation's collaboration with the Pueblos Mancomunados, a confederation of eight upland indigenous communities in Oaxaca. By providing organizational support and technical assistance through local non-profit organizations, and by brokering relationships with government officials, the Foundation has helped the confederation gain full control of 30,000 hectares of communal property. The group is deriving income from sustainable forestry, trout farming, fruit-growing, and eco-tourism.
- Bridging: Foundations can play an intermediary role between macro-policy decisions and micro-level needs. Rather than substituting their voice for that of communities or government, foundations can instead act as translator between the two. The Local Development Foundation in Thailand, for example, worked with NGOs across the country to gather community-level input from hundreds of local constituencies during the re-drafting of the Thai constitution in 1997. The result is Thailand's "People's Constitution," considered to be the country's most progressive and citizen-focused constitution to date.
- Promoting Standards: Foundations can identify and encourage the adoption of social justice standards for government (and business). While legal protections supportive of social justice may exist in the form of national-level laws or through participation in United Nations declarations, application and enforcement may be weak or non-existent. Foundations can work to give meaning to standards at the local level. The Abrinq Foundation in Brazil, for example, has compiled a comprehensive set of standards on the rights and treatment of children and adolescents. The standards involve criteria for health, nutrition, education, and freedom, among others. Through Abrinq's "Child-Friendly Mayor Program," over 1,500 municipal governments in Brazil have adopted the standards and are developing local action plans to improve conditions for children and adolescents.
- Improving Public Policy: Foundations can pursue a range of strategies to promote public policy supportive of social justice. They can do this by participating in official policy commissions, building relationship capital with key members of government, working with the media on public education campaigns, and funding the policy research and advocacy efforts of NGOs, educational institutions, and think tanks. Monica Patten, President of Community Foundations of Canada, sees foundations as playing a highly constructive role in collaborating with other actors in society, including government, to ensure that regulations supportive of social justice are in place.
- Being a Model: Foundations can provide alternatives to government policy and programs simply through the way they work and by sharing information widely. In designing its programs, the Lumbu Indigenous Community Foundation in Australia first took stock of the Australian government's own work with Aboriginal peoples. Learning from the government's experience and approaches, Lumbu decided to pursue a markedly different set of strategies to improve quality of life for Aboriginal peoples. Lumbu provides "venture" investments in multi-year projects and supports these ventures with advice, expertise, and skills training. Lumbu further ensures that communities fully own and direct the development process. These approaches, if proven successful over time, may broaden the policy and service model options for government and other actors.
Building Constituencies and Alliances
A final strategy envisions foundations as constituency builders for social justice. This may entail actions as simple as conversations with donors about the underlying causes of social issues, introducing grantees to one another, or convening issue-based dialogues on social justice topics. Emmett Carson agued that "often times, simply convening people to talk about an issue is enough to begin to influence public opinion and begin to change the system." A more intensive strategy involves actively supporting coalition building among activist groups, particularly among a foundation's own grantees and partners. Olabisi Adeleye-Fayemi Executive Director of the African Women's Development fund based in Ghana, for example, believes that promoting "a culture of partnerships and collaboration" among women's organizations is a vital strategy to make change. Other constituency building methods include public education campaigns and an active fostering of linkages between government, business, and civil society.
Shannon St. John
The remarks of David Bonbright of the Aga Khan Foundation on foundation activity during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa revealed much about the potential of foundations as constituency and alliance builders, even in the most difficult of environments. Bonbright noted that foundations can sometimes foster broad movements within societies struggling for social justice and provide linkages to other societies and international movements for change. Part of this may involve foundations serving as consciousness-raisers among potential agents of change, including sympathetic government officials, and society at large. Foundations can furthermore provide "safe spaces" for dialogue that can help overcome the "disunity of the oppressed" and lessen differences among opposing groups.
Woven together, these three roles of foundations -- supporting community organizing and institution building, engaging government, and building constituencies -- portray foundations as society's connective tissue, influencing social justice by communicating across realities, enhancing associational life, opening new possibilities for participation, and connecting even the unlikeliest of allies. That foundations can and are making a difference on social justice by playing to these natural advantages was made plain through our dialogue in Oaxaca. That numerous foundations around the world are not confronting social justice issues is made obvious through word, deed and the painful inequities and structural injustices we see growing before us. There is a way. Is there a will?
1 All attendees are participants in Synergos' Senior Fellows program, which engages an international cadre of foundation leaders in a three-year peer learning and service fellowship. For more information about the Senior Fellows program, contact John Heller at email@example.com.
2 The meeting was made possible through grant support from the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.