Foundations & Social Justice
By John Heller
September 2003


John Heller is Deputy Director, Foundation Building of The Synergos Institute. He can be reached at
This article was produced for the September 2003 issue of Alliance.

Can philanthropic support help society become more just? How can foundations address the underlying causes of poverty and injustice? Seeking answers to these questions brought thirty-three foundation leaders to the very heart of philanthropy's promise, and possible contradictions. The occasion was the international conference, Foundations and Social Justice: Visions, Strategies, Capacities. Organized by The Synergos Institute and locally hosted by the Oaxaca Community Foundation, the meeting convened foundation heads from eighteen countries, mostly in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America.1 The meeting took place in May 2003 in Oaxaca City, Mexico.2

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:

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.

"Nothing is possible without individuals but nothing is permanent without institutions."

Lorenzo Rosenzweig
Mexican Fund for Conservation


Emmett Carson, Executive Director of the Minneapolis Community Foundation, linked this powerful idea to foundation work. Carson contended that "supporting the development of organizations by the communities affected by social injustices is one of the most important things a foundation can do." In doing so, organizations representing groups affected by inequities can grow in their ability to self-advocate and leverage support for change. In practical terms, support from foundations in this area may include: grants for capacity building, general institutional funding, multi-year grants, and financial or technical support for institution formation, leadership development, convening, and networking.

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.

Engaging Government


"We learned to leave differences and fragmented visions behind to create bridges of understanding among the sectors."

Jaime Bolanos
Oaxaca Community Foundation (Mexico)


One conclusion we can draw from the Pueblo Mancomunados example is the need for foundations to be able to engage government. Foundation leaders from countries as distinct as Thailand, Brazil, Canada, and Australia called attention to the fact that the state, as the ultimate guarantor of rights, needs to be included in any equation to advance social justice. With connections to a wide range of actors at different levels within society and a deep understanding of social issues, some foundations may be extremely well-positioned to engage government. Given the varying space for working with government, strategies differ markedly. "Engaging government" takes on many incarnations, including the following:

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.


"The highest and best use of our resources is not just to make grants for social justice but to expand the constituency for social justice."

Shannon St. John
Triangle Community Foundation (USA)


In her remarks about fundraising for social justice, Shannon St. John, Executive Director of the Triangle Community Foundation in North Carolina (USA) emphasized the role of foundations in educating and raising awareness among donors to expand the constituency for social justice. According to St. John, one of the biggest opportunities foundations have to broaden social justice constituencies is to work intensively with what she calls the "caring but clueless" -- potential donors that feel they want to do something but they are not sure what. In St. John's view, foundations have an opportunity to counsel, educate, and engage these potential supporters, deepening their understanding of social issues over time. An example of this is occurring thousands of miles away in Mumbai, India, where Child Relief and You, a children's rights foundation, engages new donors by asking them to commit to a "donor pledge" of action on the rights and protection of children as a complement to financial support.

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
2 The meeting was made possible through grant support from the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.