I’ve been reading a lot lately about how large foundations are missing the boat when it comes to supporting communities to address long-standing problems. As I reflect on my own giving, I've noticed that there are two lessons that can apply to my own actions as well. The upshot of the problem is this: we need to demonstrate trust in the groups we give to, and we need to be committed to long term funding to address long term problems.
First, large foundations tend to favor funding new programs or projects rather than operating support. Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation stated in a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “unrestricted money makes an organization work smoothly, enables innovation, and provides fuel for growth.” In effect, large foundations are sending the message that "We (the large foundation) know which programs are best better than you (the group that’s actually doing the work)-- and that’s what we’re going to fund."
For progressive givers and foundations, there may be some lessons from conservative foundations here. Some foundation leaders have observed that the right was able to create a much stronger movement because they decided which groups to fund and then let those groups decide how to spend the money. As Kevin Laskowski from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) says, “that’s how conservatives built a movement: slowly but surely with general operating support to allied organizations over many, many years. The impact of such grants has been huge.”
In 2005, NCRP released a study in 2005 called the Axis of Ideology that examined how conservative organizations have been so successful. Here's one excerpt I found useful:
Conservative foundations are more likely to provide their grantees with general operating funds, allowing them to use the money as they see fit, often not requiring arduous evaluations of how the funds have been used. This flexibility allows organizations to respond in a timely manner to current issues and events allowing the organizations to remain at the forefront of the policy process without having to wait months for a program-specific grant.
The second issue for large foundations is that when they provide support, it’s often short term which is inadequate to address deep problems that have been created over years or even decades.
Again I'll refer to the Axis of Ideology report examined how the far right has been so successful. Here's one excerpt I found useful in thinking about the need to support groups in the long term:
Conservative foundations are more likely to create new organizations and fund them for the long-haul, sometimes for decades, not just years, allowing the organizations to focus on their program work, rather than having to worry about where next year's (or month's) budget will come from.
Blue Avocado also recently wrote about the need to think about funding issues in the long term, and not just wanting to fund what is "shiny" or "innovative."
What does this have to do with us and our giving?
We, as individual donors, face similar questions to many foundations. Which groups to we want to support? How much money do we want to give? Should my gift be be unrestricted or should I know and control exactly how my gift is spent? And do I want to give to the same groups over and over?
My hope is that those of us who want to see a strong social justice movement will take some lessons from what we're learning here in the foundation world: that once we decide to support a group that we'll trust that group to know how best to use our contributions. And that we’ll stick with them over time.