Vu Le: 10 things progressive funders must learn from conservative ones, or we are all screwed

We can end injustice if we get these things right

Vu Le
Vu Le

The last few weeks have been difficult. The images of women and kids being tear-gassed at the border haunt me. It makes me think about how effective we nonprofits and foundations are, and what’s keeping us from being able to stop these horrible things from happening.  

I know many of us are having similar thoughts. Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Edgar Villanueva, the brilliant author of Decolonizing Wealth, a critical book that highlights something we actively avoid talking about: the history of philanthropic dollars, which is rooted in the genocide of Native peoples, slavery, and other abuse of and extraction from marginalized communities. I highly recommend the book. And it is an encouraging sign that foundations have been at least willing to engage with the topics that Decolonizing Wealth, along with Anand Giridharada’s Winners Take All, have been courageously bringing up.

But there is a potential challenge that I can see: the public embrace by foundations of these two books – and other forms of criticism – is at danger of being another form of intellectualizing, with the reflection generated by these important books serving as a self-congratulatory proxy for actions, as has happened over and over. How many more books need to be written? When will we see fundamental changes to how philanthropy operates?

The problem, however, is not how philanthropy operates, but how progressive philanthropy operates. Conservative funders focus on the big picture, act quickly, do not micromanage, provide significant general operating funds, fund for twenty or thirty years, support leaders and movements, engage in policy and politics, and treat grantees as equal partners. Progressive funders – with a few exceptions – intellectualize, are severely risk-averse, focus narrowly, fund isolated strategies and programs, avoid politics, and treat grantees like parasites and freeloaders.

Guess who has been winning? Who has been shaping all three branches of US government, along with the media, and controlling which conversations society engages in?

It’s been like this for decades. This article, "State of the Debate: Lessons of Right-Wing Philanthropy", was written exactly 20 years ago. It states:

"The left recently has lost repeated battles to this conservative coalition over major initiatives such as affirmative action, welfare, immigration, English-only programs, and school vouchers. Left-liberal activists have attributed these losses to the massive amounts of money conservatives have spent on the initiatives. However, it is the way conservatives have spent the money that has made the difference."

It is sad and frustrating that this paragraph, and entire article, written in 1998, is perfectly applicable today. In fact, things may have gotten worse, with the weaknesses and dysfunction pointed out in the article having become more entrenched. These ineffective habits have been so ingrained in the way that progressive funders operate that even the most "innovative" foundations and program officers still follow many of these destructive behaviors.

I know that foundation funding is just one element in the fight for social justice. But it is a critical element, and foundations must own the power they have and the responsibility that it entails. If we as a sector are to be effective in addressing injustice and creating a diverse and inclusive society, progressive funders must be willing to examine and learn from what conservative funders are doing so well and, more importantly, act on it. Here are the main points, compiled from the various articles and books I’ve read and the leaders I’ve talked to:

  • The funding relationship must be grounded in trust and partnership: conservative funders treat their grantees as actual partners and base their relationships on trust and mutual goals. Unfortunately, despite claims otherwise, progressive funders base relationships on suspicion and the belief that nonprofits are freeloaders. This manifests in things such as restricted funding, excessively burdensome applications, requirements for five-year plans and budgets, short-term grants, and the belief that nonprofits need to become self-sustaining and not dependent on foundations. Trust-Based Grantmaking, as championed by The Whitman Institute and a growing contingency of funders, treats nonprofits like partners, which means providing general operating funds, asking for constant feedback, and reducing paperwork or preferably just accepting grant proposals and reports written for other funders as-is.
  • Grants should be significant and unrestricted. Small grants, while helpful, will not lead to significant social changes. They force nonprofits to spend all our time fundraising and Frankensteining bits of money together instead of delivering services and mobilizing communities. This is ineffective. In addition, it is deeply inequitable, as these small, disproportionately burdensome grants are usually the only ones accessible to small grassroots organizations led by and serving communities of color and other marginalized communities. If we want to achieve change, grants need to be in the MILLIONS range, and unrestricted so we have the flexibility and focus to carry out whatever combination of strategies will lead to results.
  • Grants should be minimum 10-years in duration. As the article above pointed out, conservative funders fund not just across several years, but several DECADES. This allows their partners the stability and security to work on issues, not just survival. Progressive funders must ask, and quickly answer, this question: Do you want your nonprofit partners to spend time doing their work, or to play funding hot potato in an endless effort simply to survive? The one-year grants force nonprofits to spend endless amounts of time fundraising and never reach a state of stability. Even three years or five years is not enough, as we get into the common phenomenon where it usually takes an organization three to five years to reach stability, and then they have to reset and scramble for funding because no one is committed to a longer-than-three-years partnership. To achieve the stability required for maximum effectiveness, nonprofits need at least a ten-year commitment of significant, unrestricted funding. This does not mean the funding is guaranteed each year; results still need to be demonstrated. The challenge has been that even organizations that demonstrate excellent outcomes still scramble year after year.
  • Payouts should be at minimum 10% of endowments annually and should not include expenses that foundations are spending on their own operations: If there is ever a time for philanthropy to mobilize its full force to fight injustice, this is it. To let 95% of funds just sit there doing nothing (or likely invested in harmful industries that exacerbate the issues that foundations are hoping to alleviate, as Edgar Villanueva points out in his book) is to tacitly endorse the horrors that are going on. Release more funds now so we can effectively address these challenges so that they do not spread and consume our society. Because of conservative funders’ willingness to spend more money now, they are able to shape the rules and systems, which will significantly lower the amount they need to spend later (they vastly outspend progressive foundations to shape the minds of youth, for example). Progressive funders need to do the same thing. As an example, we spend $31,000 to $60,000 per year on each person in prison, depending on the state. Does it not make fiscal and moral sense to spend even $10,000 more per kid per year now so we can end the school-to-prison pipeline? There are countless other statistics like this. Increase payout now so we can tackle problems before they worsen and we have to spend several times more to deal with them in the future.
  • At least 75% of all grant funding should go to organizations led by and serving communities of color and other marginalized communities, as reflected by their staff and board. Conservative funders put funding into the areas where they see the most need: fighting gun control, climate science, immigration, etc. Progressive funders, under the erroneous premise of meritocracy, fund whoever writes the best grant proposals and has the best relationships, not which issues are most critical. This is a reason why more than 90% of philanthropic dollars go to mainstream white-led organizations, despite the fact that a significant majority of people affected by injustice are people of color, and it has been like this for decades. Large, white-led organizations do important work and should continue to be supported, and yes there are geographic areas that are mostly white, and these dynamics must be taken into consideration, but the balance needs to drastically shift across the sector if we want to achieve equity.
  • Foundations must diversify their boards of trustees to reflect the community they serve; at least half of most foundation boards should be of color. Across the US 85% of foundation board members are white, and 40% have Ivy League degrees, according to this article. The era of foundation trustees’ being primarily rich white folks with degrees from "elite institutions" needs to end if we have any hope of advancing progressive agendas. Having a mostly-or-only-white foundation board, including in family foundations, is archaic, completely in dissonance with progressive foundations’ stated values of diversity and equity, and ineffective. Conservative funders, ironically, do reflect a huge portion of the people they serve: disaffected white men. Because of that, they are able to understand their constituents’ needs, strengths, fears, and motivations and so have been much more effective at deploying funds.
  • ALL grant decisions must be "rapid response": A program officer colleague pointed out that when natural disasters strike, foundations are able to quickly mobilize funds. The endless intellectualizing and handwringing around rules and strategies are put on pause and funders are able to collaborate to rapidly – sometimes within days – move funds to the communities in need. Some of the best, most effective philanthropy happens after hurricanes and other natural disasters. This sense of urgency needs to apply to all areas of need. Is not the issue of kids being tear-gassed while fleeing poverty and violence not equal in seriousness to an earthquake? Are people being gunned down because they are Black or Jewish or gay not as critical an issue as a hurricane? Should not our democracy being dismantled on a daily basis muster the same level of response as a devastating mudslide? Conservative funders treat every issue with urgency; progressive funders need to do the same. This means making grant decisions within weeks or days, not the default months or years.
  • Support leaders, movements, and institutions, not specific issue areas: the challenges our communities face are interrelated in an ecosystem, yet most progressive foundations still believe in this "salad bar" approach to solving issues, where they get to pick and choose which issues appeal to them and which do not, based on skewed personal interests that oftentimes do not reflect reality—for example, funding preschool programs but not related services like housing, food insecurity, neighborhood safety, employment, etc. This forces nonprofits to create a mish-mash of programs and services instead of complementary ones that may lead to greater impact. Conservative foundations tend to be way less directive in their funding strategies, preferring to fund holistically. Progressive foundations must do the same: support leaders, movements, and institutions who align with progressive values, do it consistently for as long as it’s needed – again, conservative funders fund for 10, or 20, or 30 or more years – and allow them the trust and flexibility to implement whatever combination of strategies it takes to achieve agreed-upon outcomes.
  • Focus on the big picture and get out of the weeds: the quest to bring conservative judges onto the Supreme Court was not something that aligned with conservative funders’ priority one year; it was/is part of a grant scheme that has lasted over decades. Progressive funders must learn the same lessons: focus on what the bigger goals are and get out of the weed. We need you to use your power and influence to help us nonprofits shape rules and systems and deliver services. Our communities do not have time for you to spend endless hours scrutinizing budgets and logic models and surmising whether we "align" with your assortment of random funding priorities that change every year. Let’s learn from conservative funders: focus on the overarching 30-year strategy progressives can all agree with, such as having more women and people of color in public office across all branches of government; ensuring equity in education; protecting voting rights; ending gerrymandering; curbing corporations’ influence on politics; advancing universal health care, etc.
  • Be engaged in policy and politics: Conservative funders understand that to achieve their goals, they must be engaged in shaping media messages, ensuring certain political candidates get elected, getting the "right" judges on the bench, solidifying conservative beliefs among youth, and shaping laws that would align with their values. Progressive funders often do not engage in these strategies or fund organizations working on these issues, under the philosophy of being "above the fray" or "neutral" or "nonpartisan" or whatever. Many progressive foundations actively forbid their grantees from using their funds to engage in advocacy and lobbying. This means that we must constantly react and adapt to inequitable systems instead of shaping them. Progressive foundations must get involved in policy and politics. None of us can be above the fray when our communities are constantly hurt by the fray.

None of these points are new. They have been brought up repeatedly across dozens and dozens of years, at least since Sally Covington’s report came out in 1997. Progressive foundations’ ignoring the warnings and advice of these researchers and nonprofit leaders back then contributed to the state that we are now in. How much worse must things get before progressive funders stop intellectualizing and engage in transformative actions? How many more kids need to end up in cages? How many more students need to go down the pipeline to prison? How many more people need to die due to violence, poverty, homophobia and transphobia, and racism?

I know it seems hopeless, but it’s not. We can end injustice. We can create the world we know is possible. Conservative funders and organizations have figured out what works. Progressive funders and organizations just need to do the same things.

Vu Le is executive director of Rainier Valley Corps. This article first appeared on his website, NonprofitAF

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