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The Ford Foundation is now fighting inequality — and what that means for us

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

This past Thursday, the Ford Foundation, the United States’ second largest philanthropy, announced an overhaul of its grantmaking programs to focus on inequality and to double the amount of general support grants it distributes. 

I know this is not as intriguing as debating whether or not Rachel Dolezal is actively participating in blackface but here’s the thing: this matters to our movements. Though many of us work to ensure that marginalized voices are present in virtually every single space — from magazine covers, to presidential campaigns, to the conference rooms of tech companies — we have been remarkably slow at addressing some important questions: Who is funding us and how? Is this funding process equitable and just?

The amount of wealth controlled by philanthropies is only growing year after year. In 2014, an estimated 358 billion dollars moved through charitable giving in the US. While this sounds promising on paper, philanthropy is undeniably problematic and the list of grievances is long.

The nature of the sector lends itself to serve mainly those with immense amount of power and privilege. The sector lacks diversity and inclusion in its staff, boards, and advisors. I am frequently, if not always, the only young woman of color in the room, despite the fact that issues being funded most deeply affect young women of color. Philanthropic strategy has long been project-based, which forces organizations that cannot find the money to pay their rent or their staff to pour all their funding into projects assigned by foundations. This strategy has fulfilled the visions of funders but is incredibly threatening to the longevity of the organization.

In short, philanthropy can be prescriptive and ineffective. Yet, with billions of dollars in this sector and very little supervision, philanthropy could potentially be a transformational resource for movements and a powerful tool in the redistribution of wealth. We, as activists, advocates, and allies, need to claim a place in the conversation.

There is this assumption that philanthropy is separate from us — the young people on the ground. That if we engage with what philanthropy is doing and why, we are giving into the whims of the 1%. But this affects us. As Rob Reich explains in the Boston Review, though foundations may be created voluntarily, they end up re-directing funds that would otherwise go towards tax revenue and public services. For example, he notes, “In 2011 tax subsidies for charitable giving cost the U.S. Treasury an estimated $53.7 billion. So foundations do not simply express the individual liberty of wealthy people. We all pay, in lost tax revenue, for foundations, and, by extension, for giving public expression to the preferences of rich people.”  That means that tens of thousands of billions of dollars in tax revenue is being lost in the name of philanthropic funding. So when these philanthropists make decisions about who to fund — and, most importantly, how to fund them — it impacts us.

Philanthropy and foundations have historically faced very little critique but the truth of the matter is that this sector does impact the public. We should be a voice at the table.

The Ford Foundation is planning to do two things that matter: one, tackling systemic issues that create inequality and two, letting their grantees use the money the way they need it — for example, to pay for rent, salaries, and equipment.

In a field that has focused on band-aid solutions to hemorrhaging symptoms of societal inequities, this recognition of institutional root causes is promising. Secondly, the recognition that the general support costs of an organization are instrumental to their success is a step into moving the power out of the hands of the wealthy and into the hands of those on the ground. Ford Foundation president, Darren Walker, has dubbed this the “social justice infrastructure.” It is a step toward funding that is equitable and just and building social movements that last.

As feminists, these changes affect us deeply. The growing trend of women and girls in philanthropy has often been criticized for being nothing more than lip service. A recent report from the Association of Women in Development (AWID) found that the philanthropic community’s recent focus on women and girls has had little impact on the amount of funds reaching international women’s organizations. Women’s work in the social sector is still vastly underfunded, and this spotlight on women and girls as individuals has done nothing to recognize what AWID calls “the critical role of the sustained, collective action, by feminists and women’s rights activists and organisations that has been at the core of women’s rights advancement throughout history.”

We are anchoring our conversations about funding women’s rights around the assumption that these issues of gender equality are being funded, when they are actually not. We need foundations to move away from talking about our issues and start funding solutions to ending the systemic structures that are promoting our oppression and exclusion. Ford is taking a first step toward that.

Let me be clear: money isn’t the only thing that fuels of social movements. But there is this whole other conversation happening about our society that requires us to listen, speak up, and be more intentional about our participation.

Philanthropy is not only about old white men trying to give away a little money and get a pat on the back. At its best, philanthropy is about the redistribution of wealth and resources. Ford Foundation has done something important by saying “Look, we want to end inequality and want to do it by giving you money to support your core funding.” It is saying that we, while on the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore, or McKinney, are being heard.

So what do we say back? Funding allows our visions to take form, provides our activists with compensation for their efforts, and builds some sort of sustainability to move toward longevity in our work. These movements are for us and by us.

The Ford Foundation’s announcement is a reminder that we, as young people and activists and feminists, need to claim our rightful seat at the table. We have got to talk about the money.

Header image: Young women from the FRIDA Young Feminist Fund brainstorm evaluations. The FRIDA Fund is committed to providing accessible, strategic and responsive funding for young feminist-led initiatives. 

Maria is a social movements strategist in New York City. Sameen is an attorney practicing asylum law in Washington, D.C.

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