Two Elements of Justice Funding

May 18, 2014 10:00 PM | Ron Rowell

Justice funders come in many forms.  After all, there is a lot of work to do just to begin to repair the enormous damage to the social contract, the political system, and equal opportunity that has been done over the past 30+ years.  So what distinguishes a justice funder from other funders?  In my opinion, it involves both the what and the how of funding.



I would propose that justice funders focus on underlying structural injustice and supporting those most disadvantaged by that structural injustice to make use of all the tools of democracy available to overturn those structures.  Justice funders are and should be those who want to see radical change--i.e., large-scale change--and who use the resources at their disposal for that purpose.


These tools give democracy meaning:  grassroots community organizing, voter registration, get out the vote drives, and legal action, for example.  Just a few inspirational successes that were supported by philanthropy in the Bay Area have included:

  • Ongoing grassroots organizing focusing on citizens’ concerns, like advocating for the installation of a crosswalk at a dangerous school intersection that saves children’s lives or forcing diesel trucks out of neighborhoods suffering from high rates of asthma as the result of diesel pollution that improves the health of an entire community;
  • Legal strategies to hold energy corporations accountable for violating safety standards and using the damage awards for grantmaking to strengthen the ability of those most affected to fight back;
  • Campaigns to raise the minimum wage;
  • Campaigns to strengthen tenants’ rights;
  • Immigrant youth organizing to insure access to higher education and a legal path to citizenship;
  • Legal and organizing strategies to help cities fight predatory housing foreclosures;
  • Organizations fighting against propositions whose purpose is to further disadvantage the disadvantaged, e.g., California Proposition 54 (2003) or California Proposition 8 (2008) and many others;
  • Developing leadership among young people of color to understand and use the tools of democracy to improve their lives;
  • Formerly incarcerated people organizing for rights and dignity after serving their sentence and for the rights of those currently incarcerated;
  • Increased voter participation by low-income people of color, youth, and women; or
  • Helping veterans organize to improve access to affordable housing, mental health services, and employment.

There are many others, of course, that could have been listed.  What these all have in common are that the change that results doesn’t just touch an individual or a family: it touches entire communities, cities, counties, states, and the nation.  It results in profound and long-term change that improves people’s lives.



I would also argue that what should distinguish justice funders is not just the “what” but the “how” of grantmaking.  It is often said that philanthropy is a relationship business.  That’s a truism.  What kind of relationship is it that we mean? 


The reality is that one party to the relationship has the resources and some degree of authority over those resources that the other party wants or needs.  This, as we all recognize, is an unequal power relationship.  That’s a given.  How we manage that unequal power relationship is something over which we have control. 


In my opinion, the most important features of justice grantmaking are that:

  • It should always be transparent.  No grantee should ever feel that the application process is a great black hole. 
  • No justice grantmaker should ever presume that their role confers omniscience.  Humility and an openness to learn should be part and parcel of a justice funder’s approach to the work.  That doesn’t mean that the grantmaker has nothing to offer other than money.  Grantmakers can be great sources of information.
  • Justice funders should see themselves as part of a larger movement for change, not outsiders.  As such they should use their position to collaborate with, seek advice from, and contribute time, effort, and money to those working for change. 

In my 14 years in philanthropy I've felt my engagement with both grantees and other funders has continually broadened my perspective.  In the last four years, the Bay Area Justice Funders Network has been especially important in helping me focus my attention on what I've learned from social justice grantmaking.  Let's keep the discussion moving!



Ron Rowell is a trustee of the Common Counsel Foundation of Oakland.  He is past CEO of Common Counsel, past Program Officer for Social Justice at The San Francisco Foundation, and past president of Native Americans in Philanthropy.  He is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

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