I’ve been working with the Proteus Fund’s Security & Rights Collaborative in some capacity for three and a half years now. In the midst of what is proving to be an especially intense time in this work – one loaded with both tension as well as opportunity – I’m grateful for this chance to reflect on what I’ve learned and what lies ahead in my path as a social justice funder.
How does one “end up” becoming a social justice funder?
Unlike many program officers, I did not spend years honing issue expertise as an “advocate” in the “field” before entering the foundation world. While I came to this work with strong passion, dedication and a solid skillset and background, much of my knowledge, relationships and the entirety of my understanding of grant making have been developed “on the job.” And while those of us working at foundations (myself included) use the terms advocate and field to refer to people and institutions distinct from funders and foundations – an important distinction no doubt – I want to acknowledge that I very much see myself as an advocate, despite my title and my context in the field. As a funder colleague of mine puts it, “we are all on the same bus, I’m just in a different seat on the bus.” While the majority of my advocacy occurs within philanthropy as opposed to before legislative bodies or within impacted communities, for example, I am advocating for these issues nonetheless.
Like many of you, I imagine, I came to this work because of my background and interest in the issues, not because I wanted to be a grant maker. However, as I’ve learned, adapted and developed ownership in this role, I’ve come to realize that my role as a funder is one that makes great sense for me. Organizing and advocating within philanthropy and serving as a connector, supporter and agent to our grantees and their partners has been a place where I feel comfortable and where I feel my skills are put to good use. In many senses of the word, I come to this work as an ally; I am not a member of the impacted communities we support nor am I directly working within those communities. However, by operating in this role, I can contribute to this work in a way that makes sense for me personally and professionally.
What are my contributions to the field as a social justice funder?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to develop my skills as a grant maker at an amazingly flexible, democratic and progressive foundation. Proteus Fund’s status as a public foundation, coupled with the SRC’s structure as a donor collaborative, allow for a nimbleness and accountability that have made my foray into philanthropy something I am able to feel proud of. Additionally, the mentorship I have received from my past and current colleagues at Proteus, most notably Dimple Abichandani, Shireen Zaman, Meg Gage and Andrew Grant-Thomas, has been invaluable. So what has all this taught me? How do I approach social justice funding? And why do I believe that what we’ve got going on at the Security & Rights Collaborative is a pretty good thing?
> Even with relatively limited resources, you can practice flexibility and continuity. With an annual grant making budget of just over $1 million, the SRC’s resources are far from enormous. However, by structuring our funding to provide reliable and sustained support to a group of core grantees, paired with rapid response/opportunity funding and field-wide communications capacity and resources, our relatively modest support is both creative and responsive as well as consistent and reliable.
> Build relationships and establish a rapport with grantees (and, in the case of a donor collaborative, with funding partners). While this is obvious, it’s so critical to be worth mentioning. As a program officer for a donor collaborative, a significant portion of my work involves fundraising and donor relations. I’ve stood before the very opaque and mystifying doors of foundations and individual donors, and been perplexed by the lack of transparency – or consistency – in their decision making. So, in my role with the SRC, I strive for openness to the point of frankness, and clarity to the point of over explaining, in my relationships with grantees and funding partners. With limited resources yet lofty goals of impact, we must be fully clear and transparent about what we can and cannot fund – and why. In doing so, we are able to support organizations in seeking out funding sources that are more aligned with their work, and help fill gaps that we simply cannot fill ourselves.
> Fully leverage the donor collaborative model. The issues (torture accountability, profiling, discrimination, targeted and mass surveillance, immigration enforcement, police reform and more) as well as the communities (Muslim, Arab and South Asian) that are the focus of the SRC’s work often lie outside of or at the intersection of traditional areas of philanthropy. The donor collaborative model, and the SRC in specific, provide a unique opportunity for institutional and individual donors to support cutting edge, critical yet under-resourced work. With a single grant, our funding partners are able to support a coordinated and collaborative strategy of grassroots and national engagement, policy advocacy, organizing, communications and rapid response – all of which is being supported by and leveraging the funding of other donors at the table.
Funding social justice issues is a large and complicated task, and I’m grateful to be operating in a model and working with colleagues that support and encourage creativity, flexibility, consistency and collaboration. It is these characteristics that are, I believe, fundamental to being a funder ally.
Lindsay Ryder is a Program Officer for the Proteus Fund’s Security & Rights Collaborative. Prior to her work with Proteus, Lindsay served as a Legal Associate with the Alliance for Justice, where she developed resources and materials to support nonprofits and foundations engaged in policy advocacy. While earning her J.D. from Brooklyn Law School, Lindsay worked with a number of civil and human rights organizations including the ACLU, ARTICLE 19, the Innocence Project and South Brooklyn Legal Services.