Funding Social Justice – An Opportunity and a Responsibility

By Steve PhillipsPosted under What is a Justice Funder?

To me, a “justice funder” is a donor or philanthropist who has the explicit objective of allocating resources in order to combat injustice in society and foster racial and economic equity for historically marginalized communities. The Bay Area is a powerful place to be in terms of social justice activism and philanthropy. Because there is such a large concentration of all the communities of color, as well as such a large proportion of progressive whites living here, more is possible.  And because more is possible, the Bay Area really has the opportunity to provide a model and example for the rest of the country around what social justice and progressive social change can look like.  Other places in the country that may not have as favorable of demographics can look to our actions as a model. That’s why we have a unique opportunity here in the Bay Area, but also a certain responsibility to act.

In my own work, I really focus on how to change the balance of power in this country. I think that most of the social and economic problems in society are attached to or flow from the imbalance of power.  This is the richest country in the history of the world.  We have more than enough resources to meet everybody’s needs if we have the will and the motivation to do so, and that to me is a question of power. I think a lot of people overall, funders included, shy away from conversations about power.  To be effective requires a sober power analysis, and then to think about how to move your money in the context of what will bring about a shift in power relationships.

I was very proud to be a lead funder of the national effort to increase African American civic participation in the 2008 election of the first Black president. I saw the Obama campaign as a continuation of civil rights struggles from Fannie Lou Hamer in ‘64 to the Rainbow Coalition of ’84, and so we did a lot of work and invested a lot of money in 2007 and 2008 in strengthening Black civic engagement. I really believe that in 2008 we had the attainment of what Jesse Jackson meant when he said “the hands that once picked cotton can now pick presidents.”

Through my work the Democracy Alliance, I helped to start the Latino Engagement Fund, which has become a national hub for donors who are interested in increasing Latino civic engagement and involvement. The Latino Engagement Fund influenced the spending of 10 to 12 million dollars in 2012 and helped to turn out large numbers of Latino voters, who are now being recognized as a dominant political force in the country as well as a significant community whose issues deserve to be taken seriously. I take some real satisfaction in having been part of that.

The more I do this work, the more I see that there is a strategic significance in supporting the development of social justice leaders. Leaders can transform organizations, and they also move to different organizations and geographies. If you develop leaders, wherever they go they can continue to have that level of impact. For example, we provided the first grant to help Ben Jealous to start his tenure as president of the NAACP, which was a huge leverage point to transform the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization to support everything from criminal justice reform to marriage equality to immigration reform.

Over time, it has become increasingly important for me to think about my own philanthropy as a paired approach between c3 and c4 strategies.  People are sometimes hesitant about giving to political institutions, but one could look at political giving and advocacy as a leverage point that supports community organizing efforts that work to increase power in historically disenfranchised communities.  Political advocacy is a necessary tool to win social justice, and when paired with leadership development and community organizing, can begin to redress institutional economic and social inequality.

That being said, as someone with a long history of political organizing and giving, I began to see some years ago that there was a critical gap in the infrastructure of political fundraising. There wasn’t an explicit effort by any organization to link demographic change with the advancement of progressive policies. That realization drove the establishment of PowerPAC+, which supports a diverse group of progressive candidates and works to increase civic engagement in African American and Latino communities.  We are the only Super PAC that specifically targets regions where increased voter turnout among people of color could actually flip the political balance of power.  By working at the intersection of race, politics, and philanthropy, I truly believe we are creating a new strategic framework for funding social justice in America.


Steve Phillips is a San Francisco-based donor activist.  He currently works on both the state and national level in progressive donor organizing and infrastructure-building, after a 25-year career as an education reformer, attorney and elected official.  Steve is Founder and Chairman of and PowerPAC+, advocacy organizations that promote social justice and work to elect progressive, multiracial candidates at all levels of government.