Organizing Within Philanthropy

By Alex SaingchinPosted under What is a Justice Funder?

At the Bay Area Justice Funders Network (BAJFN), we believe that funders have a responsibility to organize within philanthropy to mobilize increased resources for social justice issues and movements.  But what does it mean to organize within philanthropy?  And how does one go about it?  This blog series has provided an evolving definition.  Here is an additional layer.


Let’s first start by understanding what community organizing is – and then comparing it with organizing within philanthropy.  Community organizing is about ensuring that the struggle for social justice is led by the people most affected by it – people of color, low-income people, women, LGBT folks, youth, and people with disabilities.  It involves engaging these individuals, deeply understanding what motivates them, helping them realize that their issues are not individual – but the result of our economic, political, and social systems that perpetuate inequity – and working with them to engage with others in similar situations to build collective power to change these systems.  At its root, community organizing is about developing leadership and human(e) relationships among those who have historically been left at society’s margins so that they may achieve equity.


The obvious difference with organizing within philanthropy is the who.  Unlike the communities we work with, funders, (both donors and the staff they employ) have often benefitted from the systems in which we reside, accumulating both power and privilege.  Unequal access to education, wealth, social status, are just a few examples.  It therefore can be a challenge for some funders to genuinely empathize with the communities they seek to help.  This reality, coupled with funders’ ability to move significant financial resources can make us believe that we have all the answers – and lead to inflated egos. 


Yet this key difference underscores the need to organize within philanthropy, and organizing in community does provide us with a roadmap of how to do so.  In broad strokes, organizing funders to advance social justice and support movements requires:


Working to understand self-interest.  Successful organizing – whatever the context – requires developing relationships that are based on trust and shared interests to propel the parties involved to take collective action.  Developing these relationships starts with understanding what motivates a person, usually accomplished via one-on-one conversations.  Why is this person in philanthropy?  What issues personally move them?  How do these interests align with those of the institutions they work for?  Asking questions like these provide us, as organizers, with a baseline to gauge the potential for collective action.

Educating and building shared understanding.  By intentionally engaging others, we undoubtedly discover a range of interests and varying levels of political analysis among our funder colleagues.  Sometimes the distinctions are small – sometimes not.  If we are to achieve equity, nevertheless, we must help our colleagues understand that: even seemingly disparate social issues often intersect with one another, both in cause and effect; our society’s ills have been created by public policies crafted by those with privilege, often for their benefit, and; lasting social change is best brought about by community-led solutions that address the root cause of the social issue.  By reaching a shared level of understanding, only then can we garner the resources needed to fundamentally change our society for the better.


Acting collectively and supporting one another.  This blog series is already replete with ways that funders can work together to support organizing and movement building – and institutionalize these practices.  I won’t go into that.  What I will say, however, is that organizing within philanthropy can be lonely and challenging– just like organizing in community – especially for funders of color or funders from other marginalized communities.  For example, we frequently struggle to educate our peers about the need to genuinely partner with community, to pushback against institutional resistance when an issue or strategy is deemed too risky or insufficiently measurable, and to endure though prejudices and micro-aggressions that occur in the workplace.  Organizing within philanthropy, therefore, requires patience, perseverance, and mutual support.


Organizing within philanthropy is a tool in a larger struggle to empower marginalized communities and the social movements that emerge from them to create a more equitable society.  As a new funder, I am privileged to have been organized by BAJFN to help me navigate philanthropy. Connecting with the folks at BAJFN has deepened my political analysis, exposed me to a broad network of social justice funders, and enabled me learn about how to go about my grantmaking in a more just, democratic, and impactful way.  And so, I encourage you to allow yourself to be organized, to let yourself be engaged in thoughtful – even if difficult – conversation, and to be open about how you might work with your colleagues to support to community-led solutions and movements for social change.


Alexander Saingchin is a Program Officer at the Common Counsel Foundation (CCF).  Previously, Alex was the Public Policy and Civic Engagement Fellow at the San Francisco Foundation.  He has also served as an organizer, community lawyer and policy advocate.  Alex currently serves as a Steering Committee member for the Bay Area Justice Funders Network.