A New Vision For Philanthropy

We believe that philanthropy must take an active role in building a just and thriving world. Doing so requires creating intentional philanthropic practices derived from the principles of Just Transition.

Recognizing that many of philanthropy’s current practices are reflective of an extractive economy, we must bring them to an end while beginning to use practices that embrace the responsive and reciprocal relationships of a restorative and regenerative economy.

Why Do We Need a New Vision, and Why Now?

The United States is beginning to experience the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in our nation’s history, in which $30 trillion in assets will pass from baby boomers to their heirs over the next 30 to 40 years.[10] In this moment, the philanthropic practices that have guided the last century are not only insufficient to guide the coming century, they are detrimental to our very future.

As of this writing, we are experiencing greater and more frequent natural disasters caused by the severe deterioration of our planet’s resources, a rise in authoritarianism and austerity around the world, growing wealth inequality and the use of state apparati to systematically kill unarmed citizens without consequence. These incidents are reflective of a worldview based on radical individualism, consumerism, domination, extraction and violence.

What this means for philanthropy is that we can no longer treat the investment of our endowments as separate from our grantmaking. For example, philanthropies that give generous grants to organizations working to end mass incarceration are completely undermining their mission if their endowments have investments in private prisons and immigrant detention centers. Yet simply divesting from harmful industries isn’t enough. We must proactively invest in economic enterprises that build local, regenerative and democratic economies while ensuring that our investments are providing more value than they extract. 

Furthermore, if we believe in the gravity of the aforementioned issues, we must consider how to deploy any and all resources we have now before these social and environmental damages cannot be undone. It is time for philanthropy to embrace the principles of Just Transition. A Just Transition requires us to acknowledge the impact of the extractive economy on marginalized communities, repair the harms of our long history of exploitation and reject the continued accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few.

The excess profits of exploited labor and the commodification of natural resources have created the extreme wealth inequality that exists today. Therefore, we must put this wealth – which was created by human labor – back into the commons for the benefit of all. We must also make basic resources available to everyone, so that everyone has the opportunity to be productive and self-sufficient. [11] This necessitates the redistribution of social, political and economic resources and the incorporation of a reparations framework. 

The notion of redistribution and reparations means that we must confront the inequities of power in the philanthropic sector and shift two of the narratives that currently dominate our field:

  1. Charity: Giving, generosity and the human impulse to care for people in need are all positive aspects of our humanity. Charity as an institutionalized practice, however, often perpetuates power dynamics between givers and receivers, in which a small number of wealthy individuals and families aim to control and facilitate social change without tackling the root causes of inequity that make their charity necessary in the first place.
  2. Investment. Providing financial capital for the purpose of launching, sustaining and growing a business is a powerful practice to support economic development. However, in our current capitalist system, investments are made with the expectation of a maximum financial return to the ultimate benefit of the investor, at the expense of communities and even the business itself.

These narratives and practices in our sector perpetuate the idea that the world’s biggest problems can be solved by wealthy people and institutions simply by giving away money, without tackling the conditions that have allowed extreme wealth inequality to exist. It also assumes that a small, elite group has the right to accumulate capital and to make decisions on how it should be allocated for the public good. Further, it preferences the will of the donor or investor over the needs of communities, and ultimately works to protect their power and capital over all else: the environment, workers, communities, health and well-being. Within traditional investment practices, the capital returns of shareholders and investors are always prioritized over any kind of social or financial returns to the community they are invested in, even though they assume very little risk or stake in the game. [12]

Our societal perspective on charity and investments are underpinned by a long-held worldview about people’s relationship to capital and consumption. Individuals are encouraged to accumulate capital and to give to charitable causes, like direct services, that perpetuate a dependency on the ability of a privileged few to give. In line with this worldview, the way in which philanthropic wealth is accumulated, managed and distributed (i.e. via top-down grantmaking or investments in for-profit companies that cause social, economic and environmental devastation) exacerbates injustice rather than alleviates it.

This is why we need a new vision for philanthropy. We must fundamentally shift our relationship to capital and actualize philanthropy’s potential to support the collective capacity of communities in their production, rather than consumption, of resources and wealth. We see this as part of the reparations process: to support the agency and ability of communities to produce for themselves, give and invest directly in what their communities need and to retain the returns generated from these investments. Our vision prioritizes all aspects of collective well-being over the continued growth and consumption of material goods and capital.

In short, rather than continuing to structure philanthropic organizations after for-profit companies, we must support the agency of communities to implement solutions and imagine new models for governing philanthropic resources – financial, knowledge, human – that redistribute wealth, democratize power and shift economic control to communities.

Regardless of the laws and regulations governing the field of philanthropy, individual philanthropic organizations are fully capable of restructuring how their resources are deployed: more cooperatively, restoratively and regeneratively. It is with the belief that change begins with each of us – and that every one of us working in philanthropy can make a choice about what to do with the power and privilege that the field affords us – that we share this framework for philanthropic transformation.

10. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2018/05/21/are-boomers-ready-to-make-the-greatest-wealth-transfer-in-history

11. For more on self-sufficiency and African American cooperatives, see: Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.

12. https://medium.com/fifty-by-fifty/the-divine-right-of-capital-d6e8cd57f8c7

What about Diversity, Equity & Inclusion?

In recent years, there has been a growing effort within philanthropy to adopt the principles of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). The D5 Coalition, which aims to advance diverse, equitable and inclusive practices in philanthropy, provides the following definition for DEI: [13]


The demographic mix of a specific collection of people, taking into account elements of human difference, but focusing particularly on racial and ethnic groups, LGBT populations, people with disabilities and women. A diverse workplace is not necessarily an equitable workplace. Nor does the presence of people who are diverse necessarily produce decision-making that optimizes results for the groups their diversity reflects. A foundation that focuses only on diversity cannot presume that it has equity as a goal.


Improving equity is to promote justice, impartiality and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems. Levels and/or types of investments in and of themselves do not produce equity. Tackling equity issues requires an understanding of the underlying or root causes of outcome disparities within our society.


The degree to which diverse individuals are able to participate fully in the decision-making processes within an organization or group. While a truly “inclusive” group is necessarily diverse, a “diverse” group may or may not be “inclusive.”

At Justice Funders, we believe that DEI are only means to an end, not an end in and of itself. They are critical steps towards justice and liberation.

We believe that diverse, equitable and inclusive practices in philanthropy must serve the purpose of addressing one of the field’s most challenging dynamics: that decision-making and control of resources rests with those in organizational positions of power and privilege, who uphold the status quo. Therefore, DEI practices must result in a shift in decision-making towards communities most impacted by our extractive economy. These practices must also challenge our current extractive economic system, rather than existing within them.

To be clear, it is not enough for diverse individuals to be included in decision-making processes within institutions that preserve the accumulation and privatization of wealth and power. The ultimate goal should be to completely transfer decision-making and control to communities most impacted by injustice.

13. http://www.d5coalition.org/tools/dei/

Next Section: Guiding Values & Principles