Skinned Knees: Practicing Social Justice Funding

By Vini BhansaliPosted under What is a Justice Funder?

“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”  

– Eduardo Galeano


When I first started working as a wide-eyed and bushy tailed international social justice grantmaker, I was struck by the hypocrisy in our sector.  We claimed to be working on addressing power dynamics between grantors and grantees. We claimed to be “in it” to build the power of those to whom we make grants. Yet, over and over again, I found that grantmakers wanted to be applauded for their largesse rather than engaging in a relationship of mutuality and service.  Instead of collaborating, like kids in a sandbox, we seemed to be competing for the “better toys,” which in a philanthropic context appeared to be greater power and prestige for our own institutions.  Observing this dynamic made me increasingly curious about how to reduce the rhetoric-practice gap in our sector. Thankfully, some of the solutions were staring right back at me.  


International Development Exchange or IDEX, the organization that I am very honored to lead, has a thirty-year long history in learning and working in deep solidarity with community-led initiatives and social movements around the world. IDEX enables people to become agents of long-term, sustainable change in their own societies. And all along we have tested, questioned, and evaluated our own effectiveness and practice as a grantmaker. Even though this approach requires time, flexibility, patience, receptivity, and restraint, IDEX embraces these conditions.


IDEX’s last such learning and evaluation process revealed a new mandate from our grantee partners.  Our partners encouraged us to grow our influence in the field of international philanthropy by becoming a more visible and vocal advocate for our partnership model. To realize this change, we needed IDEX’s practical partnership approach to be shared, learned and distributed.


Thus, we convened a group of people interested in creating conditions for better philanthropic behaviors and began to create collectively.  The result was the IDEX Academy, a training in culturally competent, social justice international philanthropy that prioritizes learning from grassroots communities.


Very practically, this meant a social justice training based in grassroots-led practice to show (not just tell) the next generation of leaders how to manage the dynamics of difference; embody a learning behavior based on reflection and connection; adopt transformative practices to dismantle injustice and inequity; andmobilize resources in favor of social justice philanthropy. Though this was just the first, we envision that over time, the Academy will ultimately build a movement of empowered and collaborative change agents, called Impact Influencers.  These Impact Influencers will become exemplars of a new era of cooperative international philanthropy–where no hoarding of the best toys or resources is allowed!


The inaugural IDEX Academy took place in June 2014 in Carpinteria, California. The Bay Area Justice Funders Network’s Dana Kawaoka-Chen was one the many extraordinary faculty members helping our Impact Influencers develop experiential social justice grantmaking skills.  There is much to be said about the actual week-long transformative experience, but I will save that for another blog post.  Here are just some of the results of the inaugural Academy:

The electric change process that was underway at the academy restored me as well as other faculty members to great hopefulness.  This experiment illustrated the potential and promise of Galeano’s description of “solidarity” in action for a new generation of social justice funders, unafraid of playing in an ever-growing and changing sandbox, skinned knees and all.


Rajasvini Bhansali is the Executive Director of International Development Exchange.  She has been involved in community organizing and volunteer board roles for the last two decades.