The F-word: tackling the issue that keeps social justice leaders up at night

By Paula MorrisPosted under What is a Justice Funder?

Memo to self: in the future, if you are contributing to a single-topic blog series, you probably want to avoid being blogger #14.  Inevitably those preceding you will have said all that you would have wanted to say — and better than you ever could.

I have especially appreciated the series’ reminder that it’s not just about what gets funded. Equally important is how funders show up to the role: with self-awareness, transparency, humility, courage, patience and hyper-vigilance to the power imbalances at play. 


A dauntingly tall order already! But I do have an addition to the list: 


If our goal is to be true partners and allies to social justice organizations and their leaders, we can’t shy away from their practical day-to-day reality and the issues that keep them up at night.  And that involves tackling the F-word: Fundraising.

Deepa Iyer put it well:  “There seems to be a common understanding, a narrative we have silently agreed to, about leadership in the non-profit sector: the hours are demanding; the work is emotionally taxing; and you must give your blood, sweat and tears to the movement, to the issues, to the community. As a result, Executive Directors are usually an organization’s thought leader, fundraiser, spokesperson, budget analyst, decision-maker, and human resources specialist, all in one.”

That’s how I felt as a new ED of International Development Exchange (IDEX) many years ago and I see the incredible leaders of the Haas Jr. Fund’s Flexible Leadership Awards grantees dealing with this reality today. 

Thankfully, funding for capacity and leadership is growing (though not quickly enough).  Coaching, board development, retreats and fellowship programs – all these are more available than they were.

Support for fundraising? Not so much. 

Many justice organizations are dependent on a few foundations, wanting to expand their funding base but lacking the resources, experience or capacity to do so.  Effective fundraising is crucial to build their resiliency and their impact. And it is certainly the issue keeping them up at night.   Let’s make sure that our funding practices are at best directly addressing this issue, or at least, not actually making it worse.

How can we do that? Here are three conversation-starters — I invite others to add:

Create opportunities for training and peer learning around fund development:  What’s the right funding mix for our organization? Should we go for major donors, buy a list, do online fundraising? Do we need a consultant, if so who, when and to do what? So many questions faced by organization leaders, so few of them answered by the previous experience that many leaders bring into their roles.

We can do more to ensure that quality trainings exist for, and are available to the organizations we support. I was at GIFT’s “Money for Our Movements” conference two weeks ago. Amazing leaders from all generations all hungry to learn how to raise new money in a funding environment that favors larger organizations with programs that fit more easily into the “measurable outcomes” mold. I was inspired to see that Four Freedoms Fund had brought 100 of their grantees to learn from and with each other.

Don’t treat programs as central and fund development as peripheral: CompassPoint’s “UnderDeveloped” report confirmed what Development Directors could have told us already: too often, fundraising is treated as though it is not “the real work”.  How often do funders reinforce that message by asking only about programs and talking only to the Executive Director?  Let’s start treating Development Directors as the critical strategic leaders that they must be if their organizations are to thrive.

Make sure that our own grantmaking practices aren’t part of the problem.  Of course, that means providing general support and multi-year grants – both are like gold for under-resourced organizations.  But it also means looking at how we make grants. I cringe, for example, when I think back to grant review processes that I led that were powerful in engaging diverse community voices but, at the same time, meant more, not fewer, hoops for applicants to jump through.  Or that required $5k in staff time for drafting, writing and reporting on a $15k grant.

For justice organizations to achieve their goals requires many things.  But, most of all, it requires more money.   The Haas Jr. Fund is starting to explore how to better support fundraising: what trainings are out there? What more is needed? Are there “bright spots” we can learn from? What motivates donors for our issues?  If justice funders can tackle questions like these, perhaps we can help organizations raise the resources they need to fuel the work we all care about.


Paula Morris is Program Director for the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund’s Flexible Leadership Awards Program. She has been in leadership roles at Horizons Foundation, IDEX, and with VSO in Zimbabwe and Indonesia.