Like all other forms of wealth in the United States, philanthropic wealth can be directly traced back to industries that relied on economic practices of extraction and exploitation, such as the theft of Indigenous land and genocide of Indigenous people, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of African people, the systemic undervaluing of “women’s work” and the destruction of natural systems and the web of life. Because philanthropic wealth comes from these historic (and current) practices, philanthropy has a moral obligation to repair these harms and redistribute wealth and power to the communities who have been most harmed by extraction and exploitation. Only then can philanthropy play a proactive role in building a world that works for all of us.

Just Transition is “a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.” (definition by Climate Justice Alliance)  As such, a Just Transition for philanthropy requires philanthropic institutions to shift their practices away from extraction towards regeneration:

  • Extractive practices include “the removal of wealth from communities through the depletion and degradation of natural resources, the exploitation of human labor (a particularly precious natural resource) and the accumulation of wealth by interests outside the community (i.e. big banks, big oil and big box stores).”
  • Regenerative practices are “based on reflective, responsive, reciprocal relationships of interdependence between human communities and the living world upon which we depend.”

Source: From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring: A Strategic Framework for a Just Transition. Movement Generation, 2016.

For philanthropy to embody a Just Transition, two fundamental shifts are necessary:

1. A shift in our underlying assumptions about capital…

  • Away from an assumption that individuals and institutions have the right to endlessly accumulate capital and make decisions on how it should be allocated for the public good, where the preservation of wealth and power is prioritized over the needs of people and the environment;
  • Towards an assumption that, rather than being accumulated by individuals and institutions, capital must support the collective capacity of communities most impacted by economic inequality to produce for themselves, give to and invest directly in what their communities need, and retain the returns generated from these investments. All aspects of collective well-being are prioritized over the wealth and power of a few.

2. A shift in our underlying approach to philanthropy…

  • Away from an approach where foundations maintain power, accumulate wealth and grow their endowments indefinitely to exist in perpetuity, by maximizing their return on investments even at the expense of communities they claim to support;
  • Towards an approach where foundations actively support new economic systems that transfer the management and control of financial resources away from institutions and into the hands of communities who have been impacted by wealth accumulation and the extractive economy.

The transition from a system organized around limitless extraction and wealth accumulation to one organized around regeneration and resilience within natural limits is a transition in which philanthropy can play a catalytic role. Recognizing that philanthropic wealth was, and still is, accumulated through economic practices of extraction and exploitation, our field has a moral obligation to redistribute wealth and power to communities that have been the most harmed by these practices including communities of color, Indigenous communities and low-income communities.

Justice Funder’s 100-year vision for a Just Transition for philanthropy is detailed in Resonance: A Framework for Philanthropic Transformation. Our hope is that Resonance will support our field in re-imagining how philanthropy is practiced.

At Justice Funders, we envision a new approach to philanthropy that redistributes wealth, democratizes power and shifts economic control to communities in a way that is truly regenerative for people and the planet. We invite you to join us on a journey toward this vision.