Two Elements of Justice Funding

By Ron RowellPosted under What is a Justice Funder?

Justice funders come in many forms.  After all, there is a lot of work to do just to begin to repair the enormous damage to the social contract, the political system, and equal opportunity that has been done over the past 30+ years.  So what distinguishes a justice funder from other funders?  In my opinion, it involves both the what and the how of funding.



I would propose that justice funders focus on underlying structural injustice and supporting those most disadvantaged by that structural injustice to make use of all the tools of democracy available to overturn those structures.  Justice funders are and should be those who want to see radical change–i.e., large-scale change–and who use the resources at their disposal for that purpose.


These tools give democracy meaning:  grassroots community organizing, voter registration, get out the vote drives, and legal action, for example.  Just a few inspirational successes that were supported by philanthropy in the Bay Area have included:

There are many others, of course, that could have been listed.  What these all have in common are that the change that results doesn’t just touch an individual or a family: it touches entire communities, cities, counties, states, and the nation.  It results in profound and long-term change that improves people’s lives.



I would also argue that what should distinguish justice funders is not just the “what” but the “how” of grantmaking.  It is often said that philanthropy is a relationship business.  That’s a truism.  What kind of relationship is it that we mean? 


The reality is that one party to the relationship has the resources and some degree of authority over those resources that the other party wants or needs.  This, as we all recognize, is an unequal power relationship.  That’s a given.  How we manage that unequal power relationship is something over which we have control. 


In my opinion, the most important features of justice grantmaking are that:

In my 14 years in philanthropy I’ve felt my engagement with both grantees and other funders has continually broadened my perspective.  In the last four years, the Bay Area Justice Funders Network has been especially important in helping me focus my attention on what I’ve learned from social justice grantmaking.  Let’s keep the discussion moving!



Ron Rowell is a trustee of the Common Counsel Foundation of Oakland.  He is past CEO of Common Counsel, past Program Officer for Social Justice at The San Francisco Foundation, and past president of Native Americans in Philanthropy.  He is an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.