What is a justice funder? Could it possibly be me?

By Jen SokolovePosted under What is a Justice Funder?

I have to admit, I’m shocked to be writing for this blog. I came to the Compton Foundation, where our funding now supports movement building and storytelling in climate, reproductive rights and justice, and peace, to run the environment portfolio. I still think of myself, in many ways, as an environmental funder, and, although the Foundation is deeply committed to justice, we rarely explicitly identify Compton as a “justice funder”.


I think that this strange identity problem–and, let’s be clear, it IS a problem, at least it is if it leads me to expect a nebulous group of other funders to be responsible, let alone coordinated in resourcing, the justice piece of the work–grows out of our patterns of working in silos, or specific issue fields, in philanthropy. While the culture of our field resists categorization, are there times when a shared identity is helpful? Further, what practices allow us to transcend the silos to re-imagine the role of philanthropy in support of movement?


At Compton, we are trying to address this challenge and to ground our work in an understanding that “justice” is in all that we do; in fact, one of our programmatic goals is to work across silos. A new focus on transformative leadership, adopted three years ago, has led to a program aimed at supporting movements. For us, this requires thinking differently about who we’re funding, who our peers and partners are, and how we can be most useful as a funder, convener, connector, and general resource.


We believe that it is critical to work across institutional and issue boundaries toward a positive vision of the future. We just don’t see how any one organization, Nor do we see how any one issue–defined in isolation–no matter how compelling, can energize the range and number of people needed to make real change.


We think the kinds of change necessary to build a positive future will include substantial structural change–fundamental shifts in our economic and political systems–and we think that argues for growing broad-based movements with the power to both imagine and demand that kind of change. We are driven by not just movement-building, but also storytelling. We believe that cultural change precedes political change (thank you, Jeff Chang), and that we (as a broader society) need to alter the stories we tell about our relationships to each other and to nature if we’re to reach a future that equitably sustains life on this planet.


Putting all this together leads us at Compton to believe that an issue-driven philanthropic portfolio made up of a series of grants to organizations working on their own to solve big problems is insufficient. In fact, it seems like it might well hold us back from even imagining the kind of change we need, as driven, smart, passionate people inside fantastic organizations focus on annual deliverables that can indicate progress on narrowly defined problems.


Great. Then what?? Well, that is precisely at the center of our struggles and our grantmaking experimentation. Let’s be clear, there is some real joy in breaking down some of the walls. There is also some danger in what a friend of mine terms “ill advised silo busting.” We don’t want to jump head first into making grants in ecosystems we don’t understand. We don’t want to push collaboration where it’s not driven by real personal connection. We don’t want to throw money into dark holes and cross our fingers. We do want to support emergent efforts to build trust and relationships that can withstand conflict across difference, and where organizational goals align with broader aims that are getting closer to the scale of movements. We’re looking for places where people are laying out visions of what they might actually want, not just what they want to resist, visions that can rouse the imaginations of people coming from a range of experience to think about what could be possible and why and how it could be brought into being.


In the process of exploring this space, we’ve noticed that there is a lot of work to be done just aligning within our issue areas, which have silos and sub-silos, and sub-sub-silos, not to mention big divides across organizational size and geographic focus. Too much of the history in our issue areas is of organizational strategies obstructing each other over the long term, as opposed to building toward bigger change together, so we’ve put a surprisingly large proportion of our support toward efforts to build alignment across those very real divisions.


In the climate change field, over the last decade, much of the grantmaking has been driven by an effort to maximize the carbon reduction returns likely to result from a particular investment. This kind of strategy makes sense in an urgent battle to turn the tide on carbon pollution before we hit a point of no return; however, it hasn’t worked particularly well. We believe that a positive narrative of a climate resilient future and how we might get there could help, and that such a vision must be broad enough to encompass what sustains life in all communities (thanks, Marc Bamuthi Joseph). To build that vision, many of our partners are digging into the specifics of what a ‘just transition’ to an equitable, low-carbon economy might look like, how it might include fundamentally different patterns of exchange, ownership, and governance, and how it might be led by experimentation and innovation in the communities affected first and most by the climate crisis. In this space, we believe that foundations have a role to play beyond grantmaking, and we have been working to advance Divest/Invest Philanthropy as a way for philanthropic institutions to bring the full scope of their financial power to bear and to take part in movement work directly. We have also started reaching out to the economic and social justice field much more directly to learn from their expertise in precisely the issues we are facing. We see activists well ahead of foundations in bridging that issue divide, and we are eager to catch up and to support our colleagues to do likewise.


In the reproductive rights, health, and justice space, a number of our partners are working to think creatively together about how to change the cultural space in which we talk about reproduction, sex, abortion, and birth control to a more spacious conversation about love and family, with a generous dose of pragmatic access to health care and an opportunity to consider issues like wage equity, child care, immigration, domestic work, and beyond. Part of what has made their efforts so powerful, from our perspective, is clarity on the role that culture can play in shaping the space for activism. Initial forays into partnerships with artists by the Strong Families Initiative of Forward Together resulted in a Mama’s Day card campaign that featured representations of a much wider range of mothers and families than available in your average card store, and it expanded to include fathers in the complementary Papa’s Day campaign last year. That campaign invited families into a reproductive justice conversation in brand new, personally relevant ways. Now artists and movement partners are starting to imagine how to talk about reproductive rights and justice in a way that doesn’t limit the conversation to, or prioritize, reproduction, which is, frankly, not what most of us are focused on most of the time when we’re thinking about or having sex. From our perspective, flipping the conversation to the positive opens new possibility in terms of emotional engagement with new individual and organizational partners, and shifts the terrain from defensiveness to hope, maybe even joy. We don’t know where this work will end up, which does feel risky, as a grantmaker. But we also feel like funding only the kind of work with which we’re comfortable is precisely what limits innovation.


Whether you call it art, culture, storytelling, or visioning, a creative broad view of what is possible guides much of what we see as the most powerful work happening right now. Many of the intersections we’re exploring turn out to require negotiation around who tells those stories, who has access to the conversation and capacity to participate or design them, who benefits from the proposed changes in those stories, and who is accountable to whom for ensuring that the work continues to move toward the ideals laid out in the stories, as opposed to stopping along the way when some of the folks involved have accomplished their more limited goals. I am learning is how to sit with the unknown and how to support emergent work that doesn’t yet have a “proven track record.” I am also learning how be open to understanding myself as a funder who is centering justice while navigating boundary crossings. I invite others to think about what being a justice funder means to you–what is working, what might need to change, and where we might learn together.



Jen Sokolove is Program Director at the Compton Foundation, where she has led work in the fields of climate change, fresh water, and rural conservation in the western United States, as well as art for social change and sustainable food systems, and she is now exploring leadership and storytelling. You can reach her there at: jsokolove@comptonfoundation.org.