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Will Big Philanthropy Defang Our Radical Moment?

The Open Society Foundations and other massive organizations have pledged to support Black-led racial justice work. Is that a blessing or a curse?


This week, billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundations announced plans to grant $220 million to racial justice initiatives and Black-led organizations over the next five years. The recipients, according to The New York Times, will include nonprofits like the Equal Justice Initiative and Repairers of the Breach, the group founded by the civil rights activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, Reverend William J. Barber II. Grants will also go to a number of local efforts around criminal justice reform and voter outreach. That announcement echoed a pledge in June by another philanthropic giant, the Ford Foundation, to commit $1 billion to supporting racial justice work, after protests broke out across the nation over racism and police violence following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

In many ways, that kind of funding comes at a critical time. Though Black Lives Matter has gained national name recognition over the last half-decade, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, Melina Abdullah, told the Associated Press in June that organizers had been working with very little in terms of budget over the last seven years. “We’re not paid,” she said. “But we also have real costs, even if we’re not taking salaries.” The new commitments also seek to address long-standing disparities: As one analysis of the philanthropy sector found earlier this year, Black and Latinx organizations still receive less funding on average than their white counterparts and often have more restrictions on the money they do get. (“If we’re going to say ‘Black lives matter,’ we need to say ‘Black organizations and structures matter,’” Open Society Foundations president Patrick Gaspard told the Times.)

For a number of cash-strapped groups, then, a new infusion of foundation money explicitly intended to underwrite Black activism could mean the difference between continuing their programs and shuttering, especially during a pandemic and economic depression. Yet, at the same time, the outpouring from the philanthropic sector in the wake of weeks of national unrest also hints at an uneasy relationship that has existed between large funders and social movements since at least the early twentieth century. No matter how willing foundations might seem to embrace radical rhetoric of the moment—and they are undoubtedly embracing much of the language of the moment—partnerships with big philanthropy run the risk of defanging radical grassroots work. It’s clear that the resources are desperately needed, but they never come without strings.

The modern philanthropic system bloomed from the vast economic inequality of the (first) Gilded Age, when wealthy industrial magnates—otherwise known as robber barons—funneled portions of their enormous fortunes into foundations, or charity vehicles that directed money toward solving the social ills of the day (while also conveniently letting their founders stay rich). “They were launched, in essence, as immense tax-exempt private corporations dealing in good works,” journalist Joanne Barkan, who has reported extensively on philanthropy, wrote in 2013. “But they would do good according to their own lights, and they would intervene in public life with no accountability to the public required.” Several big foundations established during the early twentieth century—such as the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation—today remain major funders in the arts, education, and other fields; by design, their endowments were meant to last forever.

As Barkan notes, early critics of the philanthropy model insisted that foundations—which commanded huge sums of tax-sheltered money doled out at the discretion of their trustees with zero public input—allowed elites to appear generous with their money while also disguising how they had amassed their riches in the first place. More recently, political scientist Rob Reich has argued that philanthropy enables a small handful of elite donors to exert undue influence on public life, thereby perpetuating many of the same inequalities they claim to ameliorate, and even eroding democracy. For instance, the Gates Foundation, which has an endowment of nearly $49 billion and recently partnered with the state of New York to “reimagine education,” has notoriously undermined the public school system in the past by using its enormous influence and financial resources to push experiments with few or no proven benefits for students onto already struggling schools, like breaking up large high schools into smaller ones.

Philanthropy also serves as yet another tax advantage for the already wealthy. “We’re at a moment in American society in which the winners in the marketplace attempt to diminish their tax burdens, both corporately and individually, as low as they can legally go,” Reich told The Atlantic in 2018. “Then having diminished their tax burden as low as it can go, they turn around and set up a private foundation, taking a further tax break.” Today philanthropic institutions’ tax breaks cost the U.S. Treasury around $50 billion in lost tax revenue each year.

Despite these criticisms, approximately a century after the philanthropic sector was born, foundations have only multiplied—with Silicon Valley the latest hotbed of philanthropic activity—and opposition frequently goes unheard. After all, who can afford to criticize one of the last options for funding? As the government continues an austerity regime that withdraws support for social services, the arts, education, and other public programs, few nonprofits today are in a position to spurn funding where they can find it. As a result, even groups pressing for wide-scale social change and wary of the strings attached to philanthropic dollars often find themselves trapped in an uneasy dance with such funders in order to keep the lights on.

Yet, when it comes to radical agendas, in particular, philanthropic involvement can often result in diverting movement energy into establishment channels. The Ford Foundation, which recently increased support to Black organizations—and also gave $40 million to support the Movement for Black Lives in 2016—has one such history. Karen Ferguson, a professor of African American studies at Simon Fraser University and the author of Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism, has argued that in the 1960s, in the wake of riots, the foundation provided funding to the active Black Power movement as a means of managing (rather than advancing) Black militancy.

Though its support was controversial at the time, Ford poured money into a number of signature Black Power programs, including high-profile “community control” experiments in New York and Afrocentric arts institutions. Yet the foundation was also quick to cut off support to the more militant elements of the movement when they ran up against Ford’s ideology, and it ultimately sought less to overhaul society than to assimilate Black Power into mainstream life. As Ferguson wrote, “Their solution was to foster the creation of a new black leadership class that could broker for the black poor from within the American establishment—a kind of elite pluralism that would at once demonstrate the nation was living up to its egalitarian ideals and dampen black insurgency.”

Megan Ming Francis, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, tracks a similar phenomenon—a process she calls “movement capture”—in her research on the relationship between the NAACP and the philanthropic Garland Fund. In the 1920s, Francis writes, the then-underfunded NAACP’s primary campaign was fighting lynching and other forms of racist mob violence. However, when the Garland Fund began granting money to the organization, that financial backing allowed it to nudge the NAACP’s agenda toward a focus on education, which Garland saw as a less contentious issue. As Francis notes, that shift would eventually lead to the NAACP’s involvement in a number of important civil rights reforms, including the landmark Brown v. Board case, but also represented a marked departure from the organization’s stated mission at a critical time. “I’m concerned that sometimes even with the best of intentions, the priorities of the poorest and marginalized get replaced by the priorities of the rich and powerful,” Francis told Vox last year.

In other words, attracting the attention of foundations has long been a double-edged sword for social movements, and the influence of the foundation world has only increased in recent years. These days, it’s easy enough for foundations to profess radical commitments or even acknowledge certain limitations of the philanthropic model while the fundamental structure of philanthropy stays unchanged. Current Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, for instance, has often signaled his openness to criticisms of philanthropy. “Philanthropists need to engage in repairing the very mechanisms that produce, preserve, and promote our privilege,” he said last year. “I believe we must practice a better vision of philanthropy, one that improves itself and the societies of which we are members.”

And yet, as Ferguson noted a few years ago, Walker also remains at least partially convinced of the potential of the market to right injustice. “Let us bridge the philosophies of Smith, and Carnegie, and King, and break the scourge of inequality,” Walker wrote in 2015. “For when we do, to paraphrase another of Dr. King’s most powerful insights, we at last will bend the demand curve toward justice.” That capital-friendly mentality has paid off handsomely for foundations, but as a new mass groundswell of protest comes face to face with the same philanthropic system that neutralized so many that came before, its utility for the rest of us is far less clear.