thoughts for foundations and major donors

in my work as an organizational healer, facilitator, and coach, i regularly support, both formally and informally, lots of movement leaders. one of the major trends i’ve seen over and over is folks struggling because they can’t get consistent long-term funding. if you work for a foundation, or sit on a foundation board, or even consider yourself a major donor, i would love to share some thoughts with you on ways you can shift this trend.

for years, leaders have been told that y’all don’t want non-profit organizations to become dependent on you.

in the general meta sense, i agree with this sentiment. it’s tragic, and not accidental, that work for change and justice is so dependent on resources generated by the system it most needs to change.

however, that dependence is a given, it’s how the system functions. breaking that dependence won’t come from cultivating constant financial instability amongst the groups. it will come from getting in the work with them, being in relationships that are accountable in multiple directions over time, being part of the success of the movements themselves, and i daresay being willing to be transformed yourself.

(if you are a foundation or donor who already engages in long-term [5 year +] funding processes, then yay to you! i know y’all are out there going against the grain and you thrill me. you can stop reading this, and just toast yourselves.)

i am an abundant-minded person, and i have done fundraising work at multiple levels in movement. i’ve learned that there are finite financial resources for social justice, which tend to lessen as the work gets more specific, local, and/or radical. finding foundations and major donors like you, who actually align with the work, and are willing to fund it…let’s just say that every time it’s a major relief and a victory.

the finite-ness of the funds deepens when that funding is only offered for a year at a time, or for a limit of 1-5 years, because you don’t want to create dependence.

now one move might be to grow the pot of funds to draw from. when i was an executive director i remember wondering why social justice foundations and major donors weren’t just automatically responsible for growing the pot of resources for social justice work, instead of, or at least with, the organizers and activists. why did we all spend so much time writing, reading, submitting, and rejecting/approving grants for people who agreed with us, at least on paper? why weren’t we all mostly organizing, movement building, and resource building as a team, with folks playing a variety of positions based on access to resources and the skill set to inspire and direct giving?

to be fair, more and more foundations see this and are shape shifting and making commitments to build the relationships and do the peer educating that will grow the amount of money social justice can access through foundations and major donors, as well as shifting the power dynamics with which resources are redistributed. brava!

but growing the pot doesn’t actually liberate us all from the dynamics of privileging money over time in movements, which is what happens when foundations keep movement leaders in cycles of asking, rather than engaging in partnerships.

and there are so many foundations and donors who are still engaging in super short-term funding, some doing so even when the program officers are longing for deeper longer-term work with their grantees.

in some cases, i get it – common sense says if an organization you are funding is being mismanaged, isn’t effective, or doesn’t align with your strategy, it’s worth developing the capacity to have the hard conversations demanded in those situations. and if you can’t get to a place where your investment feels like a great choice, sure, stop funding, with clear communication to the organization.

or if you are the group’s only funder, or primary funder, and your funds aren’t in a stable place…then by all means encourage resource diversity.

but if that isn’t the case? if you are financially sound, inspired by the group’s work, think they are being well-managed or doing great self-management, and their work is strategic, if you have a relationship with them that is rewarding to you?

go deeper.

first, realize that you are one of the relatively few people/institutions that is funding this work. yay – you have the privilege of being a conscious good person with resources of your own or through your institution – and you want to use those resources in the best possible way, to support social justice. you are rare, a liger in the rough!

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realize that it impacts leaders to constantly be in proposal mode about their work, trying to come up with new projects and milestones or reframes of their work, instead of getting to focus in on sustaining and growing the existing work.

realize that the moment you place a time limit on your funding (as opposed to having the future determined by the work and the relationship), most strategic movement leaders have to place you in a limited investment category of relationships. because they have to begin planning how they will sustain the work your gift helps them create.

but most importantly, realize that you could have more – you could have more authentic relationships with the people who are changing this world, if you didn’t set up temporary conditions on the front end.

you wouldn’t begin a relationship with a potential co-parent by saying ‘basically i’ma love you and the baby for 12-18 months but once that baby needs consistent sustained care? you will have to find someone else. someone just like me, who loves y’all, who really understands you and the life you want to create for this baby, but is not me. for your sake. for your independence.’

that wouldn’t go over well with most humans who want to parent.

these movements are our babies, or rather our co-creations – at least, that’s the invitation that awaits you. there is greatness, life’s work, possible for all of us, regardless of how much wealth we carry.

without the time limits and constant reapplication process, there is room for movement building. there is room for reality-based adaptive engagement and assessment of the resources needed over time.

there is room for sharing lessons from both successes and failures, without the fear that every proposal has to be flawlessly achieved. there is room to move beyond proposal thinking and into sustenance thinking.

there is room for foundations to be in community with other foundations and with movements, to co-fund efforts, to strategize over how to support thriving movements as opposed to competing organizations.

and…if you still want to see the organizations you fund pursue independence from foundations and major donors (which should be a radical intention and not the inevitable result of short-term funding) then support all of your grantees to go through the GIFT program, or something similar, which grows their capacity to generate support in other ways. and invest in those other efforts.

work is always happening on multiple levels. in the longest run, i hope we continue to fundamentally shift what movements are, how they work, how that work is measured, how we live every day and resource that living in ways that feel impeccable to our souls.

but in the meantime, it would definitely help if more foundations and donors would fully commit to what you feel is important. lengthen your attention spans, be in and of it all.

and stay open to learning. i’ll do the same.

p.s. i’d love to hear strategies from funders who have actually made this shift! or any other feedback :-)

2 Responses to “thoughts for foundations and major donors”


  1. 1 Rachel

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful post! As someone who has been both a non-profit fundraiser (both paid and volunteer) and now works for a progressive social justice foundation, it’s great to hear someone thinking beyond the blanket critiques of funders and the non-profit industrial complex and offer constructive ideas about how to improve the relationship between funders and grantees! I’m happy to say we’re doing most of these things (long term funding, supporting grassroots fundraising training, introducing our grantees to new funders) and we’re working on others (multi-year grants). Although there are a lot of fucked up things in the foundation world, there are also progressive funders and donors doing their best to help support movements for justice.

  2. 2 Rye

    Hey Adrienne! Thanks for this post. I am so happy you chose this topic to write about. Before I worked at a foundation, I didn’t understand that so much of what we understand our political options to be and the capacity of non-profits to be real tools for community empowerment come down to philanthropy and where it is and isn’t working with social justice values.

    Some of the recommendations I would add to your helpful post are: 1) Go out and talk to organizations even if they are in neighborhoods you never go to (many funders build walls around them because they are afraid that everyone just wants their money and yada yada). I’ve heard funders say messed up things like, “I think that group does amazing work, but I haven’t been to their office because I heard they have mice and that I could get mugged in their neighborhood!” but guess what? It’s not actually your institution’s money unless it is serving a public good! It’s a tax haven and their is a responsibility surrounding that arrangement. 2) Reward the groups that actually do the work even if their budget is “too small for your money”! Pay attention to all the organizations that are getting you those wins that you love and financially support those groups doing the leg work. 3) don’t privilege groups that have huge development staff and consultant budgets over other groups, this means that less money is going into the work and you get less done with the money you give. 4) If you fund for a short period of time, consider stretching it out and gradually lessening the money so that groups aren’t scrambling to fill a void in their budget. 5) GIVE GENERAL OPERATING SUPPORT!! Groups need to be free to create their own budgets and make their own choices. Nothing says you believe in a group like investing in their organization and not just picking this thing or that thing. Even if you are funding a group just for one project, strengthening the organization’s budget overall, strengthens all of the work! 6) When your funding ends, which it will, help organizations find new income sources, make connections between funders, advocate for your groups and let people know that they are about to cycle off.

    Oh gosh, you can see I could go on and on but I’ll cut myself off. Clearly it was a thought provoking piece :) Keep it up!

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