The Hell-Raiser's Blog - Foundation Folk: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

In response to all our recent problems snowballing into a (non-melting) glacier-sized multi-issue crisis, some foundations have seemingly started to focus more on grassroots social change work. For instance, their websites often claim to fund only change efforts led by the same marginalized people whom those efforts will benefit. These claims are accompanied by the requisite photos of determined protesters, with their signs and bullhorns and identical T-shirts, mid-chant. Also on their websites are pledges of solidarity with those who are marginalized: “Our theory of change calls for social justice achieved and scaled through the leadership of marginalized communities whose work centers the intersectionality of ...”.

This sounds like encouraging news for grassroots nonprofits – you know, the community center founded and operated by East African immigrants and refugees (I/R) to serve local East African immigrants and refugees...the local social service agency for local battered women whose board and staff are predominantly domestic violence survivors...

But is it? Maybe these foundations have changed their websites to include photos of women wearing hijabs, showcase their staff diversity, or outline their new-and-improved theory of change (social change is best led by the marginalized communities whom it will benefit). Nevertheless, many foundation practices and policies that shortchange grassroots organizations are still very much in place.

One of the most troubling is the increasingly popular Don’t-Call-Us-We’ll-Call-You (DCUWCU) funding approach, often explained like this: “Because our staff capacity is limited, we cannot accept unsolicited applications.” This statement, which conjures up images of a dingy, windowless office and a few frazzled staff duct-taping the crack in the mimeograph machine, is especially rich when the very same foundation’s tax return shows 50 million dollars in assets. Another popular explanation for the DCUWCU approach is that the funder is focused on a very few issues (it has identified The Problem) that it wants to address in a very specific ways (it has The Solution); so in the interest of responsibly stewarding foundation and applicant resources, applicants need not apply unless invited.

DCUWCU is problematic for several reasons.

First, it strands most nonprofits in a “maybe we can get on the foundation’s radar” limbo, futilely looking for mutual contacts, subscribing the foundation to their e-newsletter, inviting foundation staff to annual meetings, and so on. In implementing DCUWCU, the funder is transferring the cost of establishing a relationship with would-be applicants to would-be-applicants – many of which don’t have a Mr. Coffee, never mind 50 million dollars in assets. In my experience, the organizations that somehow do get on the funder’s radar are typically better resourced, have more connections and more name recognition than the others. So the grassroots organizations that most need funding to stay afloat are least likely to get it, regardless of the quality of their proposals and their qualifications.

Second, DCUWCU says, “You [the applicant] are qualified to lead social change efforts affecting your community only if your priority issue and corresponding fix conform to our predetermined expectations.” So much for solidarity with marginalized people leading their own struggles for justice.

Third, this practice limits the public dialogue about what needs fixing and how to do it to only a small minority of the public. What kind of theory of social change, especially in the midst of so much economic inequality, endorses this kind of financial elitism?

To the social change funder who may be reading this: Put your money where your mouth is. Otherwise your giving becomes another example of the kind of philanthropy known as "people of privilege telling the rest of us what our problem is and what to do about it."