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Philanthropy has the tools to protect democracy. Let’s make better use of them

Amid rising threats to abortion access, voting, and other rights, philanthropic leaders must renew their commitment to investing in efforts to protect our democracy. Here’s how.

Philanthropy has the tools to protect democracy. Let’s make better use of them
[Souce Images: Marc Dozier/Getty Images, iStock/Getty Images Plus]

More than 20 million people took to the streets after George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020, calling for an end to police violence and mass incarceration. Many in the U.S., including leaders at philanthropic institutions, shared public statements condemning police violence and affirmed the fact that Black lives do indeed matter.

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But in the months since, it seems the energy and enthusiasm for Black lives inside the philanthropic community has all but blacked out. Americans are decidedly less free than we were a couple of years ago: In state after state, people do not have the freedom to choose the gender pronouns they inhabit, they do not have the freedom to access an abortion, and they do not have the freedom to easily participate in the voting process. Many are even being punished for seeking to access the rights and protections once promised to us. It doesn’t sound very democratic, does it? That’s because the seeds of authoritarianism planted in mid-century America took root during the Trump administration, and their tendrils are creeping across the country like morning glory.

Our country’s backsliding democracy coincides with what seems like a gap between what many philanthropic leaders said they would do, and what they actually did, to support people on the frontlines of defending democracy. For the most part, philanthropy kept its institutional voices—and the power, privilege, and impact that comes with them—behind the scenes. We’ve chosen politeness over accountability. We’ve reinforced the notion that “after the fact” benevolence justifies anything-goes white supremacy.

As philanthropic leaders, we must renew our commitment to investing in efforts to protect our democracy. We must invest, and we must leverage our influence and unfettered access to powerful people and in high places.

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First, we should heed the call of activists and movement leaders. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, protesters sought not only justice for him, but also wide-ranging reforms, including reallocating money from law enforcement to mental health, harm reduction, and housing. Few communities have embraced the bold changes demonstrators were seeking, which means we can and must do more as philanthropists to push for change. That’s why we at the Marguerite Casey Foundation have increased total giving by 5% toward ending police violence, exploitation, and harassment.

Second, we must take more control over how our endowments are invested. Beyond grantmaking, philanthropy can flex other muscles with the strength of its endowments. Bold opportunities lie within the nearly $1 trillion that sit in the endowments of private foundations in the U.S. Each year, endowed foundations are required to pay out 5% of their assets; the rest is invested. Where and how this money is invested is a powerful tool to hold corporations accountable to their racial-justice pledges.

For example, while it’s probably safe to assume that most progressive foundations are against things like predatory lending, civilian firearm production, and immigrant detention, many of their endowment dollars are being put behind companies involved in these activities by well-meaning asset managers focused on optimizing foundation portfolios for financial risk and reward. If asset managers do not have clear guidelines set by foundations, they are looking at numbers on a spreadsheet, not impacts on human lives. We can fix this disconnect by driving fully mission-aligned investment programs, laying out a strategic plan, setting concrete benchmarks and bold time horizons for shifting all investments by either 2025 or 2030.

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Third, we must give proxy votes to the people. Foundations have shareholder voting rights at the companies our endowments are invested in. To elevate accountability and secure democracy, foundations need to take the brave step of giving their votes to the organizations they fund. Imagine the power of corporations hearing clearly through representative votes from people and leaders in poor, queer, communities of color.

In Michigan, for example, many corporate leaders who lauded the organizing work to support Black people after the murder of George Floyd have made the dramatic shift toward supporting elected officials who are actively supporting the disenfranchisement of these same communities. Organizations like Color of Change and Community Change, along with state-wide partners, are working under the umbrella of Defend Black Voters to pressure these companies to stand by their 2020 commitments. Imagine the power they would have in this work if they were able to pair the outside organizing work with the inside pressure work of proxy voting.

Finally, we need to do a better job of holding organizations accountable by speaking up against benevolence and doing so in solidarity. In order to be an accountable philanthropic ally in 2022 and beyond, we must leverage the full extent of our platforms, power, and resources. An example is Justice Capital and their cofounding partner Christina Hollenback, who are working to put meaningful pressure on the corporations that committed $50 billion to grow wealth and enhance safety in Black communities, but in most cases have not trickled down to the communities most impacted by mass incarceration. In addition, Hollenback is actively vocal against states using dollars from the American Rescue Act (ARPA)—a COVID-19 relief effort—to fund prisons and help draw attention to corporations that state a commitment to supporting Black communities publicly, but then underwrite the loans that fund prisons.

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White supremacist and authoritarian-inclined forces have put their money where their mouth is—an agenda borne out of anti-Blackness, Native erasure, queer silencing, and authoritarian ethonationalism. We have to secure the same level of commitment for an agenda that plants the seeds of a truly representative democracy and a just economy.

If we believe in a multiethnic, cross-class, and multiracial democracy, philanthropy will have to leverage the full force of its resources behind the fights for racial and economic justice in a way we’ve never done before.


Carmen Rojas is the president and CEO of Marguerite Casey Foundation and the only Latina leader of a nationally endowed U.S. foundation and a nationally recognized leader in economic and racial justice.

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