Thoughts for Foundations and Major Donors

Re-post from The Lucious Satyagraha blog written by Adrienne Maree Brown.
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!
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 :-)