Foundations and the Environmental Movement – An Interview With Daniel Faber

September, 2010



Daniel Faber is Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at Northeastern University. He completed his Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1989, and his first published book was Environment Under Fire: Imperialism and the Ecological Crisis in Central America (Monthly Review Press, 1993). Since then Faber has published Capitalizing on Environmental Injustice: The Polluter-Industrial Complex in the Age of Globalization (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), and is the editor of The Struggle for Ecological Democracy: Environmental Justice Movements in the United States (Guilford Press, 1998), and coeditor with Deborah McCarthy of Foundations for Social Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). Faber is also an editorial board member of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology (1988-present). This interview was undertaken by email in September 2010.

Michael Barker (MB):  When do you first remember reading or hearing about critiques of liberal philanthropists and their foundations? What was your initial reactions to such criticisms? Here I am predominantly thinking about the former “big three” foundations, the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations.

Daniel Faber (DF):  I come at the politics of philanthropy as a long time scholar-activist in a family of activists, where the need to raise money to support our various organizing efforts has always been a central issue and topic of discussion. So, I’ve been thinking about this for over 25 years, and writing about it over the last ten years. In my view, there are three fundamental sets of issues that must be confronted. First of all, most liberal foundations engage in the philanthropic exclusion and/or marginalization of popular social movements on the Left. For example, the  environmental justice movement receives only 4 percent of all foundation grants dedicated to the environment. That is remarkable! And most of this support remains concentrated among a very small group of [mostly progressive] foundations. In fact, on average, only two-tenths of one percent of all foundation grant dollars are dedicated to the environmental justice movement. Given the hundreds of organizations and the large size of the constituencies being served, my calculations suggest that the environmental justice movement is currently one of the most underfunded major social movements in the country. Secondly, many liberal foundations engage in the philanthropic exclusion and/or marginalization of select Left organizations within normally funded popular movements. In other words, when liberal foundations do fund social movements, they often encourage and support the more politically “centrist” organizations and campaigns within movements. In this context, larger foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie have a greater capacity to “disembody” and “conventionalize” a movement, although networks of smaller liberal foundations acting in a coordinated fashion can have the same type of impact. In their research, sociologists Robert Brulle and Craig Jenkins find that over 85 percent of the funding to the environmental movement goes to politically moderate organizations. Most of these organizations lack a participatory membership and rely on top-down “institutional tactics” over public protests. Because liberal   foundation support has been concentrated on a relatively small number of large organizations involved in advocacy work, the more grassroots and innovative sectors of the environmental movement are being bypassed. By “channeling” resources to mainstream environmental  organizations like Environmental Defense, liberal funders are supporting groups which share a perspective that emphasizes: the primacy of “professional-led” advocacy, lobbying, and litigation over direct-action and grassroots organizing; a single-issue approach to problem-solving over a multi-issue perspective; the art of political compromise and concession over more principled approaches; and the “neutralization” of environmental politics in comparison to linking environmental problems to larger issues of social justice and corporate power. The accelerating interest by mainline funders in the types of the scientific expertise, lobbying and professional advocacy, and technical-rational solutions and compromises offered by the mainstream organizations are largely a liberal strategy to win limited concessions from increasingly conservative and hostile federal officials. The impact of this funding pattern is to “channel” the environmental movement into more moderate discourses and conventional forms of action. This approach also serves to systematically limit the range of progressive viewpoints represented in the public arena, and restrict the participation of citizens in their own governance. It is this ideological and class-based affinity on behalf of mainline foundations for single-issue forms of environmental regulatory reform that remains the greatest obstacle to building a Left ecology movement. Finally, some liberal foundations engage in the philanthropic colonization of previously radical organizations and/or movements for social change. In other words, when liberal grantmakers do fund the grassroots organizations within movements, the money comes with so many stipulations and restrictions that the autonomous “movement-building capacities” of the grantee are severely limited. Doug McAdam documented this in his study of black protest in the U.S. between 1930-1970. Liberal funders like the Ford Foundation funded the civil rights movement but also exerted a moderating influence by directing support away from the more radical to the more conciliatory organizations over which they exercised more direct influence. The tendency for the foundation to exert control over the strategies of its grantees in the 1960-70s led many activists in the Civil Rights, Chicano, and women’s movement to ask each other, “have you been driven by Ford lately?” In certain cases, liberal foundations will even demand a direct role in setting the agenda and strategic vision of the grantee. One funder, the Pew Charitable Trusts, which distributes the single largest block of money earmarked for environmental causes in the country, is taking an increasingly interventionist role in altering the operations of many environmental organizations (including auditing their books, suggesting personnel changes, and specifying how money should be spent). In some cases, Pew has created new organizations to implement its vision, including a Boston-based task force on air pollution and energy which supports de-regulation of electricity. In the past, Pew’s actions have drawn criticisms from the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., which monitors foundation behavior. This process by which funders serve as “gatekeepers” and select out those initiatives offering the most politically “acceptable” opportunities for short-term success — were part of a mix of factors that led to a growing split between the professional, inside-the-beltway environmental organizations and more direct-action, community-based organizations (including environmental justice groups) working at the grassroots. As the environmental justice movement grew it gained increasing media attention. Many liberal environmental funders, in their bewilderment over the multi-issue approaches of grassroots activists and their alarm and consternation at the confrontational tactics of the movement, refuse to offer support to any grassroots work at all. This funding dilemma was exacerbated by the mismatch between a multi-issue movement and a funding world that tends to prioritize environmental grants by specific program areas. There are several common tools of philanthropic colonization used by liberal foundations with the bipartisan, corporatist, or “beyond ideology” approaches to social change. These devices include: providing short-term rather than multi-year grants that allow for planning and program development; demanding “immediate” returns on foundations “investments” in social movement organizations rather than employing evaluative criteria which reward longer-term base-building and community organizing activities; and  issuing project specific funding as opposed to general support grants. According to a recent National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) study of 26 grassroots organizations and 21 foundations, two-thirds of grassroots organizations believe they receive an inadequate level of core or general operating support from foundations. In fact, general support constituted only 13-14 percent of all foundation grant dollars in 1999, whereas program or project specific support was at 43 percent. So, in my view, the reluctance of many liberal foundations to provide general support is a key mechanism by which funders indirectly determine and control the policies and priorities of environmental organizations, a responsibility properly belonging to the latter’s boards, staff, and membership. The transfer of money in this manner also transfers the power of the foundation. In contrast, most general support grants afford grantees greater autonomy and flexibility to meet both organizational and community needs, and to pursue a larger strategic vision which is self-determined.

MB:  Could you could briefly explain what you think about the academic/activist literature that is critical of liberal philanthropy? Like for example, the work of Robert Arnove, Edward Berman, and Joan Roelofs.

DF:  The pioneering investigations of Arnove, Roelofs, Berman, and others has been critically important to bringing a socialist critique of philanthropy into the discussion. I have a deep appreciation for the insights afforded by their work, and . The Left has got to take their warnings seriously. Roelofs, for example, cautions that even while liberal foundations often appear willing to fund grassroots organizations and movements for social change, their true intent is to push for the types of limited reforms that address various social problems in a manner that does not challenge the prevailing power structure of American capitalism. As a result, liberal grantmaking tends to dilute, rather than support, radical protest. This finding is consistent with Mary Anna Culleton Colwell’s study of 77 grantmaking institutions, which concluded that foundations make grants to influence public policy from a perspective of democratic elitism and a commitment to the free enterprise system. Hence, liberal foundations prefer to co-opt  Left activists and intellectuals, and fund the more moderate organizations within any social movement (as opposed to the often more militant “indigenous’ or grassroots organizations). In effect, Roelofs argues that liberal foundations are more effective [than Right-wing foundations] conservers of corporate power. These theorists assume that foundations, as embodiments of wealth, either avoid funding organizations that might threaten the status quo or actively fund moderate organizations as a way of mollifying public dissent. While I agree with this general line of reasoning, I would like to offer some important qualifiers. First, I tend to see much of the world of liberal philanthropy as lacking the strategic institutional structure and ideological coherence that it is sometimes attributed. For example, in the Ford Foundation and many other liberal foundations, there are important pockets of progressive grantmaking and staff that are serving to advance popular social movements. Furthermore, various funder affinity groups led by progressive funders can play an important role in bringing liberal foundation program officers (and their portfolios) into the fold. Second, it is not uncommon to see different programs within the same foundation working at cross-purposes, or supporting politically opposed projects. This stands in direct contrast to the strategic philanthropy of more conservative foundations. Sally Covington has examined conservative foundations and finds that their success is due to a funding strategy which leverages grants in the direction of ideological organizations that worked to directly promote neo-liberal economic policies and neo-conservative social policies; supports organizations with a strong national presence (as opposed to dispersing funds too widely among local organizations); and engages in advanced media outreach. More specifically, conservative foundations engage in highly coordinated forms of strategic philanthropy, whereby grant dollars are utilized to support a sophisticated national public policy infrastructure made up of conservative think tanks, lobbying groups, academic institutions, media watchdogs, and public relations firms. In fact, the top 20 conservative think tanks funded by conservative foundations spent $1 billion on generating “ideas” over the course of the 1990s.  Furthermore, the National Committee For Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) finds that the ten best-funded conservative advocacy organizations receive 90 percent of their foundation funding in the form of general operating support. By contrast, their counterparts on the Left receive just 16 percent of their foundation funding in the form of general operating support. In my view, many, if not most, liberal foundations lack this cohesion and dedication to un-abashed movement-building driven by ideology, and are proving to be increasingly ineffective in their experiments at social engineering. Thus, I am coming to see neo-liberal foundations as exerting a greater power over American politics than most traditional liberal foundations. Third, some commentators argue that, with the proper safeguards, the resources offered by liberal foundations can also be appropriated in various instances by more radical  organizations committed to profound social change with resorting to political compromise. These opportunities are determined by a host of factors, and vary according to how movement philanthropy is socially organized. For instance, there is evidence that many organizations leverage their funds from a variety of sources (including members and progressive funders), and can therefore minimize the “moderating” influences of liberal foundations. But where can those lines be drawn? At one point does X amount of liberal grant money translate into too much influence?  How can the Left navigate these waters without suffering political compromise and concession? I think the answers to the questions are poorly understood, and that tends to result in a blanket condemnation of organizations that receive money from liberal foundations. I am not so quick to go there. I think individuals and organizations are capable of being quite savvy in leveraging money to advance a Left agenda. A key questions is “under what conditions can this occur?” And this is a critically important question. For the dirty little secret of American politics is that foundation dollars provide 70 to 90 percent of the funding support for most of the country’s social movements. And the majority of this money comes from just a few large foundations. Ford and Robert Wood Johnson alone provide 25 percent of foundation grants for social justice work.

MB:  As a result of publishing your own work, what sort of opposition or support have you obtained from the academic, environmental, and philanthropic communities?

DF:  Despite an award winning book, many journal publications, and some of the highest ranked teaching evaluations in the University, I barely survived the tenure process in the 1990s. In fact, I was initially denied tenure. But I had strong support from my colleagues, and only after rallying my allies was I granted tenure (but denied promotion) on appeal. Ironically, my university is now emphasizing its strengths in the social sciences, particularly with respect to public policy and social movements. So, I am now held in high regard by the new administration because of my engagement with the environmental justice and environmental health movements (and the publicity it garners for the University) — even though I’m an eco-Marxist. Today I work closely with many organizations in the environmental justice and environmental movements, as well as  progressive foundations. And, as an “independent” scholar, I am able to say things about the world of philanthropy that many in the foundation and social movement worlds cannot say themselves (but wish they could). I did secure a research grant from the Nonprofit Sector Research Fund of the Aspen Institute to produce a report on how relations between the environmental justice movement and grantmakers could be improved. This report represents the findings of a year-and-a-half long investigation and assessment of the state of relations between the foundation  community and the environmental justice movement. Among the many findings of the report: environmental justice organizations representing communities of color are grossly underfunded compared to other segments of the environmental movement; a primary challenge confronting people of color-led groups is the serious lack of racial diversity in the philanthropic community; and that foundations should adopt a set of exemplary grantmaking practices to reduce their influence over the strategic vision of their grantees, etc. The report made a huge splash in the Environmental Grantmakers Association and the environmental justice movement, especially since I came at the liberal environmental  foundations pretty hard. I think the leadership of the environmental justice movement was deeply appreciative.  The publicity and attention generated by the report led to numerous requests for speaking engagements, including a major presentation at the Grantmakers in Health Annual Meeting in New York.  I was also invited to serve on a major plenary with the President and/or Vice-Presidents of the Ford, Nathan Cummings, Liberty Hill, Jessie Smith Noyes, Turner, Public Welfare, Fund for Southern Communities, and Veatch Foundations at the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, DC to discuss the report (500 copies were distributed at the summit). In short, the report gave voice to the many Leftists and progressives scattered throughout the foundation world, and helped to generate some important reforms among some foundations.

MB:  Why do you think that so few Marxist writers are critical of liberal philanthropy?

DF:  It is clear that any hope for a democratic-socialist renewal lies in the strong voices of thousands of social movement organizations that serve as an expression of the collective desire for social, economic, and environmental justice. Given the important role that financial resources play in movement-building work, it is at first glance shocking to see so few Marxists engaged around the philanthropic question. I do think most Marxists are properly critical on this question, but are not fully engaged with its theoretical or political importance. However, upon closer inspection, my experience tells me that there are a number of factors that explain this discrepancy. First of all, most liberal foundation cultures are very insulated (if not closed), cautious, secretive and unresponsive to study by outsiders (especially Marxist critics). They are not democratic institutions that are legally obligated to draw attention to their shortcomings. Furthermore, a liberal foundation culture that is homogeneous in terms of the  composition of its staff and board members typically establishes parameters that limit the expression of socialist or other alternative value systems, perspectives, and viewpoints. Such viewpoints are not accepted. Therefore, it is very difficult for Marxist scholars to gain the necessary access to foundation officials. Record keeping is poor. To get inside closed doors, one must be networked or “proven,” and work long and hard to gain insight into the workings of the foundation world. Otherwise, it is difficult to get past the various gate keeping functions that exist in the foundation world — even if you don’t want their money. Secondly, it is very difficult to have activists, scholars, and other social movement grantees openly discuss their relationships with foundations. No one wants to openly criticize their funders and “bite the hand that feeds them,” even if what they are receiving amounts to crumbs. Furthermore, many grantees do not want to draw attention to scarce funding opportunities for which there is a lot of competition. Any scholar or social critic (Marxist or non-Marxist) risks enduring the wrath of their social movement allies and foundation supporters by uncovering the various problems that exists in the world of philanthropy. As a result, there is a deafening silence within the Left around the role of money in movement building. And last, but not least, there is a weak history of political engagement between foundations and the socialist movement in the United States. So Marxists don’t study philanthropy, for the most part. This may be due to the theoretical influence of European Marxism with respect to the state (and political economy), where philanthropy has played a much less significant role. In contrast to much of Europe, where policy research and advocacy functions are undertaken by organized political parties, the power structure in the United States is almost completely dependent upon the expertise provided by private policy institutions and networks. Funded by a sophisticated network of conservative, centrist, and liberal foundations, these policy institutes and think tanks serve as a “revolving door” for the capitalist class — providing the personnel for the rush of political appointments that come with each new administration, and also providing a refuge for discarded government officials. Policy institutes are a frequent meeting point for the power elite — a place where past, present, and future policy analysts, high-ranking government officials, business leaders and CEOs, intellectuals, journalists, and conservative activists come together to develop a political vision and strategy. American Marxists have been very good at studying the “class” content of these policies, and placing them into a larger political-economic context, but need to do a better job of explaining the role of philanthropy in creating institutions that forge these policies. That is the strength of Roelofs, Arnove, and a few others.

MB:  The reformists parts of the environmental movement have always been highly concerned with human population growth. Other researchers (myself included) have argued that this fixation on neo-Malthusian ideas owes in large part to the strategic support that the environmental  movement received from liberal foundations (especially in its early days). What are you views on this matter?

DF:  The neo-Malthusian perspective (overpopulation = poverty and environmental destruction) long predates the rise of liberal foundations, but it has been reinforced in the U.S. environmental movement since by a host of grantmakers. In the early 1950s, for instance, the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller money helped to establish the Population Council, providing over $94 million in funds in a little over two decades. Many writers (Bonnie Mass, Steve Weissman, Robert Arnove, Vandana Shiva, etc) have outlined the role of the Malthusian establishment in justifying the various manifestations of U.S. imperialism (the green revolution and capitalist land reforms in the developing world, sterilization campaigns, counterinsurgency). Rather than developing strategies to address the systemic sources of poverty and rapid population growth, the U.S. government-sponsored coercive population control programs and policies supported by liberal foundations and much of the traditional environmental movement. These programs served to facilitate control over the local populations in order to serve the needs of U.S. capital and the national security state; and to perpetuate the myth that poverty and environmental destruction is created and reproduced by the oppressed themselves via overpopulation. The argument disguises the fact that rapid population growth is a function of the unequal distribution of resources, wealth, and political power that characterizes dependent development. So, I completely support your assertion. We ran into this issue head first at the Environmental Project on Central America (EPOCA) in the 1980-90s. At that time, many in the U.S. environmental movement saw the primary causes of poverty, civil war, and ecological crises in the Central American region stemming from “overpopulation.” We found this to be a major obstacle in trying to build bridges between the solidarity movement, U.S. environmentalists and popular movements in Nicaragua and throughout the region. But even when we could not convince other environmentalists to agree on the root causes of these problems, we could forge alliances around progressive solutions in the form of land reform, economic equality, and the empowerment of women. The Malthusian perspective continues to be strongly ingrained in the psyche of the U.S. environmental movement, and is well-funded by liberal foundations. As such, it remains deeply divisive, witness the recent attempts by neo-Malthusians to “take back” the leadership of the Sierra Club. But there are also number of insiders engaged in philanthropic activism in the funding world today that are trying to move liberal neo-Malthusian grantmakers to shift their money away from repressive functions toward more progressive “solutions” and popular organizations in the Global South, particularly those oriented towards women’s reproductive rights and social justice (see Laurie Mazur’s new edited collection, A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice & the Environmental Challenge). And I think these struggles will continue for many years to come.

MB:  Could you describe the general impact that liberal foundations have had on the evolution of research within universities in the United States? Following on from this, how would you describe the relationship between elite philanthropy and capitalism?

DF:  Since the early twentieth century, foundations have played a central role in supporting numerous charities and social institutions, including hospitals and medical research, human services, the arts and cultural events, and places of higher learning. But foundations have also increasingly assumed a lead role in advancing various social causes, policy initiatives, social programs, and political movements dear to the hearts (and sometimes the wallets) of their founders and boards of directors. In so doing, foundations have served as a major catalyst for reforming society in line with the larger vision of the political-economic elite comprising the “funding class.” This power can be seen in: the Rockefeller Foundation’s fostering and shaping of scientific research and policy expertise; the Twentieth Century Fund’s direct role in the creation of credit unions and evolution of consumer capitalism; the Ford Foundation’s enormous influence on public policy beginning in the 1950-60s, including a focus on poverty and political marginalization among people of color, the elderly (Gray Areas Program), and women; and the instrumental role of the Russell Sage Foundation in pushing for national standards relating to housing, sanitation, public health, workers’ compensations and pension plans, city planning, and the professionalization of social work. What makes circumstances unique today in comparison to the past is that the sheer economic wealth controlled by these institutions has increased exponentially in recent years — both in terms of the number and the size of today’s foundations. Over the last two decades foundation assets have increased 1,000 percent. Moreover, foundation support for the non-profit sector has more than tripled since 1991. In fact, America’s grantmaking foundations gave out $205.9 billion over a ten-year period between 1992-2002. The growing inter-generational transfers and concentration of wealth accompanying the economic boom of the 1990s also resulted in the formation of new foundations at unprecedented rates: doubling from more than 30,300 in 1988 to more than 61,800 active grantmakers. And America’s largest foundations are truly economic giants. Ford Foundation assets hover around $10.8 billion. Likewise, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have held assets of $5.53 billion and $4.14 billion respectively. The control over vast sums of wealth has always conferred enormous political clout. We know that that the bulk of foundation money goes to institutions and causes that  promote the specific class interests of the givers and their family members, including education. A recent study that analyzed the grantmaking patterns of the country’s biggest foundations found that the largest beneficiaries were the wealthiest non-profits in the nation, and included already well-endowed colleges and prestigious universities, and other elite institutions. In fact, more than one of every four dollars donated in 2001 by these foundations went to educational institutions, particularly those serving the most privileged families in society. For instance, Stanford University received more than $873.1 million in foundation grants, while Harvard University received over $754.8 million (Harvard’s endowment in 2004 was $19.3 billion).  Numerous Marxists have written on the role played by these elite institutions in reproducing ruling class power society. In contrast, the process by which America’s largest and most powerful foundations channel the bulk of their resources toward elite class-based institutions leaves little money for those educational institutions or organizations serving the neediest members of society. In fact, nonprofits providing human services receive only about one in ten of all foundation dollars. Given the lack of foundation resources serving the disadvantaged, it is clear that private philanthropy will not fill the void created by state budget cuts. Furthermore, their grantmaking strategies are proving unable to solve America’s most pressing social and environmental problems. This failure signals a “crisis of philanthropy,” a fact which can no longer be denied. The question is “why?” Pablo Eisenberg atf Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute has stated, “although we know that our socioeconomic, ecological, and political problems are interrelated, a growing portion of our nonprofit world nevertheless continues to operate in a way that fails to reflect this complexity and connectedness.” As a result, the linkages between environmental abuses, poverty and economic inequality, racism, human health problems, crime, the lack of democracy, and the consolidation of corporate power are typically  ignored. Instead, the traditional foundation community has responded to this crisis with more charity, or has encouraged research in University settings that privileges the role of non-profit organizations and/or marketplace incentives as the means for providing needed services, enhancing “community assets,” rebuilding social capital, and solving pressing social problems. This unwillingness to confront broader issues of political and civic disempowerment is at the heart of the crisis of philanthropy. Kim Fellner, Director of the National Organizers Alliance, captured this brilliantly, when she stated that “Civil society without power analysis is the opiate of the funding class.” So, the ability of foundations to catalyze the types of fundamental political, educational,  and economic changes required to solve the social and ecological ills of the nation is now greatly diminished. In this respect, the current crisis of capitalism and philanthropy go hand in hand.

MB:  In your opinion what possibility do you see in the likelihood that anti-capitalist activists can strategically utilize liberal foundation funding for developing an anti-hegemonic movement for social change?

DF:  That is a tough question. I think it will be extremely difficult for the Left to capture liberal foundation money for explicitly socialist (or anti-capitalist) political activities. And if mainline foundations continue to conceive of today’s social and environmental crises as a collection of unrelated problems, then it is highly unlikely that significant improvement will be made. That is the reform strategy of most liberal foundations. I think that part of the equation is self-evident. However, if you consider mass-based social movements to be cornerstone for bringing about the transformation of American capitalism, then liberal foundations are likely to play a role in this process. And progressive foundations are likely to play a major role. There is a long legacy of progressive philanthropy in the United States. Over the last four decades, a new generation of youth radicalized by the events of the 1960s has assumed control over their family foundations, and/or utilized their inherited wealth to create a number of new Left-oriented foundations. Largely abandoning the long-standing practice among the traditional philanthocracy of giving their family name to these new foundations, more symbolic titles oriented to the promotion of social and economic justice have instead been adopted. Thus,  foundations such as Resist, Needmor, Public Welfare, Solidago, Vanguard, Haymarket Peoples Fund, Liberty Hill, Changemakers, Third World, Bread and Roses, Hunt Alternatives Fund,  North Star, New World, and Third Wave, among others, have come into existence to build upon the legacy of the Rosenwald and Stern Funds. In a number of important instances, progressive foundations and grassroots organizations have encouraged several liberal funding world giants (including Ford, which already has some pockets of progressive grantmaking) to do more of it. In addition, new alternative funding institutions are developing all the time. These include alternative funds seeking workplace contributions,  women’s funds, alternative community foundations, new religious funders, racial/ethnic philanthropic efforts, and more. The monies they raise for progressive social change are substantial and constitute a quarter of all foundation money committed to social change. So, social movement philanthropy aimed at base-building counter-hegemonic social movements is growing and evolving. Base-building implies creating accountable, democratic organizational structures and institutional procedures which facilitate the inclusion of ordinary citizens, and especially dispossessed people of color and working-class families, in the public and private decision-making practices affecting their lives. “Top-down” advocacy, service, and litigation strategies are subordinated in favor of “bottom-up” grassroots organizing and democratic base-building efforts that facilitate community empowerment. In short, social change philanthropy aims to create an infrastructure for political activism by catalyzing foundation resources in support of labor and community organizing efforts which mobilize a broad-base of citizens to be directly involved in the identification of social and environmental problems and the implementation of potential solutions. This approach facilitates advocacy, service, and litigation strategies that are directly informed from the “bottom up” by active citizen participation in community decision-making. Furthermore, because social change philanthropy prioritizes base-building strategies that take a multi-issue approach, they function as community capacity builders to organize campaigns which address the common links between various social and environmental problems (in contrast to isolated single-issue oriented groups, which treat problems as distinct). In so doing, social change philanthropy aims to assist in the spanning of community boundaries by crossing those difficult racial, class, gender-based, and ideological divides which weaken and fragment communities. In short, social change philanthropy promotes movement-building strategies which aim to eradicate the causes of social and environmental injustice as grounded in larger political-economic power relations of American capitalism, rather than merely providing stop-gap solutions which treat the symptoms but not the cause. Although no panacea, the financial support offered by foundations has played a fundamental role in strengthening many popular social movements in the United States. Despite the political setbacks suffered overall by the Left in the face of the neo-liberal offensive, grassroots coalitions of labor, community-based organizations working for economic and environmental justice, family farmers, religious groups, and human rights activists are successfully organizing for progressive reforms, especially at the state and local levels. In some instances, these movements are achieving gains with regard to immigrant rights, living wages for workers, toxic wastes and environmental cleanup, tax policy, sprawl and regional planning, agricultural policy, and civil rights and protections for gays, people of color, women, and the disabled. So, if the interdependency of issues is emphasized, so that environmental devastation, racism, poverty, crime, the war economy, civil and human rights violations, and social despair are all seen as aspects of a multi-dimensional web rooted in a larger structural crisis of American capitalism, then a transformative philanthropy can be invented. This is the ultimate aim of popular social movements, and more foundations need to assist in achieving this goal. This goal has motivated my work. And many progressive foundations, like Jessie Smith Noyes, are already do this. Of course the problem here is that they don’t have as much money as the liberal foundations.

MB:  Finally, can you think of any examples whereby liberal philanthropists may had adversely impacted on the activism of environmental justice groups?

DF:  I think the main issue here is the neglect of the environmental justice movement by liberal funders. In the early 1990s, the environmental justice movement appealed neither to liberal foundations (which were focused on mainstream environmental advocacy) nor to most progressive foundations (which were focused on community organizing). Liberal environmental funders starved the environmental justice movement for failing to be “green enough;” perceiving the movement’s “radical” multi-issue focus as inconsistent with mainstream environmental politics. On the other hand, Left/progressive funders denied the environmental justice movement for being “too green;” perceiving the environmental focus to be inconsistent with community organizing and economic justice. The environmental justice movement remained caught “between a rock-and-a-hard-place,” so to speak, with respect to the foundation world. Mainline foundations could not comprehend what social justice had to do with environmental protection, while many progressive foundations could not see what environmental protection had to do with social justice. Frustration with the lack of support from the mainstream environmental movement and the foundation community boiled over in 1990. That year the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization and the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP), among others, initiated a series of open letters to the “Group of Ten” calling for a more equitable distribution of resources and for representation of people of color on the boards and staff of the major environmental players. In response, a number of liberal foundations promoted the idea of grantmaking initiatives aimed at creating environmental justice related programs in the Group of Ten as the solution to the tension. However, progressive funders managed to hold a debate and halt the liberal funders from just dumping money into the mainstream environmental movement. Instead, progressive grantmakers began channeling more money to the movement, and dragged a small number of liberal funders with them. As a result, funding for the environmental justice movement increased from $27.5 million in 1996 $43.6 million in 1998. Total funding for the environmental justice movement eventually surpassed $50 million in 2000-2001 with the creation of a $4.2 million dollar environmental justice portfolio at the Ford Foundation under the initiative of Vice-President Melvin Oliver and environmental “equity” portfolios at other mainline environmental grantmakers. And Ford deserves some credit for this, as they initially brought in a prominent environmental justice activist Vernice Miller-Travis to serve as program officer, and granted her a great deal of autonomy. Nevertheless, the primary issue for the environmental justice movement with respect to liberal funders is still philanthropic exclusion. Given the hundreds of organizations and the large size of the constituencies being served, the environmental justice movement is currently one of the most underfunded major social movements in the country.

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. His other articles can be accessed at:

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