Foundations and the Environmental Movement

An Interview With Daniel Faber

Foundations and the Environmental Movement

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the

UK. His other articles can be accessed at:


~ by Cory Morningstar on September 24, 2010.

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