Foundations for Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements

Daniel R. Faber and Deborah McCarthy, eds., Foundations for Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).

Philanthropic organizations have grown increasingly wealthy over the past decades and, simultaneously, the number of social movement groups has mushroomed. Social movements need money and foundations need to give money away. But foundations, as creations of the elite, are rarely set up to be tools of wealth redistribution or genuine systemic change; their creators benefit too profoundly from the status quo. Thus, philanthropic foundations prefer to fund mainstream and professional movements that don’t rock the boat. Yet social movements, even radical ones, are often dependent on foundation funding and many movement organizations would cease to exist in the absence of foundation support. This dilemma is a central theme in the articles assembled here by Daniel Faber and Deborah McCarthy.

This volume provides an excellent overview of the relationship between philanthropic foundations and social movement organizations from a critical perspective. Together, the chapters produce a basic outline of what foundations have and have not accomplished and introduce key theoretical perspectives on philanthropy and social movements. The book is designed to speak to a varied audience that might include those who work in foundations and nonprofit organizations, social movement activists, academics, and students (this would be a good book to assign in a social movements course). The contributors include scholars, social movement leaders and officials, from philanthropic foundations.

In the introductory chapter, editors Faber and McCarthy delineate serious problems with philanthropic foundations. Funding agents rarely recognize the connectedness between various social issues (including crime, poverty, environment, etc.) and they often fund programs that are not grounded in the communities they serve, exacerbating an existing civic disempowerment. Ideally the answer to these and the many other problems with the traditional funding system is social change philanthropy, which is more progressive and inclusive.

The rest of the chapters are organized into two major sections. The first section, a “Critical Overview of Social Change Philanthropy,” contains chapters on progressive, liberal, conservative, and alternative funding institutions. These chapters introduce different types of foundations and their histories, as well as newer models and trends. Susan Ostrander describes social change philanthropy, with a focus on the Haymarket Foundation and women’s funds, both of which are more democratic than most foundations and both of which try to hand over much of the financial decision-making to grantees. The chapter by Joan Roelofs, a condensed version of some themes from her recent book, argues that liberal foundations play an important role in “conserving capitalism.” Roelofs states, “[Foundations] sustain consensus by grafting new and destabilizing trends into the dominant ideology, initiating essential reforms, and providing employment or resources for restless and cheeky activists and intellectuals” (62). Sally Covington argues that conservative funding organizations, unlike progressive and liberal foundations, are coordinated. They have funded and founded advocacy, litigation, and public policy groups. They have also funded right-wing media and encouraged right-wing intellectuals, with the idea of flooding the ‘idea marketplace’ with their information and ideas. Finally, Robert Bothwell’s chapter compares conservative philanthropy with funding for progressive causes. Unlike the very organized and coordinated conservative funders, progressive and alternative funding organizations have had little impact on national policy; they have locked themselves into “policy silos—each focusing on specific issues,” and have been “slow to forge a broad central vision (or visions) that might serve to counter the growing power of the conservative movement” (117).

The second section, “Specific Challenges to Social Change Philanthropy,” is something of a hodgepodge of case studies and theoretical pieces, but it does all add up. There are chapters on foundation funding and the environmental movement (Robert Brulle and Craig Jenkins); environmental justice (Faber and McCarthy); minority-identified movements (Lisa Duran); and community initiatives (Ira Silver). These chapters reiterate themes presented in the first section: foundations tend to support mainstream and professional organizations; foundation funding leads to channeling or cooptation; foundations rarely support organizations that seek radical change; and foundations are reluctant to fund long-term projects or operating costs, which is what many movement organizations need most.

This section includes a hopeful chapter by John C. Urschel about Resource Generation, an educational organization designed to help very, very rich young people think about giving their money away in progressive ways, by rejecting paternalism and allowing grantees more control of resources. The final chapter by Ostrander, Silver and McCarthy questions a theoretical tenet of social movement scholarship that assumes a funding dilemma whereby movements must either obtain money from big funders (and thereby risk cooptation) or seek support from inside their organizations (an thereby risk having too few resources to do anything). The authors conclude that the funding dilemma is “falsely dichotomized and overly constrained” (283); under certain conditions, movement organizations can work with funders in active ways to avoid certain funding pitfalls.

The fact that the contributors are not all academics is theoretically an asset; however, a weakness that springs from this is that the chapters are somewhat uneven; some are research-based, while others are more in the vein of the think piece. Nonetheless, the chapters complement each other nicely and incorporate similar theoretical understandings to examine and illustrate a variety of initiatives and organizations.

While contributors repeatedly call attention to the problems with philanthropy and the real challenges for getting more of the huge amount of foundation money distributed differently, several authors describe what can go right with philanthropy and some also discuss new opportunities, such as a trend among some wealthy baby-boomers to engage in progressive or alternative types of philanthropy. I wished for more positive case studies at the end that could illustrate social change philanthropy as truly having great potential to replace old-style funding, but the sad truth is that such glowing examples are apparently few. This is not a problem with the book; it is a failure of social change and alternative philanthropy (so far, at least) to live up to its transformative potential.

What does the system of philanthropic funding mean for progressive social change and the reinvigoration of civil society and democracy? The summary answer to be gleaned from this book is that the current system is inadequate for truly fostering social justice and democratic renewal. Foundations for Change is an important contribution for those who would better understand how and why this is the case and what alternatives might be nurtured for the future.

Reviewed by Leslie King
Smith College

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