Social Justice in Philanthropy — Our Work As Consultants

Last year about this time, I sat in on a webinar for consultants to philanthropy on the topic of social justice in grant making. I made a lot of notes at the time and then just never got around to editing them for a post. Since then, I’ve been working with the team at Invested Impact where reflecting, discussing, and experimenting with critical concepts in equity, effectiveness, impact in social investing is all we do. Over the next few months, I hope to synthesize and share more of my thinking from this engagement. In the meantime, let me offer the highlights and thoughts sparked by the webinar convened by National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, as I captured them last fall.

One of the panelists represented the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, and she offered the following as tips for consultants to foundations:

  1. Encourage them to provide general, multiyear support; 
  2. Help them look at all their work through a DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) lens;
  3. Encourage them to invest in multi-issue coalition work, and 
  4. Help them invest in grassroots leaders.

The recommendations are right on. But honestly, they aren’t new.

Long-time nonprofit sector leaders know each of these principles already (for one modest example, see this 2007 report). NCRP and others have been pushing perspectives and practices like these for decades. Frankly, it’s incredible to me that any seasoned consultant to philanthropy doesn’t operate as if these principles were already baked into their advisory and technical assistance.

Related points from the webinar that made it into my notes and that inspired corollaries:
Philanthropy consultants can help grantees tell the truth to funders. 

  • ChangeMatters corollary: And they can help funders hear it.

Philanthropy consultants can facilitate connection, collaboration, conversation, and learning between grantees and foundations.

  • ChangeMatters corollary: Do this by making sure that the existing community leaders already doing the work, are at the power tables and trusted as peers. And by bringing funders to the existing work and leadership they have yet to recognize.

Philanthropy consultants can work with funders to reflect on and evaluate their performance against their own strategies, assumptions, performance, and then help them use the learning.

  • ChangeMatters corollary: Uh, yeah. That’s pretty much our job.


One issue during the Q&A stuck out to me. It was something like, what if simply using the phrase “social justice” freaks people out (and by people, I believe the questioner meant community foundation officials and donors). These days, we could wonder the same about “white privilege,” maybe “equity,” and (I’ve heard it from program officers), Black Lives Matter. How can consultants help communities move forward when people resist concepts and language? How can consultants work from a stance of invitation, or as a colleague puts it “muscular empathy?” That same colleague sees part of our work as consultants, as blocking and tackling, as a tactic for opening the field to the community leaders trying to run with the ball.

One practical and potentially powerful suggestion made (by the evaluator on the panel) was not to use the scary language, but instead to bring the stories. People can resist the language, and even resist the concepts, but they cannot negate the personal stories.

In any case, here’s the thing. In philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, the truth about social and racial justice has been told. Already. But is anybody listening? Or is it just not clear, or not easy, to shift how we do? If it’s about knowledge or understanding, those problems can be fixed. However, another explanation is more difficult to solve and much more painful to consider. What if foundation execs and donors just don’t want their resources to contribute to racial equity in this country? What if.

For now, I have to believe instead that most of our colleagues in philanthropy want life to work better for more people. That’s pretty much what philanthropy is supposed to be for. I have to believe. And so for now, my thing involves working the angles of knowledge, understanding, and creative solutions.

So, in that spirit, here is one article posted around the same time as the webinar, from a reasoned, seasoned colleague, that via personal story, gets at issues of racial justice and equity in philanthropy.