Can philanthropy reduce inequality?

One of Canada’s largest meetings on philanthropy takes place this month as foundations, corporate donors and government funders gather for Philanthropic Foundations Canada’s annual conference.

It comes as a question reverberates across the field: Can institutional philanthropy, itself a product of money and power, actually help to alleviate inequality and advance justice?

For women and 2SLGBTQIA+ people, the summer of 2022 hit a new boiling point, bringing glaring inequalities into sharp focus in Canada and globally, particularly for those who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour.

From the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, to the Taliban’s crackdowns on the rights of women and girls, to a rise of laws targeting trans communities, a deepening climate crisis, and continuing economic losses faced by women in an ongoing pandemic, challenges keep increasing.

A more promising form of philanthropy exists, but its power will only be realized when more funders are willing to give up some of their own | Photo courtesy of Quoi Media

Against this backdrop, the philanthropy status quo won’t cut it. Funders must do more than shift resources – they must also shift power. It is only once funding is in the hands of those who have experienced the consequences of inequality that we will begin to see change take place.

The best place to start is by directing more resources to social movements. At their core, movements are self-led communities of people whose lives are most impacted by injustice and who are building power together to demand better.

When funders support movements, they invest in the lived experience and leadership of these communities, reject top-down “solutions” that assume answers come from the outside, and adhere to activists’ own visions of a better future.

Yet funding for movements has remained low. In 2017, for example, women’s rights groups and feminist movements received less than one per cent of total foundation giving and approximately one per cent of gender-focused international aid in 2018.

Money itself is only half the answer. Philanthropy must also change how it gives it away.

Many funders still ask organizations to spend countless hours on complicated proposals that result in small, heavily restricted grants focused on short-term projects directed from the top. This leaves our social innovators stuck with shoe-string budgets, managing a constant boom and bust cycle, searching for the next grant to stay alive.

Instead, funders should provide unrestricted, multi-year, core support that puts power in the hands of movement leaders to set and pursue their own agendas.

Fortunately, there is momentum in the right direction.

Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, for example, has made waves – and headlines – for multiple million-dollar donations. But a deeper look exposes a shift not just in the size of donations, but how they were disbursed and to whom. Her unrestricted support to movement organizations is precisely the shift we need if we are to solve the most intractable and systemic issues locally, and globally.

A more promising form of philanthropy does exist. But its power will only be realized when more funders are willing to give up some of their own.

Roz Lee is vice president of Philanthropy at the Equality Fund.