Convening Recap: Social Justice Funding in the Bay Area

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Recently, philanthropy leaders convened at Foundation Center-West for a panel discussion, Expanding Opportunity: Social Justice Funding in the Bay Area. Foundation Center-West director, Michele Dilworth, led the discussion, which included Luis Arteaga, senior program manager at the Levi Strauss Foundation; Timothy P. Silard, president of the Rosenberg Foundation; Alex Tom, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, Common Counsel Foundation; and Nancy Wiltsek, executive director of the van Löben Sels/RembeRock Foundation.

Dilworth started the discussion by asking the panelists to define social justice. Wiltsek, whose foundation provides legal advocacy to those in need, described it as a process of identifying and then breaking down social barriers. Silard said that social justice is what “love looks like in public.” And both Tom and Arteaga spoke about elevating systemic change through grassroots efforts. Some discussion of the advantages of promoting and supporting grassroots organizations’ work followed.

It was impossible, however, to avoid the topic of the new president’s administration, and the threats recent legislation (including the Travel Ban and the rollback of trans childrens’ rights) pose for social justice. The panelists made it clear: philanthropy, much like the rest of the country, is working hard to find its footing in this new era of frequent executive orders, human rights threats, and general unpredictability on the part of the Trump administration. Some foundations have adapted by creating rapid response funds, like the San Francisco Foundation. The San Francisco Foundation’s rapid response fund grantees receive grant dollars within 30 days of submitting their application. Silard noted that an increasing number of foundations have adopted the multi-year grant model, and have put more trust in grantees by giving general operations funding. Tom advocated for common applications for an application process that favors grantees. 

Silard and Tom spoke about the need to provide funding not just to nonprofit organizations, but to movements and activists. Grassroots organizations and organizers, like Black Lives Matter, are doing vital, innovative social justice work, and, as Silard and Tom agreed, foundations must consider revising their funding strategies to support activism. The panelists continued the strategy conversation by addressing pace: the next four years have to be a marathon for philanthropy, not a sprint, Wiltsek said. Foundations can take turns addressing social issues and communities under fire, depending on their funding purview. Additionally, grantees should demand more of their funders, Silard said, because now is the time, more than ever, for foundations to invest in important causes.

The discussion, which you can find recorded here, was urgent, but not without hope. Silard believes that in four years, Bay Area philanthropy will be more progressive and more responsive. Arteaga expressed that he is witnessing a spike in intersectional and collaborative work across the social sector--this breaking down of silos will ultimately aid social justice causes, he said. Wiltsek, whose foundation has most recently provided immigrants with legal aid, says that she is energized by the recent wave of passion and commitment that has spread throughout the legal community. Tom said that he sees philanthropy catching up with reality--which, he says, has been a long time coming. Because as the country changes, the social sector must keep pace. And so far, it looks like philanthropy leaders are optimistic about the future of social justice causes.