Philanthropy has the tools to protect democracy. Let’s make ourselves better
More than 20 million people took to the streets after the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, calling for an end to police brutality and mass incarceration. Many in the United States, including leaders of philanthropic institutions, have shared public statements condemning police brutality and affirming the fact that black lives really matter.
But in the months that followed, it seems the energy and enthusiasm for Black Lives Matter within the philanthropic community all but vanished. Americans are decidedly less free than we were a few years ago: from state to state, people don’t have the freedom to choose the gender pronouns they use, they don’t have not the freedom to access an abortion and they do not have the freedom to easily participate in the voting process. Many are even being punished for seeking to access the rights and protections we were promised. Doesn’t sound very democratic, does it? That’s because the seeds of authoritarianism planted in mid-century America took root under the Trump administration, and their tendrils are creeping across the country like morning glory.
Our country’s declining democracy coincides with what appears to be a disconnect between what many philanthropic leaders said they would do and what they actually did to support those on the front lines of democracy advocacy. For the most part, philanthropy has kept its institutional voices – and the power, privilege and impact that come with them – behind the scenes. We chose politeness over responsibility. We reinforced the notion that benevolence “after the fact” justifies everything, white supremacy.
As philanthropic leaders, we must renew our commitment to invest in efforts to protect our democracy. We need to invest and we need to leverage our influence and our unfettered access to powerful people in high places.
First, we must respond to the call of activists and leaders of the movement. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, protesters demanded not only justice for him, but also far-reaching reforms, including the redirection of law enforcement funds to mental health, harm reduction and to housing. Few communities have embraced the bold changes protesters were seeking, which means we can and must do more as philanthropists to push for change. That’s why, at the Marguerite Casey Foundation, we’ve increased total donations by 5% to end police violence, exploitation and harassment.
Second, we need to better control how our endowments are invested. Beyond grantmaking, philanthropy can flex other muscles through the strength of its endowments. Bold opportunities lie in the nearly $1 trillion that sits in the endowments of private foundations in the United States. Each year, endowed foundations are required to donate 5% of their assets; the rest is invested. Where and how that money is invested is a powerful tool in holding companies accountable to their racial justice commitments.
For example, while it’s probably safe to assume that most progressive foundations are against things like predatory lending, civilian gun production, and immigration detention, much of their endowments are invested in companies involved in these activities by well-meaning asset managers who focus on optimizing foundation portfolios for financial risk and reward. If asset managers don’t have clear guidelines established by foundations, they look at the numbers on a spreadsheet, not the impacts on human lives. We can resolve this mismatch by driving fully mission-aligned investment programs, establishing a strategic plan, setting concrete benchmarks and bold time horizons to shift all investments by 2025 or 2030.
Third, we must give proxy votes to the people. Foundations have shareholder voting rights in the companies in which our endowments are invested. To increase accountability and ensure democracy, foundations must make the courageous decision to give their votes to the organizations they fund. Imagine the power of business heard clearly through the representative votes of people and leaders from poor, queer, and communities of color.
In Michigan, for example, many business leaders who have praised the work of organizing to support black people after the murder of George Floyd have made a dramatic shift towards supporting elected officials who actively support the disenfranchisement of these people. same communities. Organizations like Color of Change and Community Change, along with statewide partners, are working under the Defend Black Voters umbrella to pressure these companies to meet their 2020 commitments. Imagine the power they would have in this work if they were able to combine the external organizing work with the internal pressure work of proxy voting.
Finally, we must better empower organizations by denouncing benevolence and doing so in solidarity. To be a responsible philanthropic ally in 2022 and beyond, we must fully leverage our platforms, power and resources. One example is Justice Capital and their co-founding partner Christina Hollenback, who are working to bring meaningful pressure to bear on companies that have committed $50 billion to building wealth and improving safety in black communities, but in most cases, they have not been transmitted to the most affected communities through mass incarceration. Additionally, Hollenback actively opposes states that use American Rescue Act (ARPA) dollars — a COVID-19 relief effort — to fund prisons and help draw attention to companies that engage. publicly to support black communities, but then take out the loans that finance the prisons.
White supremacist and authoritarian-leaning forces have put their money where they say it will — an agenda born of anti-blackness, Indigenous erasure, queer silence, and authoritarian ethonnationalism. We must ensure the same level of commitment to an agenda that sows the seeds of a truly representative democracy and a fair economy.
If we believe in a multi-ethnic, cross-class and multi-racial democracy, philanthropy will have to mobilize the full force of its resources behind the fights for racial and economic justice in a way that we have never done before.
Carmen Rojas is the President and CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the only Latino leader of a nationally endowed American foundation and a nationally recognized leader in economic and racial justice.