Can the Philanthropic Community Find Its Courage and Become More Effective?

Over the past 50 years, our nation has achieved historic progress on a number of daunting challenges, including fuller civil rights for women and people of color, cleaner air and cleaner water. In many victories, foundations played a positive role by investing in the nonprofits spearheading reform.

Today, our nation faces new mega-challenges: global warming, worsening income inequality and widespread (often intentional) voter disenfranchisement, to name the most obvious.

Will today's foundations do their part in the collective, national efforts to overcome these collective, national and international challenges?

Doing so would require more foundations to invest more of their dollars in the underserved populations most harmed by these problems and in the kind of civic engagement strategies that attack root causes and aim for systemic solutions.

There are hopeful signs that more and more foundations are doing just that.

Recent research by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) finds that the percentage of foundation grant dollars intentionally targeted to of-color populations, the poor and other marginalized communities rose to 42 percent in 2011 -- up from 40 percent average from 2008-2010, and up significantly from the 33 percent average from 2004-2006.

As more foundations adopt this practice, a growing number have publicly declared their reasons for doing so, which is having a positive, inspirational effect on the sector as a whole. This week, we are marking the second anniversary of Philanthropy's Promise, NCRP's initiative celebrating grantmakers that invest to prioritize and empower underserved populations. Foundations sign on by issuing a public statement describing the values and strategies that animate them to invest in these ways. In just two years, 165 foundations that collectively give $3.8 billion per year have signed on. Recent signatories include American Jewish World Service, Marin Community Foundation, The Skillman Foundation and United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta.

Signatories are beginning to come together as a community. This April in Chicago, for example, 300 philanthropic leaders convened to celebrate the winners of the 2013 NCRP Impact Awards, which this year went to the California Community Foundation, Levi Strauss Foundation, NoVo Foundation and Woods Fund of Chicago.

NCRP will host more and similar gatherings around the country this fall and winter, starting with a dinner of community foundation leaders to be held in San Diego this month, to facilitate and nurture a sense of collective purpose around the important role of philanthropy in our society.

These positive stirrings in philanthropy have also found expression in outstanding recent grantmaking, including significant foundation investments in movements that ultimately led to enactment of the Affordable Care Act, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and a string of victories for marriage equality across the country.

However, the philanthropic sector still has a long way to go on the road to effectiveness. For while the needle is moving in the right direction in terms of percentage of grant dollars for marginalized communities, NCRP research finds it stands at only 12 percent in terms of grant dollars invested in advocacy, community organizing and other high-impact strategies that aim for systemic change. This actually represents a drop from a 15 percent average in the 2008-2010 period.

Philanthropy needs to push that needle a lot higher than 12 percent -- and we need to do it fast. Can anybody imagine solutions to our generation's mega-challenges without at least some foundation funding for the nonprofits leading the charge for reform? And can anybody imagine true solutions to these problems that stop short of big reforms like the Voting Rights Act and Clean Water Act, whose enactments resulted from hard-hitting nonprofit advocacy?

That needle will not move by itself, nor by magic. It will only move if foundation executives and trustees find their backbone and begin advocating within their own organizations and in the sector as a whole for more grant dollars to ensuring that communities most affected by these problems are part of the process to come up with long-term solutions. Many of these philanthropic leaders are appalled by things like rapidly advancing climate change, plutocracy and neo-Jim Crow. It's time to translate that horror into effective grant strategies that have real impact on these issues.

Of course, doing so will generate "controversy" -- something philanthrocrats are trained to fear. But what's scarier: a little controversy in philanthropy -- or a new Gilded Age and Jim Crow America on a baking planet?

If you're part of a foundation, now is the time for action. You have the opportunity and the responsibility to be the changemaker who pushes your foundation to embrace highest-impact grantmaking. Sign on to Philanthropy's Promise, and join the growing community of funders that are leading by example and doing their part to overcome the big challenges of our time.