Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

SG headshotYesterday I blogged about my 2015 charitable donations. Today it’s my daughter Sarah Gunther’s turn.

This is a fascinating moment for giving. An influx of capital from Silicon Valley technocrats-turned-philanthropists—most recently Mark Zuckerberg—has added fuel to the fire of philanthropy’s current obsession with metrics and impact. While the call for increased accountability in the nonprofit sector is important, “effective altruism” and “evidence-based giving” come with a set of assumptions that reflect a narrow view of how social change happens.

What’s wrong with asking donors to behave more like data-driven investors? The approach requires that interventions be quantitatively measurable, show short-term benefits, and comparable across a sector. This may work well for food delivery or anti-malaria bed nets, but not for human rights and social justice advocacy. As the Director of Programs at the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, I witness everyday the power of intersectional LGBTQI movements to change laws and policies, shift cultural narratives, and literally save people’s lives. While we continue to improve the ways we measure our progress, the messy, unpredictable, powerful work of social change does not fit neatly into metrics.

With this backdrop in mind, I’ve chosen to highlight three of my end-of-year gifts to entities that fund activists and artists on the front lines of social movements addressing the root causes of injustice and inequality; each demonstrates one of my giving principles. My choices reflect my bias towards intersectional queer and feminist activism and giving models, but you could just as easily apply these principles to environmental justice or disability rights.

1. Fund grassroots social movements that refuse to back down to power.

I’m giving my first gift to Black Lives Matter. Founded by three Black women activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of whom are queer, the Black Lives Matter movement has put anti-black racism firmly on the agenda. Created as a hashtag after Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2012, the Black Lives Matter movement has expanded the conversation from the extrajudicial killings of Black people to all the ways in which state violence denies Black people basic humanity, rights and dignity.

The activists who took to Twitter and the streets to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin and so many others killed by the police did not have a logic model, a randomized control trial, or a plan for impact assessment. They had their bodies, brains and organizing strategies, and they had their lives at stake. They have convinced a new generation of activists and helped the public to see that, indeed, all of our lives are at stake in the systemic devaluation of Black lives. Black Lives Matter has demonstrated the power of social movements to frame an issue, shift public attitudes, and generate political pressure

Social change doesn’t happen overnight. It can take years to change a law or policy, years more for it to be implemented, and years after that to actually change people’s lived experience. But recognizing that social change is complex doesn’t mean that grassroots activists and movements can’t be accountable. There are tools for activists and funders to evaluate progress as they drive systemic change. Plus, social movements have an innate form of accountability that most mainstream nonprofits don’t—to their members.

2. Put philanthropic power and decision-making in the hands of those most affected by the issue you want to address.

For my next gift, I give away money by deciding not to decide how to give it away. Let me explain. I have long been committed to creative giving models that aim to transform power relations, not only in the world, but also in philanthropy. If I want to support women’s rights globally, how do I know where my funds are most needed? Who knows what young feminist activists in India or Mozambique need better than those activists? Participatory grantmaking, also known as activist-led philanthropy, shifts power by having community activists make grant decisions. It works because those most affected by a problem know best what they need, and it often results in more creative and innovative projects than donors might fund on their own.

I’m happy to give to FRIDA: The Young Feminist Fund, a close ally of ours at Astraea. FRIDA gives general support grants to young women, girl and trans-led feminist groups. In their model, the applicants in a grant cycle vote on the applications that they most want to see funded in their region. They fund groups like Red Brigade Lucknow in India, founded by survivors of rape, who train girls in self defense and patrol the streets to hold harassers and rapists accountable; Revolt Social Workers in Slovenia, a group of radical young social workers who fight for the rights of marginalized groups like women with mental health disabilities, lesbian women and poor/unemployed women; and Shut Your Sexist Mouth Up Russia, which collects and publishes women’s personal stories about sexism, abuse, harassment and gender-based violence.

Other awesome funds with similar models include the Trans Justice Funding Project in the US; the global Red Umbrella Fund, led by and for sex workers; UHAI, an indigenous LGBTI and sex worker fund in East Africa; the Disability Rights Fund, and the new Intersex Human Rights Fund at Astraea. These funds walk the talk of activists’ call for “Nothing About Us Without Us.” 

3. Fund arts and cultural producers working to advance social justice.

Last, I’m making a gift to Astraea’s Global Arts Fund. Art and cultural work has a unique power to change the way we see the world and inspire collective action. Imagine the US civil rights movement without song. Think about what it means to watch a film that mirrors your experience and to know you’re not alone. Astraea has long funded arts and cultural projects that aim to shift cultural narratives about LGBTQI lives and inspire movements for racial, economic and gender justice. It’s not easy to measure the impact of a graphic novel or a play though, again, interesting new tools are emerging. 

Cast of Happy Birthday, Marsha!

Cast of “Happy Birthday, Marsha!”

In 2015, Astraea funded 15 queer and trans artists create projects that respond to and resist the criminalization of LGBTQI lives, including Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel’s Happy Birthday, Marsha!, a short film that celebrates the legacies of pioneering transgender activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who ignited the Stonewall Riots; and Kenyan artist Kawira Mwirichia, who is producing and exhibiting 100 unique, original khanga and kitenge designs that celebrate queer love, using a traditional African cloth as her medium. 

My other gifts this year are going to the amazing rapid response grantmaker Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights; fearless NYC-based QTPOC orgs Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE and Streetwise and Safe; Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Jewish Voice for Peace, two groups that are my Jewish political homes; and National Advocates for Pregnant Women, fighting for women’s rights in our increasingly restrictive and criminalized environment for reproductive rights and justice.

A final note from Marc: This is my last Nonprofit Chronicles post of the year. Thanks for reading. Enjoy the holidays, happy new year and see you in 2016.

One thought on “The Gunther giving showdown: Social justice should drive philanthropy

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