What is progressive philanthropy?

Fri, 5 May 2023

Long-time philanthropic adviser and educationalist Jason Franklin first spoke about advocacy at Philanthropy Australia’s conference in 2016. Here, he talks about challenges facing grantmakers and why they need to be brave in the face of the biggest global forces working against progressive social and environmental change for a generation. He presents our Grantmaking Fundamentals course on 15 May.

Jason Franklin has been working in philanthropy since he was 19, first at an educational justice non-profit when he was a student and culminating in a professorship at a Michigan university. But why did he commit “academic heresy” by leaving a prestigious endowed chair in philanthropy to become a consultant – or as he puts it, go from the most secure work to the least?

The shift in the political landscape after Donald Trump’s election, he says, was the catalyst. “I was happy at the academy, but I could not stay while the world burned.” He dedicated himself full-time in 2019 to the small consultancy he had been running alongside his academic role. Ktisis Capital, named after the Byzantine goddess of generosity, was established to help individuals, trusts and foundations “mobilise resources for justice”. Now it has a team of 13 and on track to grow to 20+ by year’s end.

Philanthropy is at a pivotal point in its evolution amid the most challenging social and political climate in a generation, says Jason. And advocacy is one of the most powerful tools it has to shape a progressive future. “We are seeing rising authoritarianism across the world, and encroaching fascism. We’re seeing frequent climate disasters, from bushfires to monsoons, and for many of the long-time social movements, such as LGBTQI equality or women’s reproductive rights, there have been setbacks and losses tied to the rising authoritarianism.”

Social change is facing the most extreme pushback forces in a generation

“Philanthropy is responding as it asks: How do we defend a robust civil society? How do we amplify the voices of the most marginalised? But philanthropy is struggling to position itself as an ally to movements for social change that are facing some of the most extreme pushbacks from global forces in a generation. These are among the challenges facing grantmakers today.”

Jason first visited Australia when he spoke about advocacy to the Philanthropy Australia conference in 2016. Since then has been in the country almost every year to work with philanthropists about how best to fulfill their objectives to advance racial, social, economic and environmental justice.

He promotes what he calls “progressive philanthropy”, which is giving that acknowledges the power imbalances in society and tries to contribute towards more just and equitable systems through its work. “That doesn’t discount funding medical research, education, conservation or arts and culture. I love museums and want them to continue! But progressive philanthropy says, ‘fund arts creation but make sure it’s accessible for the widest audience, fund medical research but make sure it’s provided effectively to different communities and ethnicities’.

“I’m aware that I come from a privileged background that means I get more access to the benefits of medical technology and the offerings of museums and cultural institutions than most people anywhere else in the world.”

Even if grantmakers don’t see themselves as involved in systems change or funding social justice work, Jason urges them to apply a “systems change lens” to all their giving, and consider how else they can expand it. “One of our biggest failures as funders is the thousand small ways we forget our own privilege,” he says.

“To be an effective grantmaker today is to carry out the core responsibilities of delivering a program, but to do it in a way that is deeply appreciative and informed by the society and dynamics of the communities in which we’re living today. Are the patterns that you’ve always followed still serving you well today?”

How can grantmakers be more brave in their decisions?

Given the profound global social, environmental and economic challenges society is facing, how can grantmakers be more brave in their decisions? “Staff and grantmakers need to talk with the board openly about the risks or pushbacks that they may experience from specific grants before they take them. You need to do the work to bring your leadership along so you’re not just slipping one grant through. It can have destructive, or at least disheartening, outcomes otherwise.

“The second key to being a braver grantmaker is being prepared for some projects not to succeed. We often talk about it, but rarely live it out in practice. You’ve got to remember when working in social or environmental justice, there can be an entire industry directly working against your goals. Some campaigns will fail, the key is staying the course long-term. If you set out to achieve 10 goals and you achieve them all, you thought too small.

“Lastly, a really brave funder of advocacy work is the one who stands by the thoughtful groups when things are hard. That funder stands by during all the boring years, and discouraging years and all the slightly encouraging but tedious years of work too. There are moments when a massive piece of legislation gets passed quickly, but anyone who is close to this work knows that behind every one of those moments is a decade of preparation. If not two or three decades.”

In the time that Jason has been working in Australia, he’s seen significant changes in the philanthropic landscape, to the point where the space now is almost crowded with funders and non-profits alike. He’s helped support the launch of the Mannifera network and several new individual foundations, and worked with groups like the Australian Communities Foundation, Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network and Philanthropy Australia, which have all grown in the last decade.

Understanding where they can make most impact in the ecosystem is another challenge for new grantmakers. “Growth in the philanthropic landscape requires every grantmaker to ask with much more intention, ‘what is the best contribution we can make to the communities or to the issues that we are focused on?’”

Information overload is a big challenge for grantmakers

The other big challenge today is how to function effectively in an age of information overload. “This is my work and my passion, and I’m a bit of an amateur historian,” says Jason. “Philanthropy is a very niche topic, but I probably have one of the larger collections, more than 1,000 volumes, on its history. One of the things that stands out, if you read histories and memoirs of early grantmakers is that they talk about the incredible effort to gather information and data. Today, instead, we face the incredible challenges of how to synthesize and make sense of a volume of data that is overwhelming to the individual human being. So there’s a shift from collection to synthesis as a primary skill, and that changes the person and skillsets you’re looking for to be a really successful grantmaker.”

Philanthropy has never been more self-reflective on its own origin story too, which is a promising outlook for advocacy. “What does it mean to be the beneficiary of the accumulation of wealth? As philanthropy develops higher self-awareness, we can be better allies to movements for economic justice, for indigenous sovereignty and for racial equity. We really own our own position in society.”

On the horizon, along with every other sector, AI is going to present challenges and opportunities to philanthropy, suggests Jason. “Open-call proposals could become defunct if we face an onslaught of poorly written bids generated from ChatGPT, but AI could also accelerate our work in ways we have no conception of yet.”

Jason is positive about the future. “Every time we turn around,” he says, “there is a new leader trying out something innovative to solve an intractable problem. One thing that hasn’t changed is that philanthropy is still one of the best educated bets on talent.”Grantmaking Fundamentals with Jason Franklin is a face-to-face, day-long course running in Melbourne on Monday 15 May 2023. Philanthropy Australia members receive a $300 discount.