January 7, 2021

More Than Money: Philanthropy’s Role in the Fight for Democracy

The letter below was sent by Marguerite Casey Foundation President and CEO, Dr. Carmen Rojas Ph.D. following yesterday’s attempted coup at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC.

Dear MCF grant recipients, partners, and friends,

I write to you today deeply concerned about our future. Over the last four years, we have witnessed the bold actions taken by white supremacist right wing extremists across our country. In this time, foundations and funders on the right have poured resources into building infrastructure, investing in leaders, and creating breathing room for these extremists. Yesterday was one of many expressions of these investments.

The occupation of our U.S. Capitol was not the end. If anything, it is the beginning of the public fight for our future. It is critical to name the sides in this fight: this is a fight between those of us who believe in justice, freedom, and shifting power to those who have long been denied it, on one side, and those who believe that the only way forward is through the consolidation of power in the hands of a few, the hoarding of resources by a minority, and the continued belief that our government should only work for the rich and powerful.

Philanthropy plays a role in this fight. There is no scenario in which we don’t have to think hard, take risks and change the way we work. We need to rapidly evolve at the pace that is needed, even if it’s not the pace we’re comfortable with. We must keep up with the accelerating changes in how fighting for social justice works. That means participating proactively and bravely, and ensuring civil society gives overwhelmingly enthusiastic consent to the bold leadership that grassroots racial justice organizers will be demonstrating.

The worst position for philanthropy to take is that of an impartial observer. Yet, the next worst position for philanthropy to take is to think that money alone — merely increasing grants — can solve the problem of transformation. We need to bring more to the table than that. We need to intervene to create the social conditions that will enable racial justice leaders to do what they do best: shift power in service of freedom and justice.

As racial justice foundations, we tie our hands if we believe our only power lies in our grants and money. At Marguerite Casey Foundation, we know our grantmaking is just the beginning and are guided by:

  • Not just rhetoric supporting racial justice as a goal, but the full endorsement of racial justice as a strategy: a way to break through and mobilize people to sustained action when other issues don’t. We can open up a lot of possibilities if we see the fight for racial justice is what will bring about a fully functioning democracy, not the other way around.
  • Not just money for communications, but stepping into the communications fray ourselves to create a counterbalance to attacks on leaders and organizations.
  • Not just money to support bigger actions, but demonstrating to grant recipients that we will have their back as they take more creative, provocative and necessary actions.
  • Not just money to support organizations, but leveraging our board members and our influence in other sectors to increase the level of outspoken endorsement, corporate policy changes (and employee activation) and other types of support.
  • Not just money on the condition of staying a thousand feet away from legal restrictions, but support focused on enabling grantees to walk right up to that line.
  • Not just money for the infrastructure we’re comfortable with, and that we already understand, but money for the types of research, technology, media work and other infrastructure that should develop at the pace of need and not at the pace of philanthropy.
  • Not just well-paced grants and investments, but also surges of highly focused and “go big” investments, especially at the state and local level, to support major leaps in progress, rather than slow and steady approaches that the forces working against us easily resist and adapt to.

Marguerite Casey Foundation is committed to meeting the needs of leaders with vision and strategies that will ultimately change conditions at the systems level — for millions. We believe in the organizing necessary to shift the balance of power from the few to all. We believe in the promise of a truly multiracial democracy where voting is the beginning of people creating a government that works for all of us. We believe in an economy that treats us all as humans deserving of a full life.

In solidarity with the believers of a just future and the fighters for a free tomorrow,

Carmen Rojas, PhD
President + CEO
Marguerite Casey Foundation

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