Guest blog: Reflections on Social Justice Philanthropy conference

I am delighted to introduce this blog, written by my good colleagues Dr Balihar Sanghera and Dr Kate Bradley, who have spent the past year running a project on Social Justice Philanthropy:

The end-of-project conference, held at NCVO in London on Friday 1 March 2013, was an excellent opportunity to bring practitioners and academics together to discuss the state and future of social justice philanthropy.

The morning part of the conference explored the more philosophical and theoretical dimensions of what social justice philanthropy is, and what it might be. The first session brought together speakers from a wide range of organisations, and likewise a diverse range of viewpoints. This session opened up an extremely useful consideration of the historical development of social justice philanthropy (Stephen Pittam) and a case study of social justice philanthropy (Sara Llewellin), as well as reflective criticism on what exactly we mean by ‘social justice philanthropy’ and its purposes (Andrew Barnett). Issues raised included the idea of whether the sector is ‘retro-fitting’ social justice to philanthropic activities, the need to consider the structural issues that create inequality in a rigorous and critical manner, and to avoid creating an industry that serves its own ends rather than the needs of the disadvantaged (Matthew Taylor, Paul Hackett and Samantha Callan – Callan’s response is here). The second session brought in discussion of our project findings, which drew attention to how grant-making foundations often reject the label ‘social justice’ and only partly realise the liberal ideas of social justice. The session also heard Diana Leat’s reflections on how foundations might change over time.

The afternoon part of the conference heard a rich collection of case studies from practitioners and academics that explored the potential and limitations of social justice philanthropy. Gareth Morgan discussed the implications of the Charities Act 2011 for small grant-making trusts and foundations, pointing out the political significance of the public benefit test. Sinead Gormally presented a comprehensive model of social justice to community development, drawing upon her case study of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.

Some speakers critically examined the implications for social justice of ‘new’ and ‘venture’ philanthropy,’ Stephen Ball argued how corporate and family foundations and philanthropic individuals are beginning to assume socio-moral duties that were previously assigned to the state, and pointed out some negative consequences in the education sector. Niamh McCrea also provided a fascinating study on how practices associated with ‘performance-based funding’ can enable and inhibit relationships of love, care and solidarity.

In addition, the delegates heard a variety of practices and experiences from activists, who pursue social justice, peace and civic participation. Representing the radical philanthropy Edge Fund, Sophie Pritchard posed the question that given that most foundations are set up by those who have benefitted from the economic and political systems that produce social inequalities, how will they challenge the status quo? Carolyn Hayman and Tom Gillhespy from Peace Direct shared their ideas on the theory of change and how to evaluate the impact of peacebuilding grants, drawing upon several case studies of conflict resolution. Rob Williamson (Tyne & Wear and Northumberland Community Foundation) and Cathy Elliott Community Foundations for Lancashire & Merseyside) discussed how Vital Signs UK assesses the vitality and aspirations of local communities, identifies local social needs, and opens a debate on the contribution that local philanthropists can make to address them. Natalie Branosky from InclusionUS examined how the concept of ‘philanthropub’ can promote community engagement, volunteerism and civic participation.

We feel that the social justice philanthropy journey is still at a relatively early stage in its development. Foundations who seek to promote social justice and peace should take time to reflect on how they can best embed it in their practices. For example, moving into (or expanding) social investment would increase the impact of foundation cash, by opening up a further front on which foundations can help communities in need. We also need to scrutinise to what extent the income from endowments and philanthropic donations are earned and deserving, as well as to focus on addressing the unhealthy levels of concentrated wealth and power in the UK and overseas. Ways of increasing the input that marginalised groups have into how resources are provided to their communities should be explored. Such activity could range from inviting more people with experience of poverty and deprivation to serve on the trustee boards, setting up advisory boards as well as focus groups. Including previous grantees and other frontline groups in the governance processes of foundations would also be welcome. Social justice philanthropy is a process, and with critical reflection and creative thinking, foundations can continue to progress towards their aims. We hope that the conference on 1 March starts or continues a reflexive conversation about what social justice is.


This blog was written by Dr Balihar Sanghera and Dr Kate Bradley, University of Kent

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