Peter Buffet, Philanthropy, and Inequality

Who isn’t concerned about the rise in economic inequality? It has devastating effects on prosperity and, indirectly, justice for so many. While expressing his justifiable frustration, Peter Buffet is to be applauded for calling on his colleagues in the philanthropic sector to do more to battle inequality by working to change systems. Please, Mr. Buffet, don’t be so discouraged.

Yes, there’s a great deal of room for more creativity in the way philanthropy addresses this problem. However, philanthropy already has a really powerful tool at its disposal for expanding economic justice: supporting nonprofits to influence policies affecting their constituencies.

Student activists like these are part of a campaign funded by the Carnegie Corporation, Rosenberg and The California Endowment Foundations.

To illustrate how philanthropy has been an equalizing force, consider where health care reform and immigration reform would be today without foundation support for the nonprofit organizations leading these campaigns.

With that support, nonprofits fought for laws to make it easier for low-income people to have health insurance.

With that support, nonprofits are making unprecedented progress in bringing undocumented workers out of the shadows with the hope of making a better life for their families.

With that support, nonprofits are fighting to ensure workers can take time off when they or a family member are too sick to work.

Philanthropy did not invent the energy and passion brought to these movements, but it was and is a key source for fueling the fights. By supporting groups that represent vulnerable and marginalized populations, philanthropy is one important way for people who don’t have a voice to work collectively. This is the kind of work that Buffet has the vision to support.

Real change comes from mass movements and philanthropy can serve as a catalyst. Where else are the people with passion and energy going to find resources? Government can’t and most corporate interests won’t provide funding for systems change work.

Since foundation support for nonprofit advocacy is an important way to fight inequality, one would assume that philanthropy has at least been increasing that support in these unequal times.

Unfortunately, it’s just the opposite. While overall foundation giving has more than tripled between 1990 and 2010, statistics show that the percentage of foundation grants going to support  advocacy activities has dropped to 12%.

So, thank you, Peter Buffet, for raising a very important issue, and for knowing how to listen. In the new “operating system” you call for, would you please write into the code more support for advocacy by all foundations wishing to eliminate economic inequality?