Backing those who target roots of global woes

With a falling economy and lengthening lines at food pantries, traditional relief charities such as soup kitchens and shelters will be highly visible this holiday season.

But the most effective use of a donated dollar, suggest some philanthropy experts, may be by organizations whose effects are more difficult to measure in the short term. Often called social-change or social-justice philanthropy, such giving is directed at organizations that address the root causes of a problem.

"We understand, in times of crisis, the need for services and ways to help people take care of their lives," says Ellen Gurzinsky, director of the Funding Exchange, a network of community funds that focus on what it calls "change, not charity." "But if we keep doing that and don't get to the root causes, then we'll keep having the same problems."

Take the battered-women movement. There's a need for shelters in the short term, she says, but the Funding Exchange would more likely support groups that organize for changes in the law or work for women's economic justice, recognizing that with economic freedom, women have more options to take care of themselves.

Like Ms. Gurzinsky, most advocates of social-change philanthropy don't suggest it's the only way to give - simply that it's too often overlooked and, in the long run, may be more effective.

Currently, less than 4 percent of philanthropy goes to "community improvement," says Rick Cohen, president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Only 1.4 percent goes to civil rights and social change.

For the Global Fund for Women, which focuses on issues such as poverty, discrimination, and lack of education for women around the world, addressing root causes means funding a variety of small grass-roots organizations run by women.

Its grants support night classes for domestic workers in Mali, peace-building coalitions between a Palestinian and an Israeli women's center, and a group called the Afghan Institute of Learning, which developed clandestine schools for girls who lived under Taliban rule.

"We understand that women on the ground know best how to solve their own problems," says Leanne Grossman, a spokeswoman for the fund.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Seeds of Peace, based in New York, has gotten attention for its work with teenagers from conflict areas - the Middle East, the Balkans, Cyprus, India, and Pakistan.

Founded in response to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the group brings the kids to a camp in Maine, where they engage in typical camp activities as well as "coexistence sessions" with professional facilitators.

"Our hope, quite basically, is to stop the violence in these regions," says Shanna Hartung, a spokeswoman for the group.

One reason social-change philanthropy is so overlooked, say advocates, is that it's often controversial. The work tends to have an activist element and is frequently engaged in political advocacy - aspects that can scare off funders.

"Often grantmakers are afraid to take risks," says Alison Goldberg, director of Foundations for Change, a Boston-based nonprofit that promotes social-change philanthropy. "They want to trust that their money is going toward measurable outcomes. Looking at the long-term changes, you often can't [quantify] the results in such short-term measures."

But advocates say the political dimension is sometimes overstated.

Social-change donors can come from all backgrounds and political stances, says Gurzinski. "What they have in common is they want to see a difference.... Systemic change is at the community level, at the national level, it's at all levels."

At its start, antiapartheid work wasn't getting much money, she notes. "But look what happened 15 years later."

For donors interested in social change, most experts recommend giving through public foundations with a social-justice mission, which generally involve activists themselves in the grantmaking process.

"Giving to the tried and true - that's what happened with Sept. 11," says Mr. Cohen. "A more active kind of giving," he says, involves thinking "about what the issues are out there, and which places are really thinking about those issues, too."

For more information on social-change philanthropy, go to the Funding Exchange ( or see "Robin Hood Was Right: A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social Change," by Chuck Collins and Pam Rogers, (Norton Publishers).

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.