Giving Review readers know we’ve been covering the growing dissatisfaction with progressive philanthropy coming from points even farther to the left. But we’ve focused pretty much on attacks from the intellectual realm, by writers and scholars like Anand Giridhiradas and Rob Reich. The New York Times, however, featured an eloquent and powerful critique from a more-practical direction last month, written by a prominent funder of grassroots activists who are doing the hard daily work of radical reform.

Vanessa Daniel is executive director of Groundswell, identified by the Times as “a foundation that supports grass-roots organizing by women of color and transgender people of color.” Entitled “Philanthropists Bench Women of Color, the M.V.P.s of Social Change,” the article argues that “a mountain of evidence shows progressive victories are surging up from groups led by women of color, particularly black women, that build power on the ground—not trickling down from large Beltway organizations headed by white men.”

In spite of this, “women of color are shut out of funding” by the major progressive foundations. Daniel attributes this to six reasons:

1.)       The false notion that bigger is better. Philanthropy believes in “trickle-down social change,” and believes that “the way to achieve the greatest impact is to invest in large, prominent, national nonprofits that promise to deliver ‘at scale’ despite having little organizing heft at the local level.” This benefits established, white-led groups.

2.)       The impulse to gentrify. Here, the trend is the “gentrification of social change movements,” in which funders try to imitate the success of women of color by “writing checks so that larger, white-led nonprofits can replicate their work.” But even if an established group hires successful grassroots activists, the “strategies don’t deliver the same impact when executed by institutions headed by white people that lack relationships and trust among people on the ground.”

3.)       Implicit bias. Philanthropy is “overwhelmingly controlled by middle- to upper-class white people,” and this “gives a great advantage to leaders and nonprofits that conform to their cultural norms. Facility in academic English, slick marketing materials, and connections with prestigious people and institutions” make success for them more likely.

4.)       Risk. Philanthropy regards grants to grassroots groups headed by people of color as inherently riskier than those to larger, white groups.

5.)       Facially neutral rules. “Philanthropy’s eligibility criteria and metrics for impact often reinforce the inequities that are the core of the very problems it is trying to solve.”

6.)       Elitist ideas of social change. “Philanthropy tackles the most difficult problems of our day but seeks to involve the people most affected by them as little as possible.” There are strong beliefs that more research reports will sway elected officials; that “if only a fancy communications firm could come up with a winning message and broadcast it via an aerial campaign, that it would change behavior;” and that “policy written in a vacuum by well-paid lawyers in Washington is the way to win social change.”

Daniel concludes by arguing that “every foundation ought to shift a majority of its giving to groups headed by people of color.” Substantial checks should be written to such groups, and not for individual projects, but for “multiyear, general-support funding.”

Clearly, Daniel is most directly interested in addressing the gender and race imbalances in philanthropic giving. A cursory glance at the agenda of any national or regional association of foundations will suggest that liberal philanthropy is working very hard on this problem. I would argue, however, that the front-line grassroots groups Daniel champions will never get their due until the larger problem of progressive elitism is addressed.


For well more than a century, the progressive approach to public policy has emphasized the critical role that professional expertise must play in solving our problems. The new natural and social sciences coming on the scene in the early 20th Century held out the promise of getting to the root causes of those problems and solving them once and for all. The first major American foundations were central in the development of that approach, and built major national institutions that reflected it, including research universities, think tanks, and professional associations.

By this standard, local civic groups uninformed by this new knowledge were incapable of solving problems on the scale required. Their actions were rooted in archaic moral and religious beliefs, and were on a scale so small that they could only put “Band-Aids” on problems. As readers of TGR recognize, this is a recapitulation of the philanthropy-versus-charity divide that animated the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage foundations.

And that divide continues to this day to consign small-scale, local, community-based initiatives to the periphery, while large-scale, national, expert-driven efforts take center stage. Daniel’s indictment of foundations implicitly goes beyond race and gender to encompass this problem of professionalism. As she points out, grantmakers will pass over already-successful local programs managed by authentic community leaders in order to fund major “scaled-up” programs, managed by elites who “conform to their cultural norms,” and boast a “facility in academic English.” Clever communications experts and “well-paid lawyers in Washington”—she could have added tenured faculty on university campuses—become the designers of policy, rather than the grassroots leaders who have already demonstrated success in their own backyards.  

The most-insightful—and damning—observation in Daniel’s article gets to this point. “I’ve seen repeatedly that it’s far easier for a young affluent white man who has studied poverty at Harvard to land a $1 million grant with a concept pitch,” she writes,

than it is for a 40-something black woman with a decades-long record of wins in the impoverished community where she works to get a grant for $20,000. This, despite the epic volumes of paperwork and proof of impact that she will invariably have to produce. She reads as risky, small, marginal. He reads as a sound investment, scalable, mainstream.

I would suggest that the decisive antinomy in this paragraph is less male/female or white/black than Harvard/impoverished community. Although nowhere near Daniel’s goal of giving a majority of funding to groups headed by people of color, foundations are clearly working to increase that percentage. But that will not address the more radical imbalance between the credentialed problem-solver and the grassroots activist.

Funders, and their framing

It will always be easier for a poverty scholar at Harvard—whether or not male, wealthy, or white—to raise funds for a major project. That million-dollar investment in Ivy League research is propelled by progressivism’s quest for the genuine source of our problems, which only professional expertise can discover through its abstruse social technologies. Progressivism’s promise is that one such major initiative may figure out how to solve a social problem once and for all, thereby clearing it off the policy agenda altogether—surely a risk worth taking.

By contrast, the success of a grassroots activist can be—and invariably is—dismissed as localized and idiosyncratic, no doubt reliant on the charismatic quality of a rare individual. To be sure, the success story makes for a pleasant and inspiring anecdote. And as Daniel suggests, the activist may well earn a few dollars as a consultant to the “real experts,” who will then frame her work in “academic English,” pool it into a larger survey of similar efforts, and pass it on in scholarly journals to other experts.

But professionalism by definition denies the efficacy of an uncredentialed grassroots leader. Unless an event is observed within the proper conceptual framework—with the applicable terms deployed, hypotheses advanced, and measurable outcomes systematically gathered—it’s impossible to say scientifically whether or not success has been achieved. Everyday citizens are notoriously unreliable guides to such questions, swayed as they are by superficial and unscientific understandings of problems, and deluded into thinking that they can come up with their own workable solutions.

An unlikely alternative approach

Some observers who share Daniel’s critical view of progressive philanthropy point us toward an unlikely source for an alternative approach: conservative philanthropy. Vu Le, a delightfully irreverent and devastatingly accurate critic of foundation giving, captured this in a post on his blog Nonprofit AF, tellingly entitled “10 Things Progressive Funders Must Learn from Conservative Ones, or We Are All Screwed.” (This insouciance is why I nominated him for The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “Forty Under Forty” list three years ago.) As he notes, “conservative funders focus on the big picture, act quickly, do not micromanage, provide significant and general operating funds, fund for twenty or thirty years, support leaders and movements, engage in policy and politics, and treat grantees as equal partners.”

Although Le intended this description to apply to conservative support for national policy-oriented nonprofits, I can attest from my years at Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation that we took the same approach to local community groups. Our “big picture”—drawing on the teachings of writers and practitioners ranging from Robert Nisbet to Robert Woodson—was the conviction that embedded in such groups was an immense reserve of local wisdom and practical experience, which top-down government and professional nonprofit programs tended to ignore, devalue, or displace.


Putting grassroots activists at the center of our approach wasn’t just a way to be more effective, however. It was also an effort to help revitalize the institutions and moral and religious values of civil society, which we had learned from Alexis de Tocqueville were critical for the very survival of American democracy.

Once we had located effective Tocquevillian groups active in neighborhoods, we made the grant application and reporting process as painless as possible; we made grants for general operations; and we had no illusions about the groups becoming “self-supporting,” and so continued support for years, without the harassment of “measurable outcomes.” Precisely what the groups did—whether running a home-based senior care center, a church-based business incubator, a basketball program for at-risk youth, a receptionist training institute—mattered less than who the grassroots leaders were: widely respected and vigorously active leaders who drew upon the hidden moral and spiritual assets of the neighborhood to define and solve its own problems according to its own lights. 

I once described this approach to the director of one of those Ivy League centers on philanthropy, and she asked in astonishment, “So … you honestly didn’t have in mind some way all of these isolated projects fit coherently into a larger blueprint for fixing the city’s problems?” No, we did not. Once you develop that mental plan, we knew, the subtle and not-so-subtle poking, prodding, herding, steering, guiding, micromanaging, and coordinating of grantees begins. Pretty soon, the wisdom of the neighborhood leader yields to the theoretical framework of the expert planner, whose “scaled-up” program will forego grassroots “Band-Aids” in order to get at the root cause of urban problems.

We chose to stick instead with the insight of Woodson ally Leon Watkins, director of Los Angeles’ Family Help Line, who told the Capital Research Center,

When someone comes in and tells me their house just burnt down, or they bring in a little girl with serious mental problems and she has no place to stay, what program do you put that under? It’s hard to explain to people that concept. People who pledge support want to see programs. But that’s what life is like here—whatever comes up, that’s the program.

Perhaps the supreme irony of this approach is that even though conservative funders are allegedly racist and sexist, Bradley’s approach ended up funding an overwhelmingly large number of women of color, who, as Daniel argues, are indeed at the forefront of community leadership. (I might add that the likelihood of any of them being a conservative Republican was slim to none.)

Of course, Bradley doesn’t get credit for this from radical critics of philanthropy, because our “big picture” wasn’t based on rectifying massive race and gender injustices, but rather on helping to re-establish vigorous civic associations in low-income neighborhoods. But the concrete practices and actual groups funded by these two approaches are much closer to each other than those flowing from the progressive model, which shifts the power away from local grassroots activists altogether, to distant intellectual elites. For the women of color who were funded to do as they wish, over an extended period, with little or no interference from the foundation, I suspect it hardly mattered that the money flowed from a “deficient” theoretical framework.