Can social justice and philanthropy be reconciled when wealthy donors have made their fortunes through an unjust system?

A new report from the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, part of Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, explores this question by looking at the top 10% of Millennial and Gen-Z donors who are seeking to practice social justice-oriented giving – a concept seen by many as a contradiction in terms and one that was once described as “conscience laundering.”

As the WPI report put it: “If wealth has been made from the labor or exploitation of others, how can it be used to reform the systems that created that wealth in the first place?”

While acknowledging that there isn’t a single definition that is widely agreed upon, the report defined social justice philanthropy as “giving that seeks to address the root causes of social and economic inequalities, or structural change, rather than immediate needs, like providing food, housing or medical care.”

One interviewee offered the following understanding of social justice philanthropy: “It’s a specific type of vision of social change, but it’s one that’s more leftist, one that’s rooted to communities having decision-making power, one that’s antiracist, anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist, that’s not hierarchical.”

Of the 28 interviewees, 68% were female, 21% non-binary, 7% male and 4% trans. Most were white (86%), married / partnered (71%), between the ages of 30 and 39 (71%) with a bachelor’s degree or higher (96%), $100,000 or more in annual household income (65%) and a net worth of $1 million or more (82%).

After conducting interviews that focused on “wealth, philanthropic activities, advocacy and personal identities,” the report offered five key findings from these conversations, while cautioning that “this research is not meant to be generalized” due to the “unique characteristics” of the interviewees:

  • They’re aware of, and struggling with, the gap between the world as it operates and a more equitable future they want to help create.
  • They want to dismantle oppressive systems through strategic giving that helps to reduce harm, resource the margins and shift power, and they desire to offer their time, skills and expertise in addition to their money.
  • Their giving is directed not only to non-profits but also to political advocacy efforts, grassroots movements and mutual aid initiatives aimed at creating justice and equity.
  • They wrestle with various discomforts related to obtaining wealth in an unjust system and using that wealth to seek justice.
  • The various categories and affiliations that form their identities are complex and influential on their giving decisions.

These tensions are exacerbated by contrasting trends in the U.S. in recent years – the stock market’s record-levels have further increased wealth inequity even as there is a growing awareness of police brutality and heightened concern about challenges to reproductive justice, racial justice, trans rights and immigrant rights.

Participants identified four tensions inherent in their efforts that united social justice and philanthropy:

  • “Fighting inequality that creates excess wealth, while benefitting from class privilege.”
  • “Ceding power in the nonprofit funder relationship, while seeking connection to the nonprofit and wanting to be hands-on.”
  • “Willing to engage in rapid response giving and mutual aid, while wanting to focus on systemic causes rather than symptoms.”
  • “Believing that social and economic systems are broken, while giving through those system to have an impact.”

One interviewee summarized the challenge this way: “I think being a philanthropist is a beautiful thing, but it’s so problematic.”

The full report is available here.

Share This