Philanthropic Leadership Means Following the Frontlines

When we talk about “building the capacity” of frontline and grassroots leaders who are changing structures, policies, and systems, what does that really mean for funders? Many funders use antiquated and static systems of inquiry to identify and make judgements about which groups are well-equipped to achieve social change. The truth is that philanthropy holds a disproportionate amount of power; it serves as a gatekeeper for the resources that belong to our communities. And while the folks most impacted by any given issue—particularly frontline communities of color—hold the solutions and are in the best position to implement equitable systems change, our field continues to struggle with identifying and funding existing capacity on the ground.

An evolved approach is not only necessary, but also possible. As Ayanna Pressley, who beat a 10-term Congressman in her primary race in Massachusetts, said on her campaign trail: “The people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.”

A funder’s role, then, is to build our own individual and institutional skills to receive and incorporate the insight these leaders and communities provide. We must listen to them, follow them, and respond in ways that help us model the systems change—the new rules, norms, and equitable power structures—they are creating.

It begins with community
For me, a big part of doing this is building a community of folks to talk to, and learn with and from, in a space that encourages vulnerability and welcomes curiosity. For example, I participated in a year-long collective-learning program for funders housed at the Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG)—an organization that has centered its mission on power and racial justice for nearly 40 years. Called Project Phoenix, the program fostered a community of funders eager to work together at the intersection of democracy, the economy, and the environment, and enabled us to grow together and deepen relationships. Those experiences continue to heavily influence my view of what is possible through collective learning and action. In spaces like these and in the communities where we work, partners can cultivate trust over time by working together, making promises to one another, and addressing broken promises when they happen. In doing so, we remain accountable, transparent, and open to change and self-reflection.

Learning environments help those of us with white privilege and philanthropic institutional privilege ground ourselves and our work in community and, in many cases, re-educate ourselves about history. My formal education about the history and systems of the United States was in part an intentional miseducation to perpetuate the dominant white power structure. An evolved approach means recognizing that history is storytelling. We must seek out and listen to a wide range of stories, especially from communities of color, if we are to more fully understand how our current, racially unjust system in the United States came about, what has reinforced it, and what we can do to change it.

The real face of leadership
Funders do not always see that the lived experience of many powerful frontline and grassroots leaders is what makes them experts. Their expertise might not fit neatly into a box that funders can check off, and they may not agree with funders’ ideas or strategies. But it is not their role to agree with us or fit into philanthropy’s predetermined and often structurally racist criteria; it is our responsibility to see them, listen to them, and follow their lead. Building relationships and trust with these leaders means spending time with folks in communities—where they live, play, pray, congregate, eat, organize, dream, and work together.

Based on many conversations with field leaders about what it takes to recognize and resource frontline strength and leadership—again, particularly among leaders of color—here are some specific recommendations:

  • Be responsive to the way people and movements organize themselves. Social justice movements are highly informed and have their own analysis about how best to advance power, justice, and solutions. Funders shouldn’t be prescriptive about their own theory of change or outcomes. The Chorus Foundation, for example, uses grantee-led processes to make local funding decisions that support organizations working toward a just transition; shifting from old, extractive economies to regenerative, democratic alternatives that benefit frontline communities.
  • Support organizational capacity, as well as the capacity of individuals, networks, and coalitions. Not all impactful work happens inside a nonprofit structure, and it often requires that funders support an ecosystem of collaborative work. The Solutions Project’s Fighter Fund, for example, provides rapid-response grantmaking to support pivotal frontline leaders, not just organizations.
  • Make space for divergence and debate in movements, rather than force consensus and uniformity. Movements are not a monolith; movement leaders will not always agree on solutions, in part because they bring different experiences and histories to their work. The Advancing Equity and Opportunity (AEO) Collaborative creates space by bringing together leaders with a diversity of perspectives, across 13 states in the southeast, to advance environmental solutions rooted in equity.
  • Ask your partners what they need to be healthy and present in their work. Many frontline leaders are working tirelessly and on thin budgets. Cover the cost of childcare, eldercare, or other priorities when asking partners to travel or spend time away from their daily lives and community. The Andrus Family Fund, for example, helps strengthen grantee partners’ ability to serve system-impacted young people by providing flexible support that includes leadership development.
  • Provide long-term, flexible (general operating) resources at a level that allows leaders to dream, build, implement, and realize the change they seek. Restrictive funding keeps folks having to defend their communities daily, leaving little room for them to do systems-level work. More funders need to provide long-term resources that complement immediate and responsive support such as rapid-response funding.

Nick Tilsen, president and CEO of NDN Collective, a national organization building Indigenous power, declared to a room of funders recently, “Philanthropy has historically invested in frontline, grassroots, and Indigenous leadership just enough for us to fail.” In other words, many funders expect transformative results from frontline leadership on a shoestring budget. They invest in frontline leadership work just enough to say they support it, but often not at the same level they fund white-led organizations or initiatives. I have heard others express this sentiment many times over—including at the Solidarity to Solutions Week, a frontline response to the Global Climate Action Summit, organized collectively by hundreds of It Takes Roots members and its directors Angela Adrar (Climate Justice Alliance), Cindy Wiesner (Grassroots Global Justice Alliance), Dawn Phillips (Right to the City Alliance), and Tom Goldtooth (Indigenous Environmental Network).

Grounded in race
Even if we implement these practices, we will ultimately fail to create real systems change unless we center and pursue racial justice and equity, both in our organizations’ internal operations, and in our external grantmaking and investment strategies.

Race is the predominant determinant of quality of life in the United States, and we know communities of color face disproportionate injustice. Racial justice—the systemic, fair treatment of people of all races that results in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all—cannot be a separate goal or outcome; it must be the central objective of our collective work. We grantmakers must not only be allies, but also join our partners’ struggle on the frontlines, and recognize that the same communities bearing injustice are the heart and soul of our social movements.

What if our philanthropic practices around diversity, equity, and inclusion were the entry point for moving along a continuum toward justice and power?

Learning takes place in communities
I did not come to these ideas on my own. I certainly did not enter philanthropy six years ago understanding how to support capacity or power building. Resources such as NCRP’s Power Moves toolkit and the Funders For Justice’s Divest/Invest’s From Criminalization to Thriving Communities toolkit have been helpful guides along my learning journey. So has participating in communities of practice like NFG and others where I can be vulnerable and curious. I would not know how to, nor would I have the resolve or energy to do this work in isolation.

Together, by learning from and growing with these various philanthropic and frontline communities, we funders can shift the culture of philanthropy so that we are part of—rather than in control of—social movements and systems-change work.


Alison Corwin is senior program officer for the Sustainable Environments program at the Surdna Foundation. She serves as the board co-chair of the Neighborhood Funders Group.

This article was originally published on as part of its Power in Philanthropy series, presented in partnership with the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.