July 01, 2015

Charleston, Health Care, Gay Marriage, and More: Why Advocacy Matters

It is difficult to envision a more powerful and gripping time in social justice than the last two weeks of June.  Beginning with the horrific shooting of nine churchgoing African-Americans in Charleston, S.C., and ending with the Supreme Court's landmark decision on marriage equality, this nation witnessed historic leaps in the arc of social change and social justice. Matters of race, sexual orientation, health, housing, and dignity for immigrants all took a forward step in a matter of days.

The tragic deaths at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church led to powerful images of Confederate battle flags being lowered and tucked away across some southern states. The fate of Obamacare, designed to bring some measure of health equity for millions of uninsured Americans, was rescued by the Supreme Court from yet another politically motivated torpedo. The same day the court issued a ruling that will help fight discrimination in housing. A day later came the social-change coup de grâce as the Court declared lesbians, gay, and transgendered people have the right to marry in every state.

Buried among the headline-grabbing justice events was another landmark:
Jerry Brown, California's governor, signed legislation that provides children of undocumented immigrants access to affordable health coverage –. the first state in the nation to recognize that such people deserve the same dignity given to American citizens.


For everyone in philanthropy who cherishes the values of equality, justice,
fairness, inclusion, and opportunity, these last few weeks have been a
time of celebration — albeit one punctuated by mourning over Charleston's

The glorious victories were given extra meaning by the Ford Foundation's pivotal announcement in early June that all of its work in the years to come would focus on the battle against inequality

Kudos to foundation president Darren Walker and Ford's board of directors for declaring such an important step.

June's constellation of landmark victories was no lucky, sun-moon-and-stars moment. While the timing may appear to be providential, closer examination of each of these social-justice and equality victories reveals decades of fighting by grass-roots and advocacy organizations. Behind each victory are stories of struggle, activism, scratching and clawing of leaders battling to speak truth to power and level the playing field of equality for communities of color, immigrants, the poor, and LGBT people.

While in no way would I ascribe these social-justice wins to institutional philanthropy, it cannot be denied that much of the support for the heroic organizations that, in the vernacular of African-American churches, "fight the good fight," stems from foundations and individuals who believe in investing in advocacy.

At the foundation I lead, the California Endowment, the most substantive change in grant-making strategy since our birth some 20 years ago has been the shift from funding direct health services in favor of advocacy, especially the kind that seeks to change systems to improve health care in marginalized communities. Our Board of Directors believes that this brand of grant making expresses our values – but we have also seen a return on our investment in recent years, one that has led to meaningful improvement in the health of underserved communities. Government-financed health coverage for low-income and struggling families will provide billions of dollars in health care in the decade to come, far in excess of the $300 million or so our foundation has invested in advocacy and systems-change grants over the past decade.

Funding advocacy is admittedly a tough sell in philanthropy.  There are no ribbons to cut at a shiny new building, no back-slapping congratulations from elected officials at news conferences, no plaques with our foundation names on the wall.

It is also substantially more difficult to measure results: One can easily account for the number of meals served at a food bank or new beds created at a children's hospital or beds provided at a homeless shelter. We have done a better job at our foundation assessing progress in advocacy and have established a better rhythm of learning side by side with our grantees – although we must still improve.

But for all of the attention that foundations seem to heap on "the next best innovation," "much better data," and publishing elegant reports about "best practices," the history of the fight for equality and opportunity is not primarily driven by any of those things. It is about how the marginalized, oppressed, and stigmatized gather themselves to "fight the good fight" of social justice.  Gandhi's theory of change on this matter went something like this: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then — you win."

These last few weeks — where matters of race, equality, housing, health, and immigration were decided in favor of justice — offer important signs for philanthropy: Victories on marriage equality and Obamacare remind us of why funding advocacy is pivotal to philanthropy. But the tragic deaths of African-Americans at the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church remind us why we simply cannot stop.

Robert K. Ross is chief executive of the California Endowment.