Guest blog: Funding justice

Are trusts and foundations doing enough to address the root causes of injustice? Eliza Baring from the Civic Power Fund sets of the context and findings of the Funding Justice report, which she co-authored with Jon Cracknell, director of The Hour is Late consultancy. This article first appeared in the autumn issue of  our member magazine, Trust & Foundation News.


In May 2022, the Civic Power Fund launched Funding Justice, a report which examines social justice grant-making in the UK. The 47 foundations included in the research are either members of Foundations for Social Justice (formerly the Woburn Place Collaborative) or Ariadne, the human rights funders network. Many of these organisations are the most active philanthropic supporters of social justice work in the UK, expressly prioritising economic, environmental and social justice outcomes.

The report is the first aggregate dataset of social justice grants in the UK, with the 4,110 grants analysed totalling £305.8m – around 8% of UK foundation giving in 2018-19. 

Living in challenging times

In this increasingly challenging decade, funders have been playing a vital role in supporting communities. From food banks, to education and training, to support services, philanthropic funds are helping to fill the widening gaps left by months of inflationary pressures, years of strain on local authorities and frontline services, and decades of entrenched injustice. 

However, progress on some of the most important social issues is moving far too slowly. 

More families are struggling to feed themselves as the cost of living crisis spirals out of control. Two years into the decisive decade for the climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continues to warn that global action on climate change is too slow. And following UK leadership at COP26 in 2021, we’re now seeing new movements to weaken vital progress to net zero. The rights of people on the move continue to be undermined, with the Rwanda plan and the Nationality and Borders Bill being two recent examples. 

These economic, environmental and social injustices are being perpetrated in a democracy characterised by distrust, disengagement and division, and where power is centralised in Westminster.

Confronting these challenges

The pandemic and Black Lives Matter have catalysed a reckoning with the deep, systemic injustices underlying these issues. These momentous global events also highlighted the ingenuity, resilience and spirit of communities.

At the same time, we have seen a growing consensus among foundations that a change in both how and what they fund is needed to support and grow the power of these communities. 

Funders are recognising their role in ‘getting out of the way’ and adopting more open, trust-based grant-making practices.(2) As Sufina Ahmad MBE, director of the John Ellerman Foundation, articulated in her keynote speech at the Charity Governance Awards this year, the best trustee boards see that “they are part of the problem and are striving to be part of the solution”. Place-led funding – investing in local areas in a geographically strategic way – is also on the rise. 

Funding the building of power in communities, rather than alleviating the symptoms of disempowerment through service provision, is seen by many as a vital route to change. Within this, community organising is regarded as the most effective way of building long-term power in the places and communities that need it most. 

Findings of the Funding Justice report
What counts as a ‘social justice grant’?
Funding Justice highlights that there is more that can be done to increase the impact of philanthropic funds on social justice issues to make funders’ money go further. 
Social justice is a historically contested concept. Nevertheless, core to most definitions are five key principles: access to resources, equity, participation, diversity, and human rights. As such, the report focuses on grants actively trying to drive change in relation to social norms, policy, legislation or governmental decision-making in respect of these five principles. 

This excludes grants to organisations that focus over half of their work on delivering a service, even where this service supports marginalised groups. This narrow definition is intended to identify the funds that are driving social and political change – addressing the root causes, rather than the symptoms of, injustice.

The report divides social justice grants into three categories:
1) Grants for community organising
2) Grants focused on justice and power, such as access to justice and legal support
3) Grants for advocacy and campaigning work. 

What is being funded
According to these definitions, social justice grants (grants that fall under categories 1 to 3) comprise just 28% of all the grants made by the 47 foundations in 2018/19. And within these, just 17 grants fund community organising – a mere 0.3% of all the grants analysed. 

This indicates that the increasing awareness of the importance of community power building is not yet being reflected in funding patterns. Even among the most significant social justice funders in the UK, the majority of grants are going to service delivery.

How the money is distributed
The research also reveals how social justice grants are spread thinly across organisations, with many organisations receiving small amounts of money. The 950 grants in categories 1 to 3 went to 564 different grantees. Only 36 of these 564 grantees managed to secure more than £500,000 in grants from the 47 foundations in 2018-19.

Where grants are ending up 
The role of the third sector is central to the government’s levelling up ambitions, and in the growing civic movement to devolve more practical power to the local and regional level. However, the report highlights a striking concentration of social justice grants in London, with £137 of funding per 100 people. By contrast, many English regions receive tiny volumes of social justice grants, both in absolute terms and on a per capita basis.

With three-quarters focused on work carried out at the national level, much of this philanthropic money is not geographically targeted at all. 

The way forward

Growing the Grassroots, a report by NEON chair Vic Langer, which was published alongside Funding Justice, showcases a groundswell of community action already underway in the UK. The report’s case studies capture the multiplier effect of investing in communities – by redirecting just a small proportion of social justice funding towards community power building in a geographically strategic and unrestricted way, funders could achieve much more bang for their buck.

We can see how much further funds go when given at the grassroots – from scaling local activism into national campaigns, to strengthening and diversifying community leadership, to using geographic strategy to amplify previously unheard voices, forcing MPs to sit up and listen.

This kind of funding can support communities to win change on issues that matter to them, improving outcomes and strengthening democratic accountability at every level. By working alongside the most excluded communities, a more collaborative and unrestricted approach to grant-making will ensure that their voices and needs are properly heard and reflected in decision-making. 

Initiatives such as LocalMotion have shown how impact is magnified through funder collaboration. Sharing information and infrastructure, and pooling resources better ensures that the money gets to those at the grassroots who need it most, creating an ecosystem of support that is greater than the sum of its parts. 
By investing in building the power of communities, together, social justice funders will build civic power and address the causes of injustice.