October 20, 2020

Philanthropy Isn’t Doing Enough to Support Youth-Led Voter-Mobilization Efforts

Alejandra Ruiz, Executive Director of the Youth Engagement Fund, and Lori Bezahler, President of the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, write about youth of color civic engagement and voter mobilization work as a core opportunity for grantmaking on racial equity, leadership development, and building people centered long-term infrastructure that transforms our communities and democracy. This op-ed was originally published here in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Alejandra was part of the 2019-2020 Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship cohort, a joint initiative of Neighborhood Funders Group and The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. The Youth Engagement Fund is a donor collaborative dedicated to increasing the civic participation and electoral power of young people. The Hazen Foundation is a longtime NFG member and is comitted to supporting organization and leadership of young people and communities of color in dismantling structural inequity based on race and class.


Three youth-vote organizers with Arizona Coalition for Change stand together wearing orange t-shirts that say, "Voting is dope. You registered?" Photo credit: Alexa-Rio Osaki.
Youth-vote organizers with Arizona Coalition for Change. Photo by Alexa-Rio Osaki.

Through their votes and their activism, young people — especially youth of color — are transforming the electorate. Youth organizing accounts for a major share of voter mobilization efforts in key battleground states such as Arizona, Florida, and Georgia. These states are in play in the upcoming election thanks in large part to years of persistent organizing by youth-led groups.

Despite their effectiveness, young leaders are often overlooked by donors and excluded from strategy tables of more established organizations, even as they mobilize hundreds of thousands of voters for the November election — and beyond. If we value a just and functioning democracy with an electorate truly representative of the populace, we must support the efforts of young organizers of color who are doing the critical work of building an electorate that will not only vote but will also hold government leaders accountable to those who elected them.

Unfortunately, philanthropy has yet to offer the level of support young leaders need. When the Youth Engagement Fund, which one of us leads, recently asked a group of about 50 donors whether they believed young people of color are key stakeholders in democracy, 100 percent agreed. Yet follow-up questions revealed that fewer than 25 percent of the donors support the young people who are doing this work, and of those that do, less than 25 percent are supporting youth of color.

The reality is that even donors who understand the importance of voting efforts led by youth of color aren’t ready to fund them. But to truly eradicate structural inequalities, philanthropy must resolve this disconnect. Offering nice words isn’t enough. Philanthropy needs to provide tangible support, resources, and funding.

Consider the demographics. Young people today are one of the nation’s most important voting blocs. Americans under the age of 39 now make up 37 percent of eligible voters, marking a notable shift in the generational, racial, and ethnic makeup of voters from previous election years.

Young voters of color can wield tremendous power in this election, as they did in 2018 when 31 percent cast a ballot — the largest turnout in a quarter of a century. Their participation increased in every state, reaching as high as 40 percent in some states and proving decisive in several statewide races. The youth vote could have a disproportionate impact on the presidential, Senate, and House elections in 10 key states this year, according to research from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.

Ready to Lead

In a nation with far lower voter participation than most other developed countries, young voters of color are positioned to assume a leadership role.

Black and Latinx youth have proven especially effective at connecting with young people who have long been ignored by traditional voter-engagement efforts. Through our work leading the Youth Engagement Fund and the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, we’ve seen the power of these youth leaders first-hand through groups such as One ArizonaDream Defenders in Florida, and Women Engaged in Georgia. These organizations combine traditional get-out-the-vote, voter-registration, and voter-education efforts with sustained engagement of their peers focused on developing lifelong civic involvement.

Similar groups are also hard at work in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, which could become the next set of swing states later this decade. Mississippi Votes, for instance, has events planned through the election season to mobilize voters through prizes and virtual parties, while Woke Vote in Alabama already broke voter registration records earlier in the year through get-out-the- vote efforts at protests for Black lives.

Young people understand the connection between inspiring their peers to vote and engaging them on issues such as racial justice, immigration, and climate change. And unlike many of their more established adult counterparts, these young organizers can adapt quickly to changing environments.

They have proven especially adept at harnessing a robust digital infrastructure during the pandemic. For example, New Mexico Dream Team, which is led by immigrant youth, quickly pivoted their in-person programs online through digital organizing and offline engagement. They were well positioned for such a move given the group’s previous experience running campaigns through online media, phone banks, and texting because immigration checkpoints made it difficult to reach parts of their communities in person. In Georgia, Women Engaged heightened its online programming by hosting summer civic learning trainings and amplifying social media messaging. These strategies allowed them to connect with youth who were not previously politically engaged.

How such groups are funded — not just how much funding they receive — is critically important. Both of our organizations put young people of color at the center of our work as decision makers and leaders and base our funding on trust and collaboration. At Hazen, our decision to distribute all our assets over five years was made in consultation with young people of color who challenged us to meet the needs of the moment and free up capital to invest in the communities that need it now. At the Youth Engagement Fund, our multiyear support for youth-led groups includes funding, executive and wellness coaching, mentorship, and skills training in areas such as fundraising, management, and storytelling.

The innovative efforts of Black, Latinx, and other young leaders of color should be a source of excitement and inspiration to all who care about democracy. These young people have accomplished much on their own, but they can do so much more with our help. We need to provide the resources they need to succeed and then get out of the way so they can keep doing their vital work during this election and in the years to come.

May 4, 2021

Introducing Philanthropy Foward: Cohort 3


We are excited to announce the launch of Philanthropy Forward's Cohort 3 in partnership with The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions!

Philanthropy Forward is a CEO fellowship community for visionary leaders who center racial and gender justice and community power building to disrupt and transform the future of philanthropy. This fellowship brings together CEOs of foundations who are supporting racial & gender justice and community power building to make deeper change at the individual, organizational, and philanthropic field levels.

  • ALEYAMMA MATHEW, she/her — Collective Future Fund
  • AMORETTA MORRIS, she/her — Borealis Philanthropy
  • ANA CONNER, they/she — Third Wave Fund
  • CARLA FREDERICKS, she/her — The Christensen Fund
  • CRAIG DRINKARD, he/him — Victoria Foundation
  • JENNIFER CHING, she/her — North Star Fund
  • JOHN BROTHERS, he/him — T. Rowe Price Foundation
  • KIYOMI FUJIKAWA, she/her — Third Wave Fund
  • LISA OWENS, she/her — Hyams Foundation
  • MOLLY SCHULTZ HAFID, she/her — Butler Family Fund
  • NICK DONOHUE, he/him — Nellie Mae Education Foundation
  • NICOLE PITTMAN, she/her — Just Beginnings Collaborative
  • PHILIP LI, he/him — Robert Sterling Clark Foundation
  • RAJASVINI BHANSALI, she/they — Solidaire Network & Solidaire Action Fund
  • RINI BANERJEE, she/her — Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation
  • TANUJA DEHNE, she/her — Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation
  • YANIQUE REDWOOD, she/her — Consumer Health Foundation

learn more about each Fellow!

With a framework focused on liberated gatekeeping, accountability practices, and strategic risk taking, Philanthropy Forward is a dedicated space for leaders to organize together and boldly advance the transformed future of the sector. This growing fellowship of visionary CEOs from progressive philanthropic institutions is aligning to to disrupt and transform the future of philanthropy.

Philanthropy Forward is a joint initiative started in 2018 by Neighborhood Funders Group and The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. Learn more about the fellowship here.

March 17, 2021

How Philanthropy Can Move from Crisis to Transformation

Dimple Abichandani, Executive Director of the General Service Foundation, urges grantmakers and the philanthropic sector to take concrete actions to defend democracy and speak out against racist attacks on people of color. This post was originally published here by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project.

Dimple was part of the first Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship cohort, a joint initiative of Neighborhood Funders Group and The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. General Service Foundation, which partners with grassroots organizations to bring about a more just and sustainable world, is a member of NFG.


Dimple AbichandaniIt was just a year ago, and yet it feels like a lifetime.

Last March, I was dreading a hectic month packed with too much work travel. Long before we had heard of Covid-19, many of us had been preparing for 2020 to be a consequential year, one in which our democracy was on the line.

My mother had generously traveled from Houston to help with childcare during my travels. Her two-week visit turned into three months, and our worlds as we knew them changed.

Covid happened.  

Then the racial justice uprisings happened.

The wildfires happened.

The election happened. 

And then an armed insurrection to overturn the democratic election results happened.

Every turn in this tumultuous year reaffirmed the reality that justice is a matter of life and death. 

Our democracy survived, though barely. But more than half a million Americans did not, and this unfathomable loss, borne disproportionately by communities of color, is still growing.

Across the philanthropic sector, funders stepped up to meet the moment. We saw payouts increase, the removal of unnecessary bureaucracy, and commitments to flexible support from not only public and private foundations but also individual philanthropists who gave unrestricted billions.

A year ago, we all faced a rapidly changing reality — one that it made it hard to know what the next month, or next year might hold.  Now, we have turned a corner in a most consequential time in American democracy, a time that has been defined by the leadership of Black women and grassroots movements for social justice that are building the power of people — and these movements are just getting started. There is momentum for change, leadership that is solidly poised to make that change, and broad-based support for the bold solutions that will move us towards a more just and equitable society.  We are in a dramatically different time that continues to call for a dramatically different kind of philanthropy.

As we look back on this year of crisis, and see the opportunities before us now more clearly, how are funders being called to contribute to the change we know is needed?  To answer these questions, I point to the truths that remained when everything else fell away.

We have the power to change the rules.

In the early days of the pandemic, close to 800 foundations came together and pledged to provide their grantees with flexible funding and to remove burdens and barriers that divert them from their work. Restrictions on funding were waived, and additional funds were released. These changes were not the result of years-long strategic planning; instead, this was a rare example of strategic action. These quick shifts allowed movement leaders to be responsive to rapidly shifting needs. Grantees were more free to act holistically, to mobilize collectively, make shared demands, and achieve staggering change.

Today, our grantees are coping with the exhaustion, burnout, and trauma from this last year, the last four years, and even the last four hundred years. Recently, many of us have begun to invest more intentionally in the healing, sustainability, and wellness of our grantees. Systemic injustice takes a toll on a very individual human level, and as funders, we can and should resource our grantees to thrive.

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Co-Executive Director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, has urged philanthropy to, “Fund us like you want us to win.” Last year, we learned that we are capable of doing just that — and doing it without delay. Let’s build on funding practices that center relationships and shift power to our grantees.

White supremacy got us into this mess; racial justice will get us out.

Racial justice went mainstream in 2020 as the multiple crises exposed deep inequities and injustices in our midst. In the months after the world witnessed a police officer brutally murder George Floyd, many funders responded with explicit new commitments to fund Black-led racial justice work. These standalone funding commitments have been hailed as a turning point in philanthropy — a recognition of the importance of resourcing racial justice movements.

As we move forward, we must ensure that these newly made commitments are durable and not just crisis-driven. Movements should not have to rely on heartbreaking headlines to drive the flow of future resources. We can build on new funding commitments by centering racial justice in all our grantmaking. As resources begin to flow, let’s ensure that our frameworks are intersectional and include a gender analysis. To demonstrate a true desire to repair, heal, and build a multiracial democracy, philanthropy must do meaningful work in our institutions so that, at all levels, there is an understanding of the root causes of inequality and the importance of investing in racial justice.  Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change, captured the centrality of this when he said, “We don’t get racial justice out of a true democracy. We get a true democracy out of racial justice.”

We know how to be “all in” when it's important. In this next period, it’s important.

With crisis as the rationalization, many endowed foundations were inspired to suspend a practice that our sector has long taken for granted: the 5% minimum distribution rule. In the face of compounding threats to our lives and our democracy, 64 individuals and foundations pledged to increase spending to 10% of the value of their endowment in 2020. And for the first time in years, the philanthropic sector is giving meaningful attention to the topic of spending decisions and the problem of treating the payout floor as though it is the ceiling.

To take full advantage of this once-in-a-generation opening for transformation, funders must put all the tools in our toolbox behind our ambitious missions. Social justice philanthropy can build new spending models that are not only more responsive to the moment, but also set our institutions up to better fulfill our missions — today and in the long-term.

This past summer, 26 million people marched in the streets of their small and large cities to proclaim that Black lives matter. It was the largest mobilization in our country’s history. Last fall, despite numerous efforts to suppress voters, social justice organizers mobilized the largest voter turnout we’ve ever seen. Now, as a result, we are in a moment that holds immense possibility. 

In big and small ways, we are all changed by this year. 

Our sector and our practice of philanthropy has changed too.  Let’s claim the opportunity that is before us by reimagining our norms and adopting practices that will continue to catalyze transformation.  The old philanthropy has been exposed as unfit. The new philanthropy is ours to create.