Piper Fund: From Reform to Justice

Piper Fund: From Reform to Justice - Proteus Fund

Piper Fund’s most recent set of donor briefings, held last October, focused on the rise of white nationalism, its overwhelming threat to U.S. Democracy and the role that democracy funders should play in combating it. For a donor collaborative that began twenty-five years ago, this may seem like a departure. It is, though, a natural growth based on a shift that we made five years ago, to apply a racial equity lens to all of our work. Piper Fund’s transformation is a key chapter in Proteus Fund’s overall story of growth over our first 25 years, and shows the capacity for philanthropy to reenvision our work in pursuit of a more just and equitable world.

In late 2014, the Piper team began a conversation about the impact we could have on the field as a whole. Given our unique vantage point as a donor collaborative based in a social justice intermediary, could we expand the leadership of the money in politics field to center more people of color, women, and youth? And if so, what would be the impact on the priorities, strategies, and tactics of the field?

We began to engage our donor partners in this conversation in the spring of 2015, at our semiannual donor briefing. Proteus Action League board member Ludovic Blain, who serves as executive director of the California Donor Table, set a challenge for all of us at the opening of the meeting: “If communities of color are not engaged in efforts to win and implement public financing of elections, whose fault is that?” he asked. “Could it come down to your philanthropic practices that have excluded these communities and not given them a seat at the table?” Over the course of two days, we heard from visionary leaders who continued to challenge our thinking, including Heather McGhee of Demos, Saru Jayaraman of ROC United, and Montague Simmons of the Organization for Black Struggle. By the end of the meeting, there was consensus among the funders in the room that we needed to significantly change our collective funding to the field, challenging not just our internal practices but even our ultimate goals and vision, so that they reflected the priorities of the communities most impacted by the issue.

Thus began a process that included a training by the D-5 coalition; interviews with Piper donor partners, others in philanthropy, and leaders of color from related fields; the production of a report, A New Way Forward; and multiple meetings over the course of 18 months for the Piper table to determine how to apply our new learnings.

While Piper had long dedicated some of our funding to building a broader movement for money in politics, in 2016, we agreed upon several shifts in our work based on a new equity framework.  First, drawing from our conversations with the field, the goal of our grantmaking shifted from “getting money out of politics” to “building community power to offset the influence of money in politics.” This new goal, which continues to guide our work, reflects an understanding that building a healthy democracy relies on the pursuit of racial justice, and that addressing the influence of money in politics is crucial for underrepresented communities to build durable power.

Second, given this new goal, we shifted our grantmaking to prioritize support to grassroots, multi-issue, people of color led organizations at the state level—the same groups that identified this strategy, and that will benefit from its implementation. Our grantmaking must also be long-term in nature whenever possible, allowing these communities to spend time planning their policy proposals, engage with their communities around reform, and implement and defend reforms once passed.

Third, recognizing that many of the leaders in these communities had not had the benefit of leadership training and coaching, as well as the need to build solidarity among these new leaders to the field, Piper created a new fellowship in partnership with the Rockwood Leadership Institute. The Fellowship for Leaders Strengthening Democracy brings together people of color, women, youth and LGBTQ leaders from around the country. This fellowship has now convened two cohorts, training a total of 48 state and national leaders.

Our work is not done. Communities of color have long been underfunded, and we are raising and deploying resources to build infrastructure that will allow groups to pursue proactive reform, and to tie this reform to issues of economic and environmental justice.  We are also working with our donor partners to better understand the rise of white nationalism, its direct opposition to the inclusive democracy we envision, and implications for our grant making moving .