Black Lives Matter

If Philanthropy Won’t Take Risks, Who Will?

By Lateefah Simon, Program Director
Rosenberg Foundation

This piece was first published in Philanthropy News Digest.

As an activist in the Bay Area for nearly two decades, I worked on the front lines advocating for ideas that were considered “radical” at the time. I led organizations that organized and trained young people to fight for criminal justice reform and gender justice, and I helped organize rallies and protests calling for an end to mass incarceration for youth and adults. All of this work required money, but back then those issues were a tough sell to even the most progressive foundations.

A big part of my work was convincing foundation executives and program officers that previously incarcerated young people were worthy of not just redemption but also of leadership opportunities to shape their own destinies and even the very systems that oppressed them. The foundation leaders who listened believed deeply in our movement’s idealism and power; they trusted us and placed big bets. And their gambles made California a more equitable state.

Now that I am in philanthropy, I take those experiences with me. At the Rosenberg Foundation, we spent the past year identifying emerging leaders across California who have the guts, skills, and audacity to take on issues and ideas that many have deemed impossible to move. This month, the Rosenberg Foundation is announcing the creation of the Leading Edge Fund, which will invest $2 million over three years in eight brave leaders with their own radical and far-reaching ideas. The Leading Edge Fund will support these leaders in their efforts to fundamentally change how the most disenfranchised Californians experience democracy and freedom.

The initiative is based on a simple premise: philanthropy is a sector where risk and innovation can and should thrive. Governments are rarely nimble and are generally risk-averse. The private sector can be impactful, but usually balks at supporting movements that truly rock the boat. Progressive foundations, on the other hand, can provide the fuel to drive incredible ground-level cultural and political change in this state and across the country.

The Leading Edge Fund aims to disrupt the notion that philanthropists can’t take real risk. Our new fund will seed, incubate and accelerate some of the best and boldest ideas from the fiercest of change makers. We will start by supporting eight leaders who have the audacity to fight boldly as they test their ideas and move us all forward. For example, our 2016 fellows include a co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement who is building a network to fight police misconduct; a Native American leader seeking to reduce over-incarceration in her community; and an activist working to eliminate the practice of placing children on sex-offender registries. By funding and supporting these fellows, we aim to bet big on their transformational visions and help them get the job done. This will mean not just providing technical assistance—like program development, communications and coalition building—but also giving them the room they need to face sizable challenges, to experiment and fail and get back up again to win. Each Leading Edge cohort will last three years because we know that revolutions don’t happen over night. Unlike traditional grant support, we are also encouraging the Leading Edge fellows to co-create their learning and community building process with our team.

There are plenty of incentives that discourage philanthropy from straying too far off the beaten path. But social justice funders are supporting movements for freedom, and true equity and social justice cannot be achieved without investing in risky ideas and ventures. After all, today’s radicals are tomorrow’s visionaries.