Lorraine Ramirez, executive director of Funders for Justice
Lorraine Ramirez, executive director of Funders for Justice

Funders for Justice (FFJ) bears the distinction of having been called out by both the left and the extreme right for its efforts to support Black Lives Matter. The right, in particular, has called out FFJ for its continued support of the movement for Black lives and its call for “abolition” of what FFJ characterizes as “the entire system of criminalization in the U.S.—including prisons, jails, police, ICE, detention centers, border patrol and all the laws, policies and funding that uphold those,” according to an email from FFJ Executive Director Lorraine Ramirez.

This “organizing shop in philanthropy,” launched itself as an independent organization in December. Beyond that, the organization has secured sufficient funding to significantly increase its staff and scale its efforts to meet the needs of its foundation members and the movement for criminal and racial justice as a whole. Ramirez hesitates to name many of the organization’s foundation members specifically because of attacks from the right.

In a few recent interviews, Ramirez talked with Inside Philanthropy about issues like the organization’s original launch, the factors that allowed FFJ to become independent, and the threat FFJ and its funders face from far-right agitators (and sometimes from the police). Along the way, she discussed why FFJ is successful at encouraging its funder members to both think about new ways of collaborating with organizations on the ground and to follow those thoughts up with action—i.e., writing checks.

It began with a phone call

When a police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, seven years ago, racial justice organizers and funders scrambled to meet the needs of the groups that went about organizing uprisings throughout the country in protest, including by educating other funders about issues of systemic racism and police brutality in the United States.

Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG), where Ramirez managed housing and place-based funder organizing at the time, was one of the organizations that came forward to meet that need. In collaboration with Molly Schultz Hafid, an NFG member and leader who at the time worked at the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, as well as Eric Ward, who was working at the Ford Foundation, Ramirez organized an informational call for NFG’s funder members featuring organizers in Ferguson and New York.

The turnout for that call, Ramirez said, “was incredible,” and included a number of cosponsors. During the call, participants weren’t just instructed where to send their money. Instead, Ramirez said, the call’s organizers “took an organizing approach from the beginning,” including educating funders about police brutality and the importance of supporting Black power-building.

“We were just in a real political ed[ucation] moment, as well as a resource mobilization time,” Ramirez said.

As Ferguson-related uprisings continued, both in the city itself and across the country, Ramirez and her fellow organizers at NFG combined calls for rapid response with further education about the political tensions and social inequities that had led to the crisis.

At the same time, Ramirez said, the group’s message also had a longer-term focus. Ferguson, Ramirez told the funders, “wasn’t just like a passing thing [where] folks would leave the streets tomorrow and it would all calm back down, right? This meant we needed to be really rethinking how philanthropy happens.”

Despite the need for rethinking around philanthropy’s support for Black organizing, Ramirez said that she, Schultz Hafid and Ward never imagined that their efforts would grow into a dedicated organization. But after a bracing response to the group’s first national convening in 2015, Funders for Justice evolved into a standing program at NFG—and now, into its own organization.

“Our budget doubled after our launch,” Ramirez said. It currently stands at about $1.1 million. The organization’s staff is also about to triple, jumping from two to six. Ramirez said that FFJ’s launch was funded by the Kolibri Foundation, the Andrus Family Fund and an anonymous funder, while other funders have provided “a number of” annual renewing grants. FFJ is fiscally sponsored by Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs (SEE).

The money the group has received, and its subsequent staff increase, will be put to use supporting FFJ’s eight program areas. They include a fellowship program, a donor organizing committee supporting the Movement for Black Lives, a website educating funders on the importance of divesting their portfolios from the for-profit prison industrial complex, and a strategy group aiming to “erode” the power of police unions.

‘We better go do something really badass’

While Ramirez is outspoken about FFJ’s stance on abolishing the criminal legal system, as well as the group’s growth and its programs, she is more circumspect when asked for further details about its funders and member organizations.

Confidentiality between grantees and funders is common in the philanthrosphere, but Ramirez’s caution stems from something far more sinister than is typical—potential threats to her funders and member organizations from far-right political extremists.

“This is a moment, politically, where the far right is attacking philanthropy—and it always has—but it is attacking philanthropy at a much bigger level,” she said, including with threats of physical violence.

While Ramirez wasn’t able to disclose specific threatening incidents, FFJ has received attention on right-wing sites. ChurchMilitant.com, a publication so extreme it put scare quotes around the word “wife” in a photo of Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors and her spouse Janaya, published a 2020 article identifying FFJ as part of a coalition that is supposedly “dismantling Western governance.” And right-wing “investigative think tank” Capital Research Center called out Funders for Justice for supporting the supposedly “extremist” Black Lives Matter in 2018.

Given the well-documented upswing in right-wing violence, and police and FBI online surveillance of Black Lives Matter (and possibly of the movement’s funders), Ramirez’s caution around revealing who’s involved in FFJ seems well-founded.

Ramirez will say, though, that FFJ’s members and supporters run the gamut from large, private foundations to “super small” family foundations. The group’s web page listing membership levels includes rates for funders with annual grantmaking ranging from less than $1 million to more than $100 million a year.

“We are by no means heavily populated by big, private foundations,” Ramirez told me. “But they’re certainly in our mix,” she said, along with community foundations, social justice funds and other funder collaboratives.

The negative attention that FFJ has received from the right may be cause for caution—which also takes the form of safety and security advice provided to members—but that attention also serves as an inspiration.

While talking with Eric Ward, Ramirez said, the two agreed that “We better do something worthy of this attention, right? We better go do something really badass.”

“An organizing shop in philanthropy”

Ramirez describes Funders for Justice as “an organizing shop in philanthropy.” She has divided her time between joining activists demonstrating in the streets and reporting back to funders and organizing them to support those movements. In addition to maintaining that close link between action and funding, FFJ operates several initiatives focused on re-thinking how movement-oriented philanthropy should be done.

Take, for example, FFJ’s Movement Advisors program, which pays movement leaders $3,000 a year (an amount set to increase in the future) to attend meetings with funders and to otherwise be available to advise Ramirez on strategy. The current group of 15 advisors is nearing the end of their two-year term, though Ramirez said that a number of them have served for four years.

When FFJ launched the advisors program, Ramirez said, the goal was to find a way to pay a decent wage to panelists who attended the organization’s member organizing meetings. At the time, she said, properly paying panel speakers—beyond, perhaps, a small honorarium—was a new idea. The attitude in philanthropy, according to Ramirez, was something like, “You’re lucky to be graced with the presence of an audience of funders, and that’s your payment.”

Of course, being an advisor also means benefits for that advisor’s organization. The advisors introduce FFJ’s funder members to other movement folks, and in return, “we introduce them to a lot of our members,” Ramirez said. Some advisors have benefited greatly by spending time providing political education to FFJ’s funder members because, as a result, the foundations then write checks to advisors’ organizations.

The evolution of the advisors program is the result of several conversations Ramirez has had with other funders and funder affinity groups about how to work with advisory committees or movement advisors “in a way that’s principled [and] in right relationship with movement, rather than just another grantee partnership, which we know so often is not equitable.”

Another feature of FFJ’s member organizing meetings is the expectation that funder members commit to moving money on the spot. That started with the first meeting, in 2015, where Ramirez said participants committed to move $12 million. At the third meeting, in 2019, that number had grown to $14 million. In addition, participants pledged to shift $46.5 million of their existing grant money to “grassroots organizing at the intersections of racial justice, gender justice, ending criminalization, and building models for community safety and justice,” Ramirez said, and away from groups that don’t fit that description.

Ramirez said that funders know up front that the purpose of these meetings is to get them to move resources, saying that FFJ is explicit about that intention well before they walk in the door. Ramirez said that her current small staff has had limited time to follow up with participants to confirm they’re keeping those monetary commitments, but those follow-up calls and emails will be a primary goal for some of the staff she’s now bringing on board.

“We make sure that this is a forum for grassroots organizations and leaders to speak to a much bigger set of funders than they likely have ever had before,” Ramirez said. Funders are expected to return the favor for the time and effort those organizations spend providing them with political education.

Following movements’ lead

While there “are very few [foundations] who I would consider a perfect funder,” Ramirez said, even among the more progressive foundations that are drawn to FFJ’s message, she does the legwork “before, during and after’’ membership meetings to ensure that funding participants are prepared for the messages they’ll be hearing from organizers during those meetings. That effort, she said, is to ensure “funders are clear that they should be following movements’ lead,” and not expecting movement leaders to change their political frame or “repackage” the work they’re doing.

The result, Ramirez said, is that FFJ’s funders have now begun seeing movement leaders as their peers. That is creating funding opportunities for groups that otherwise have the most difficult time reaching funders in the first place. Ramirez estimated that she has “easily 100 stories” of instances in which FFJ-facilitated connections between funders and movement leaders led to money for those leaders’ organizations.

Still, there’s a lot of work remaining. Looking back to the first conversation between Ramirez and her fellow organizers that eventually gave rise to Funders for Justice, she said, “We still do not fund in philanthropy at near the scale that movement needs, but we certainly are doing better than we were doing seven years ago.”