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In Inside Philanthropy’s weekly deep dives, we provide an overview of what’s happening in a particular area of philanthropy, loaded with links to our past coverage and State of American Philanthropy research. This week: workers’ rights.

In a sentence: Philanthropy hasn’t historically given too much to the labor movement, but as reported in our State of American Philanthropy paper on the topic, a few progressive funders are supporting new movements for workers’ rights, and there may be more to come.

What’s going on: Millions of Americans have poor job security, inadequate workplace protections and compensation that’s far below a living wage. Strikes and so-called labor shortages (which might actually be responses to inadequate pay and exploitative working conditions) are making headlines and dinner-table conversation. So how is philanthropy engaging with movements for workers’ rights?

Traditionally, philanthropy has played only an incidental role in the world of organized labor. But that’s changing with the rise of nonprofits like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Restaurant Opportunities Center United. Unlike primarily dues-funded unions, “new labor movement” groups are finding support from funders like the Ford and Open Society foundations.

So what’s this amounting to? In the years 2014 to 2018, institutional funders collectively gave $877.64M to support organized labor and labor rights in the US, according to data from Candid.

To put that into perspective, grants related to housing and homelessness totaled more than $8B in that period. (Which begs the question, how might housing affordability be impacted if more people were paid a living wage?) Organizations working on K-12 education, an area that gets much more widespread philanthropic support, collectively received about $30B in the same period.

Who’s giving to support workers’ rights? Clearly, most funders aren’t. But a few private foundations (notably Ford, W. M. Kellogg, Open Society, James Irvine, and Marguerite Casey), a couple of very visible billionaires (Pierre Omidyar and MacKenzie Scott), and some innovative community funders like the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation are substantially supporting movements for workers’ rights.

New and Notable: 

  • A handful of huge foundations are rallying in support of workers’ rights globally. The new affinity group and pooled fund FORGE (Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy) is funded by the Ford Foundation, Humanity United, Laudes Foundation, Open Society Foundations, True Costs Initiative, Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, Wallace Global Fund and the Omidyar Network.
  • (A few) billionaires are getting involved. In 2020, Pierre and Pam Omidyar (via the Omidyar Network) debuted a grantmaking program that’s dedicated to building worker powerMacKenzie Scott’s first batch of grants included unrestricted funds for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and One Fair Wage.
  • Funders aren’t only supporting movements. They’re moving money directly to workers, too. During the pandemic, momentum increased for giving direct cash aid to workers. Funders gave to relief funds hosted by groups including One Fair Wage and ROC United, which disbursed the dollars to workers.

Food for Thought: “If the workers in the US were paid living wages, the need for philanthropy would be dramatically reduced, and the accumulation of wealth that begets institutional philanthropy would be eliminated in any case.”—a fundraiser from North Carolina in an August 2020 survey conducted by Inside Philanthropy.

Dive Even Deeper: