Philanthropy Can Build Power and Bolster Democracy

Philanthropy Can Build Power and Bolster Democracy

We recently held our second donor dialogue – this one on race and democracy in America. If you couldn’t attend—or if you want to revisit any part of the conversation—you can watch the recording of the dialogue at any time.

We learned that while engaging on race is central to reshaping democracy to serve everyone, demographics aren’t destiny. It takes organized people and philanthropists prepared to use their influence and resources to change systems in dramatic ways for those who are most excluded.

Eric Holder, Christina Livingston, Steve Phillips, Judith Bell, and Fred Blackwell shared a powerful and urgent call to action  to prepare us for one of the most contentious election cycles of our lifetime. With so many imminent threats to our democracy—and such incredible opportunity to build a better future—now is the moment to act. I hope you have a greater sense of how racial injustice and political representation are deeply intertwined—a timely and critical conversation for election season.

Our team curated a list of organizations we feel are doing impactful work to advance racial equity and democracy. You can review them in our Democracy and Racial Justice Give Guide. Please recommend grants through your donor advised fund. Now is the time to mobilize your charitable resources.

In Solidarity,

Ruben Orduña, Chief of Philanthropy, San Francisco Foundation

Conversation Highlights

Our goal in holding this series of  dialogues is to create a space for donors to reflect and do the deeply personal work of examining their racial identities and what those identities call them to do as philanthropists in this unprecedented moment  in our society.  

Steve Phillips shared that we really must take this time and use our imaginations to think about what is possible for our country, and then strive to work towards those goals in our communities by investing in leaders who are lifting up concerns of the community. When leaders who are rooted in communities are empowered and their voices are included at decision-making tables, we will see change.  

We heard Christina Livingston center the voices of community members, who named their aspiration to not just survive but to thrive. They envision a society where everyone can live without threat of harm and can pursue relationships and passions without oppression. This goes beyond meeting basic needs —access to quality education, healthy food, affordable housing, good health care and a livable income. She exhorted donors to think about directing their giving to create lasting change, not just charity. 

Attorney General Holder encouraged us to be more effective by aiming at the intersections of philanthropy with governmental and pollical structures. He provided the context that the United States has never had the full benefit of the creativity and industriousness of all our people because of our history of racial injustice, and that as we resolve those issues, we will achieve so much more. He echoed Fred Blackwell’s opening remarks from the beginning of our series in encouraging donors to leave their comfort zones—take more risks in giving because we need a multiplicity of efforts to get to the place where we need to be and meet the moment by being less reserved about wielding the power that donors hold, directing it toward social justice, even when that means taking an unexpected or unconventional approach. 

Check out the resources section below for ideas for continuing to engage with these topics until our next conversation. 


We invite you to check out a few resources offered by our speakers and foundation staff to go deeper and continue working with the material offered in the conversation.

  • Read Fred Blackwell’s latest blog post: Democracy on the Brink: Coming Together to Reimagine our Grand Experiment
  • In anticipation of the 2020 presidential election, All In: The Fight For Democracy examines the often overlooked, yet insidious issue of voter suppression in the United States. The film interweaves firsthand experiences with current activism and historical insight to expose a problem that has corrupted our democracy from the very beginning. Watch the trailer here. 
  • Learn more about the foundation’s position and recommendation on five statewide initiatives and four local ballot measures through our SFF 2020 Voter Guide
  • To help you understand the problem of gerrymandering, how it affects our communities, and what we can do about it, watch these educational videos from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, where Eric Holder serves as Chairman: 
  • Read Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland, by Jonathan M. Metzl 

As a reminder, you can always reach out to your philanthropic advisor for partnership in navigating how to approach your giving. Contact them directly or email donorservices[at]