As Immigrants Face Attacks, Where Stands Philanthropy?

Note: This article was published by Nonprofit Quarterly on 13 June 2019. It is reprinted here with their permission. 

By Steve Dubb

These days, as NPQ has covered, immigrants, both without and with documents, are under attack. Whether the means involve border wallstravel bansseparating parents from children, cuts to refugee and asylum admissions, restricted access to federal benefits, rules permitting indefinite detention, or efforts to add a citizenship question to the census, the hostility to immigrants and people of color has been consistent throughout. At the same time, this has also been a period of intense immigrant-rights movement building and organizing.

An eight-page brief released this spring by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), authored by Ryan Schlegel, Stephanie Peng and Timi Gerson and titled “State of Foundation Funding for the Pro-Immigrant Movement,” examines immigrant rights philanthropy from 2014 through 2016. Their report asks a critical question: Can philanthropy that supports immigrant rights make a difference?

Clearly, many of the people that Schlegel and his team interview think the answer is yes. As one respondent told the NCRP researchers:

What would help me the most in terms of doing my work is actually having [the] local grassroots funded to their full capacity, because then we can develop strategy…when we have really thriving local organizations that are thinking about structural change, that are thinking about their members’ needs, and are thinking about the national campaigns that can be vehicles for their work, that’s when we are able to really thrive.

Still, the 2014–2016 dates, a time in which attacks on immigrations were climbing rapidly, are telling. A good part of the brief has an investigative feel, asking, “Where was philanthropy?” In 2016, as Donald Trump ran for the presidency, NCRP estimates that total support for immigrant rights groups from the nation’s 1,000 largest foundations was a paltry $124 million, less than one percent of spending by those foundations and roughly 40 cents per capita.

This question seems especially pertinent, given that it is blindingly obvious—in hindsight, at least—that during the 2014–2016 period, anti-immigrant forces were already in political ascendancy. Even ignoring the final outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the mere fact that the Republican presidential nomination went to a candidate who campaigned on an avowedly anti-immigrant platform showed how pressure had ratcheted up.

Perhaps part of philanthropy’s hesitation to get involved is because philanthropy, just like the country as a whole, has often been divided on immigration. Immigrants in the US have often faced hostility. Federal laws restricting immigration to the US date back to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Robert Zeidel, writing last year for Smithsonian’s website, recalls the Dillingham Commission of a century ago that exemplified “Americans’ simultaneous feelings of fascination and fear toward the millions of migrants who have made the United States their home.” Sound familiar? The Commission—comprising three US senators, three representatives, and three “experts” selected by President Theodore Roosevelt—was formed in 1907, releasing a 41-volume report in 1911.

Many sections of the Dillingham report supported immigration, but the parts remembered reinforced popular stereotypes against immigrants. For instance, at one point, the report authors wrote, “In the popular mind, crimes of personal violence, robbery, blackmail, and extortion are peculiar to the people of Italy and it cannot be denied that the number of such offences committed among Italians in this country warrants the prevalence of such a belief.” Findings from the Dillingham commission helped justify the adoption of a strict immigration quota system in 1921, which remained in effect until 1965.

Now, with anti-immigrant sentiment rising again, where did philanthropic supporters of immigrant rights groups focus their efforts? What was done—and what should have been done—are central questions that inform the NCRP brief.

Three key findings are the following:

  • Support for immigrants’ rights groups had a narrow base: “According to Foundation Center data,” the NCRP team reports, “between 2011 and 2015, barely one percent of all money granted by the 1,000 largest US foundations was intended to benefit immigrants and refugees. Eleven foundations were responsible for over half the funding that immigrant rights groups did receive.”
  • Few dollars went to state and local groups: To the extent that immigrants’ rights groups got foundation support, most of the money went to policy groups. The NCRP survey estimates that in the three-year period of 2014–2016, 65 percent of grants went to policy groups, 21 percent went to national organizations and only 14 percent went to state and local groups.
  • States that hurt the most got the least funding: Of the money that went to state and local groups, most of it went where the anti-immigrant threat was the lowest. In California, New York and Illinois, funding per immigrant totaled $6 over the three-year period while deportation levels were low. In the southeast, southwest and Florida, the deportation rate was five times higher, but funding was half as much per immigrant or less.

In short, not only was funding too low, but it was spent on the wrong things and invested in the wrong places. A subsequent article in Peak Insight Journal by one of the co-authors, Stephanie Peng, provides added detail. For instance, Peng notes that while 65 percent of funding went to policy groups between 2014 and 2016, as recently as 2007, only 30 percent did. In other words, foundations did shift their funding between 2007 and 2016—in the wrong direction.

That said, the NCRP report aims less to cast blame than provide direction going forward. To do this, the report authors conducted over 30 interviews with movement leaders—including both larger groups and small groups with budgets under $300,000 a year—to get a sense of how philanthropy can get it right—or, at least, closer to right—going forward.

Some themes that emerged in these interviews follow from the above—i.e., fund groups at the state and local level, not just nationally, and support the movement in its true breadth and depth. The interviews also underscored the need to build rapid response capacity.  As Schlegel and his colleagues put it, “At many pro-immigrant movement organizations, rapid-response work has turned into ongoing core programming because of threats from the current administration.”

Peng notes three action steps funders can take to meet this “rapid response” need.

  • “Create a simplified application process designed for rapid response funds.”
  • “Be flexible in how the funding is used—instead of providing programmatic grants, provide funds to hire additional organizers, travel costs, or translation services.”
  • “Rethink the grant reporting process. Can you have a conversation with your grantee partners instead of requiring a written report?”

Peng adds the perhaps obvious point that, “When organizations don’t have to spend critical hours filling out a detailed grant application, they can spend more time organizing their communities.”

Another issue raised by organizers is burnout, which the intensification of work in the field after 2016 has exacerbated. As Schlegel and his colleagues explain:

The emotional and physical toll of organizing in post-2016 political conditions is high on those confronting anti-immigrant hatred in their role as movement leaders as well as in their personal lives. These organizers—immigrants and the children of immigrants who are most impacted and best equipped to lead—have not received the funding and support necessary to stave off burnout. Movement groups need resources to support enough full-time employees with livable salaries and health benefits so that advocates have financial security and staffing support to share the work of constant crisis response.

The report also makes a plea for recognizing the diversity of the immigrant movement—diversity in terms of national origin, certainly, but also in terms of reflecting the broad breadth of immigrant communities. “Pro-immigrant movement groups,” note the authors, “work at the intersection of public health, economic security, civil rights, education access, public safety, gender justice, and many other issues that philanthropy cares about. Immigrants are moms and dads, entrepreneurs and small business owners, teachers and students, doctors and nurses, caregivers, construction workers, and much more. When we embrace the complexity in the history and identities of all people in our communities and enable to them to thrive, those communities become healthier, safer, and more prosperous.”

In terms of steps that philanthropy can take, the report concludes with five recommendations:

  1. Give unrestricted, multi-year support to support base building at the state and local levels.
  2. Use funding to boost both organizing and service delivery.
  3. Support 501c4 advocacy groups.
  4. Develop a broad ecosystem that includes the following: a) service provision, b) base-building, c) community organizing, d) mass mobilization, e) narrative change, f) civic engagement and g) policy change.
  5. Invest the whole foundation in the work: in addition to grants, this means disinvesting from firms that negatively affect immigrants (such as companies that invest in detention centers) and being a vocal advocate on immigrants’ behalf.

It should be noted that the report finds some improvements in the funding picture since 2016. Schlegel and his coauthors estimate that philanthropic support of immigrant rights groups has increased 40 percent since then. Now a 40 percent increase from $124 million still falls well shy of $200 million—we are hardly talking about big bucks here. The authors also highlight the potential to make more progress by looking “beyond the pro-immigrant movement as a single issue” and instead “funding across portfolios of criminal justice, health equity, gender issues, education, economic equity, civic participation and democracy.”

The stakes are high—and so is the potential to do better. One immigrant activist interviewed by NCRP noted that, beyond their checkbooks, funders can be field builders. This activist added that funders can create “space that’s safe for organizations to come together and say, ‘Here are the strategies that we deployed and here’s what worked and didn’t work’ and then to learn from each other what’s working…I think philanthropy uniquely can provide a role for open dialogue about what’s working [and] what’s not working, so that we can all collectively improve.”2

Although not mentioned by the authors, another bright spot of fundraising success has occurred at the local level—not due to foundations, but rather as a result of contributions made by individual donors who have responded in large numbers to atrocities committed against immigrants. For example, as NPQ reported last July, “The San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) went from relatively local to nationally renowned after it received more than $20 million in individual donations to help them reunite asylum-seeking families after somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 children were separated from their parents as they tried to cross the border.”

Needless to say, the challenges facing immigrants remain enormous. As Pamela Shifman of the NoVo Foundation (and an NCRP board member) explains, “There could not be a more urgent time for funders to support movements for social justice—especially immigrant and refugee rights. Funders must show up as allies, providing flexible, long-term support, and building partnerships that offer movement leaders the space and solidarity they need to advance change.”

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