Grantmaking for Social Justice and Peace Report: An Interview with Avila Kilmurray

Interested in how you can encourage your organization, and those around you, to practice philanthropy with a deeper impact? Are organizations in your network struggling to make grantmaking decisions that engage with the root cause of the injustice they are trying to address? PSJP just published Grantmaking for Social Justice and Peace: Approaches Drawn from Shared Practice. Read our latest interview with Avila Kilmurray, who co-authored the report with Barry Knight, to get a preview of PSJP’s most recent study!

  1. What are the most basic principles of grant-making for social justice and peace? Can you share examples of this work with us?

There are a number of basic principles for grant-making in the areas of social justice and peace.

  1. The first is to undertake some research into the root causes of injustice and/or violent conflict. While it may be beyond the funding portfolio to address these root causes in a transformative manner, at the very least an understanding of them should frame the actions supported.
  2. An essential aspect of identifying root causes is to take the time to listen to those that are most impacted by the state of injustice and/or violent conflict in order to enhance their position as agents of change rather than simply victims/dependents and to build capacities for the sustainability of change.
  3. The third dimension is to carry out a power analysis in order to identify the drivers and inhibiters of progressive change and conflict transformation.

Two examples from Mama Cash include grants made to the Namibian Women’s Health Network and the Associaciόn de Trabajordoras del Hogar a Domicilio y de Maquila (Association of Women Domestic and Factory Workers) in Guatemala. In the case of Namibia, the Network fought and won a landmark case on behalf of three women who had been sterilized without their informed consent. The High Court found against the government in 2012, ruling that sterilization of women, whether HIV positive or not, without their informed consent, was a violation of their reproductive rights. This made the issue visible as well as unacceptable. In Guatemala, the Association of Women Domestic and Factory Workers organized the domestic workers and successfully lobbied the government to support international labour conventions and to introduce both protection and a minimum wage for the workers. Atlantic Philanthropies grant-making helped secure a Civil Partnership Law in 2010 in the Republic of Ireland, followed in 2015 by a referendum that legalized gay marriage; whilst in South Africa, grantee work on LGBT issues successfully increased the rights of the LGBT community in terms of right to adopt, access to employment and partner benefits, as well as employment equality in the workplace and the military.

  1. What are some of the ways in which the power dynamic that exists between the donor and the institution receiving money can be mitigated?

The first essential element is for the donor to recognize the power that their access to money and influence brings; and further to acknowledge that money does not equate to expertise or insight. One way to mitigate the power dynamic is to consider ways in which the priority sector groups can participate in priority setting and decision-making. The Dalia Association in Palestine developed ‘The Villages Decides’ programme which actually hands over grant allocation (and related monitoring) to the residents of those villages selected for support. Local people vote on which projects will receive what grants. A somewhat similar approach is taken by the International Network of YouthBanks, where young people are trained to be the grant-makers. Community philanthropy is ideally placed to engage in these participative approaches to grant-making.

Other considerations include convening grantees to both identify future funding priorities, but also to influence application, reporting and monitoring procedures. All too often the programme officers in Trusts and Foundations may seek to mitigate the power dynamics, but when grant management holds sway there is less understanding or flexibility. This can be particularly destructive when addressing issues of social injustice and/or conflict, where the circumstances are constantly changing. Funders can, at the very least, credit their grantees with a knowledge of local circumstances that is beyond external donors.

Finally, it is important that conditions are created that allow a sense of mutual accountability to be established. All too often funders adopt a ‘top down’ approach that exacerbates the power dynamic. There needs to be a greater sense of mutuality in the issue addressed, including opportunities for shared learning. This also needs to be accompanied by open and honest communication, rather than funders primarily sharing information (and at times disinformation) amongst each other, which can both exclude and disadvantage the organizations being funded.

  1. What are the most common barriers to funding being considered social justice and peace friendly?

In both cases funding in these areas requires reflective donors that are prepared to invest time and energy in researching and framing both the area of work and strategic approaches to be adopted. In addition, given changing policy and practice circumstances, the research must be on-going rather than simply one-off. An example of this is when working with organizations in a contested society that is experiencing violent conflict. What a funder can support during periods of open violence will be very different from interventions during periods of transition from the violence or when seeking to consolidate a peace process. Funders that worked through the era of change in South Africa or Northern Ireland will be acutely aware of how circumstances change.

Another problem is that funders can worry about doing more harm than good when involving themselves in sensitive issues or where communities are caught in conflict. They may also be concerned about reputational risk, particularly where governments are quick to point the finger of blame at ‘outside interests’. These concerns can be mitigated by involvement in Donor Networks – such as the Peace & Security funder network or the International Human Rights Funders’ Group. Donors can also be put-off by the apparent intractability of the challenges in question. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust has over 50 years of involvement with peacebuilding in Northern Ireland which has given it an impressive credibility and understanding of possibilities for change. It remains true that difficult and complex issues can require long-term commitment rather than the quick turn-around of 3 year programmes. Then there is the issue of visibility of issues which relates more to social justice challenges. When the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland awarded a small grant to a self-help group of victims of institutional abuse (including in church-run institutions) it asked itself – how could this issue remain hidden and silenced for so long?

  1. What are the most important questions a funder should ask themselves before moving towards funding a social justice and/or peace issue?

There are a number of important questions – but the first may well be, what am I getting into and am I prepared to give it the time, resources and commitment? It may help to get in touch with other funders that have experience of the issue or situation when trying to answer these questions. A related question is what added value can my fund bring to the situation? The answer to this may well be more than money. The ability of funders to open doors for grantees with policy-makers; to make connections with other organizations working on similar or complementary issues; and to focus on specific aspects of related concern – such as the position of elderly people in conflict, for example – is very important. The other organizational question is whether Foundation staff can bring Board members with them. It has been suggested that organizing a Board meeting in the area in question (particularly if it is an area of conflict) can be very useful. Finally there is the question – am I the best funder to be making direct grants in a situation? It may well be that re-granting through locally located Community Foundations, Women’s Funds, Human Rights Funds, etc. can be the most effective approach. The Brazil Human Rights Fund or the Foundation for Social Transformation in the troubled North-East of India, may well be better placed to address issues of social justice and peacebuilding that may be beyond a sympathetic donor based in New York or Brussels.

When a funder is engaged in an area of peacebuilding, then it needs to ask questions such as (i) Is this grant going to open up pathways towards peace, rather than aggravating conflict? (ii) Will the grant be seen to be benefiting one ‘side’ rather than the other, and can this be justified? (iii) How can I support grantees and work with them to minimize the risks that they are taking by being engaged in peacebuilding? With regard to social justice issues, there are questions such as, (i) What laws, policy and practices need change in order to remedy the causes of the injustice? (ii) What are the likely reactions by power-holders against the social justice advocates and how can the latter be protected? (iii) How can my grant-making build solidarity between the organizations and groups that I am funding in the interests of progressive social change? Finally, in the case of both areas of funding there is the question – how, as a funder, can I help organizations supported to reflect on their achievements and challenges, and to relate their stories to other donors?

  1. What role can philanthropy support organizations play in encouraging grant-making with a social justice and peace perspective?

There is a danger that philanthropy support organizations focus on structures, mechanisms and infrastructure, but ignore the substantive issues that philanthropy needs to address. Grant-making in the areas of social justice and peace needs to be value-based, with these values being made explicit. It is not good enough to support the setting up of a local fund and just hope that it engages with progressive causes. There are all too many examples of where independent philanthropy has a reactionary agenda. Consequently, philanthropy support organizations can, (i) Raise social justice and peace issues with their members – drawing their attention to peer led examples of where philanthropy has made a difference. (ii) Philanthropy support organizations can link with thematic-focused funder networks (as well as with individual independent Foundations) to facilitate learning and exchange that can then be promoted on a broader basis. (iii) Philanthropy support organizations can recognize the challenges facing their member organizations when located in contested societies and bring such organizations together in clusters to address issues. The Foundations for Peace Network is a good example of this; whilst the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) recently brought community foundations from across Europe together to consider work on refugee and migration issues – a gathering supported by OSF Europe and The Social Change Initiative.

Philanthropy support organizations can also act as hubs for materials and information about how best to address social justice and peace issues, linking in with on-going work in these areas both drawn from the philanthropy field itself, as well as from relevant academic and support sources.

  1. How can I find out more information on grant-making from a social justice and peace perspective?

The website for the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace ( contains a range of resource materials that might be useful, in addition to this a forthcoming publication on ‘Funding in Conflict-Affected Environments: Recommendations for Grant-Makers’, is due to be published in June 2016, and will be available on the Working Group website.

The Foundations for Peace Network website also contains interesting materials drawn from local funders working in contested societies. The FFP is planning a workshop in Philanthropy House, Brussels, in November 2016. YouthBank International addresses many of these issues from a youth perspective, while the Global Fund for Community Foundations website has materials from the perspective of community philanthropy.
Avila Photo

Avila Kilmurray works with the Social Change Initiative, Belfast to support work on learning exchange in the areas of migration/refugees, peacebuilding and social activism. Until recently Avila was the Director, Policy and Strategy with the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy at the Global Fund for Community Foundations. Between 1994- 2014 she served as Director of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. She is a member of the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace and along with Barry Knight co-author of the report Grantmaking For Social Justice And Peace: Approaches Drawn From Shared Practice – a study drawn from a wide range of independent funders into the nature of philanthropy for promoting social justice and peace.  

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