June 16, 2015
America's foundations do not easily use the word "inequality." This may seem surprising in the wake of the Ford Foundation's recent announcement that it will refocus 100 percent of its grantmaking on "inequality in all its forms," but perhaps it shouldn't. Out of close to four million grants made by American foundations and recorded by Foundation Center since 2004, only 251 use the word "inequality" in describing their purpose. Moreover, the geographic focus of many of those grants is countries such as El Salvador, Nigeria and Malaysia -- or it's simply "global," which in the parlance of most foundations means the rest of the world. More common are terms like "opportunity" and "poverty," which can certainly be viewed as related to "inequality" but hardly are synonyms for it.
Nevertheless, inequality is an inescapable fact of our world: while extreme poverty in many regions of the globe may be declining, recent research suggests that the gap between rich and poor is fast becoming a growing threat to peace, economic prosperity, the environment, public health, democracy and just about any other major challenge you can name. Indeed, one of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals developed by seventy nations (with the direct participation of 7.5 million people around the world) is to "reduce inequality within and among nations." So, why don't more foundations embrace the term?
Inequality is controversial. In most camps, the word "inequality" is not neutral. It is a concept that implies a search for causes rather than the treatment of symptoms. It requires the kind of work that Carnegie Corporation board chair Russell Leffingwell so eloquently described in his McCarthy-era testimony to Congress: "I think [foundations] are entering into the most difficult of all fields....They are going right straight ahead, knowing that their fingers will be burned again, because in these fields you cannot be sure of your results, and you cannot be sure that you will avoid risk." It is also difficult for a single foundation, or even a coalition of foundations, to know where to begin. Oxfam reports that eighty-five ultra-high-net-worth individuals hold as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. How do you tackle such a challenge? Besides, this simply isn’t the kind of work that most foundations do. More than 60 percent of the giving by U.S. foundations goes to mainstream causes in the fields of health, education, and the arts.