Editorial: Invisible Causes and Philanthropy

Par Adam Saifer , Quebec Hub Supervisor
02 November 2020

This article is the editorial of our Special Edition “Philanthropy and Invisible Causes”, led by PhiLab’s Quebec Hub in October of 2020.


Causes Invisibles Philanthropie

As I sat down to gather my thoughts on this issue’s overarching theme, I found myself reflecting on two distinct—albeit, interrelated—meanings of the phrase “invisible causes” as it relates to philanthropy.  

In the first sense, invisible causes” are the social movements for equity, inclusion, and justice that philanthropic funders all too often ignore. These causes are “invisible” to philanthropy insofar as they are not effectively integrated into foundations’ organizational and grantmaking practices and goals. 

A prominent example of this is the Disability Rights Movement. Despite widespread commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the sector, a recent study by the US-based nonprofit RespectAbility  found that most foundations continue to discriminate against people with disabilities in their grant applications, programs, events, resources, and hiring practices. 

The failure of philanthropy in this regard is troubling as people with disabilities experience unequal access to healthcare, education, and employment. Likewise, studies show that people with disabilities are far more likely to live in poverty, and experience higher rates of violence, neglect and abuse than non-disabled people.  

COVID-19 has magnified these inequities even further. A recent StatsCan survey found that people with disabilities are struggling to meet their needs for food, rent, and Personal Protective Equipment during the pandemic. Moreover, while social distancing and state-imposed quarantines are taking their toll on almost everyonethey present many more challenges for individuals who depend on friendsfamily, or medical care workers for daily supportIn addition to health challenges for those who have pre-existing conditions that affect their respiratory or immunes systemsCOVID has further created unique issues for individuals living with specific disabilities. For example, those who are deaf or hard of hearing and depend on reading lips, have been forced navigate a world where everyone wears a face covering. 

As grantmaking foundations rework their policies and practices amid COVID-19, they should ask themselves the following questions:  

  1. Which social movements for equity, inclusion, and justice has philanthropy brushed aside? And why is this the case? 
  2. How can philanthropy partner with, and learn from, front line workers to increase the “visibility” of these causes within philanthropic organizations and grantmaking 
  3. How do more visible causes (e.g., anti-poverty work, anti-racism work, and gender equity work) intersect with “invisible causes? 

In the second sense, “invisible causes” are the societal structures and institutions that philanthropic funders ignore that create and maintain inequities, exclusions, and injustices. While these racist, sexist, anti-Indigenous, anti-poor, and ableist structures and institutions take form through concrete social and organizational policies, they are made “invisible” by ideology.  

We can see how ideology renders these causes of inequity, exclusion, and injustice “invisible” by looking at another group often ignored within philanthropy: senior citizens 

We know that the Canadian population is aging at an accelerating rate. And yet, despite this increased demand, whave seen steady decrease in senior citizen program expenditure over the last few decadesMany of these cuts have targeted long-term care facilities, where there has been a sharp decrease in available bedsan increasing patient-to-staff ratio, and shrinking wages for facility staffThese austerity measures have also prioritized for-profit private care facilities over non-profit ones, despite evidence that the former provides inferior care to the latterThe consequences of these neoliberal policy failures can be difficult to fathom; while only 1% of Canadians live in long-term care, over 80% of COVID-19 related deaths occurred in these facilities.  

I bring up this example to highlight that injustices do not occur in a vacuum. In this instance, it was the product of a neoliberal ideology that prioritizes low taxes, privatization, deregulation, and slashing social programs and spending over investing in communitiesAs a result, low-quality senior care and limited access to seniors’ programs were believed to be natural, inevitable, and logical. In this way, the “causes” of the inequities seniors face become “invisible” to most Canadians.    

So how can philanthropy begin to address this second meaning of “invisible causes?” I suggest three key starting points: 

  1. Philanthropic foundations can partner with, and support, academic and community-embedded researchers doing innovative work on identifying the societal structures and institutions that create and maintain inequities, exclusions, and injustices; 
  2. Philanthropic foundations should lend their time, wealth, connections, and power to groups advocating government for more humane social and economic policies; 
  3. Philanthropic foundations must reflect on how the invisibility of these causes (e.g., low taxes, privatization, deregulation, and austerity measuresbenefits their foundations—for example, through generous charitable tax incentives.  

Finally, it’s important to stress that these two kinds of “invisible causes” are always interconnected. For example, philanthropy’s general neglect of the suffering of non-human animals cannot be disconnected from an ideology that says that factory farming and animal testing is normal and natural. Likewise, Canadian philanthropy’s tepid support of organizations fighting for the rights of undocumented migrants cannot be decoupled from a racist ideology that characterizes undocumented people as non-contributors to society (fact: undocumented migrants pay all municipal and provincial taxes, and yet are not allowed to access provincial social services).  

By all measures, we’ve reached an inflection point in the philanthropic sector. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and a climate crisis, philanthropic foundations are tasked with increasing responsibility within movements for social, economic, and ecological justice. With that in mind, it is ever more urgent that philanthropy take concrete steps to make visible these invisible causes”—in both senses of the phrase. 

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