New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Inequality

Do Foundations Co-opt Civil Rights Organizations?

Editors’ Note: With the below post, Megan Ming Francis continues HistPhil’s philanthropy & inequality forum. In the coming weeks, we’ll be moving on to our next forum on philanthropy & education. Please reach us if you’d like to contribute to either discussion.  

In 2015, protection of black bodies from state sanctioned violence remains an unmet challenge for civil rights groups committed to racial equality. As many journalists and scholars have detailed, the elusiveness of this goal is due to a combination of interlocking factors including: a history of discriminatory economic policies, racist policing, and political policies that criminalize poverty. However, missing in these analyses is an examination of the role of wealthy funders in co-opting the agenda of civil rights organizations that were already focused on the issue of racial violence in the early 20th century and re-directing these organizations toward the question of segregated education. If today’s foundations play similar roles with civil rights organizations, they once again risk limiting the radical potential of these organizations. The history of the civil rights movement and the Garland Fund should make foundations today more sensitive to their potential for co-opting civil rights grantees. Leaning on this history, foundations might try to avoid this path by taking the time to understand the communities in which grantees work, support grantee goals, and actively seek to build partnerships in which grantee voices are affirmed.

The story behind the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) campaign against segregated education that culminated in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision has been told many times before—and been told well. For example, legal historians Richard Kluger and Mark Tushnet have produced detailed accounts. Standard treatments of the NAACP’s education desegregation campaign often focus on the significant grant from the American Fund for Public Service (most often referred to as the Garland Fund after its benefactor Charles Garland), Thurgood Marshall, as well as the three-pronged litigation master plan they erected along with others at the NAACP. In this version of events, radical philanthropy is celebrated, Marshall is lionized, and victory in Brown seems to be the certain outcome of a carefully planned and executed litigation strategy. While pervasive and compelling, this narrative is incomplete.

There is an incessant assumption, embedded in much of the civil rights literature, that education was the most logical way to break the back of Jim Crow. The belief is so powerful that many accounts of the civil rights movement begin in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education victory. However, the fact the NAACP mounted a campaign against segregated education and secured what is arguably the most significant Supreme Court decision in United States history does not explain why it did so. Rarely asked is the important question: In a time in which racial discrimination permeated every aspect of American society, why did the NAACP choose to focus its litigation campaign on the area of education? The answer, I propose in a new research project, is directly connected to its biggest funder— the Garland Fund.

In a recent book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State, I document how racial violence litigation preceded education litigation within the NAACP. In 1916, the NAACP mounted the largest campaign in history against lynching and racist mob violence. Focused on protecting the citizenship rights of blacks from state-sanctioned violence, the NAACP organized mass demonstrations, advocated for an anti-lynching bill in Congress, corresponded with presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding, and pursued litigation in the Supreme Court which ultimately led to landmark criminal procedure decision in 1923. Thus, before the NAACP dedicated the bulk of its organizational resources to fight segregation in education—the central focus of the organization was on racial violence.

So why did the NAACP move from a racial-violence focused agenda to one that centered on education? In one word: money. The Garland Fund had so much sway over the NAACP’s agenda because the Garland Fund had so much to offer the cash-strapped NAACP. In the negotiation of a grant, it quickly became apparent that the NAACP’s black leadership favored a civil rights program with an explicit focus on racial violence.

However, the Garland Fund was determined that education and labor were to be the defining issues of civil rights, as these two issues were directly in line with the foundation’s stated mission of helping “enterprises organized within the labor movement” and “research and education work.” An educated black workforce addressed both concerns. Faced with the possibility of losing a critical funding source, the NAACP begrudgingly complied with the Garland Fund’s requests. In the coming years, the NAACP relegated issues of racial violence to the margins and adopted a focus on education, for which it was known for the rest of the 20th century.

Attending to the funding relationship between the NAACP and the Garland Fund helps to shed light on why certain issues of civil rights have been submerged and others have been elevated. The NAACP’s landmark win in Brown v. Board of Education is often put on a pedestal as the type of significant social change that can occur with the aid of private funding from foundations. But focusing too much on external metrics like the attainment of grant objectives sometimes obscures important internal elements such as the formation of strong relationships between foundation program officers and grantees.

The way that I see it, there is an interrelated procedural and substantive lesson from the Garland Fund/NAACP relationship. On the procedural level, the Garland Fund did not properly take into consideration the NAACP’s issue preferences. As a result, the Garland Fund fueled a direction the NAACP did not initially view as a priority. On the substantive level, because the NAACP shifted its agenda to education it missed out on a chance to focus on racial violence.

To help lessen the possibility of agenda co-optation in the future, foundation program officers must do what the Garland Fund could not: Take the time to understand the communities in which grantees work and ensure that their voices are not crowded out at the decision-making table. If the Garland Fund had listened to the NAACP’s black leadership about the most pressing concerns facing black communities, protection from state-sanctioned violence would have had a much more prominent place in the civil rights movement. Instead, it remains a missed opportunity and an unfortunate example of what happens when foundations think they know what is best for the grantees they purport to help.

Today, foundations have responded to growing racial inequality with new grantmaking programs and funding opportunities. All the available evidence points to the fact that foundations will have a large role to play in addressing persisting racial divisions in the future. But what kind of relationship foundations will have with non-profit organizations working on issues of racial justice remains to be seen. One can hope that organizational leaders and not foundation program officers will author the agenda of the new civil rights movement.

-Megan Francis

Megan Ming Francis is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. She is the author of the award winning book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State (2014). Francis specializes in the study of American politics, race, and the development of constitutional law.


10 thoughts on “Do Foundations Co-opt Civil Rights Organizations?

  1. Pingback: Do Foundations Co-opt Civil Rights Organizations? | Megan Ming

    • I think that is a great resource– also see Karen Ferguson’s book on the Ford Foundation’s relationship to black power and civil rights in the 1960s and Benjamin Marquez wrote a GREAT article called ‘Bankrolling a Social Movement’ about the role of philanthropy in shifting the agenda of orgs like MALDEF and La Raza to courtroom challenges/litigation.


  2. This is interesting. Thanks for bringing it to light Megan.

    My own research (I’m a grad student) is on the historical relationship between philanthropy and Black education. I’m writing about the way the Carnegie Corporation influenced the adult education movement in Harlem in the 30s. This sounds like a similar story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure you know this already but another plug for one of the founders of this website– Maribel Morey wrote a fascinating dissertation that she is currently turning into a book about the Carnegie’s influence on shaping national policy as it relates to African Americans in the early 20th century. Def check it out!


    • Hi Aaron– I think this is a very interesting and useful study! There needs to be more work that examines the role of philanthropy on the development of civil rights as I think that nexus offers valuable lessons for today. Some very quick thoughts on a few things that I would push back on: I disagree with the historical timeline of civil rights in this paper– much of the work in history makes clear that if you want to understand the unfolding of civil rights orgs, federal legislation, and the growth of the movement– that you need a much longer timeframe. As important it is that different funders supported the VEP– I’m curious about why this issue (voting) and not others…I’m also curious about the attn given to Bobby Kennedy and not to the importance of change in the international context (people like Mary Dudziak make clear that international pressure was a huge factor in why federal legislation received administration support). These are a few historical quibbles with the timeline and narrative of this story. Overall, I think its very valuable and will be useful to scholars of philanthropy and civil rights!


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