How Philanthropy Contributed to Improved Conditions for Tomato Pickers

By Aaron Dorfman
Published on May 2, 2014 in The Huffington Post

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On the front page of The New York Times last week, there was a fantastic article about how the abusive practices faced by workers in Florida tomato fields have virtually ended. Laborers, mostly immigrants, are now less likely to be abused, and they experience better working conditions and receive higher pay.

The article did a great job explaining the community organizing and advocacy efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) that led to the improved conditions. But one important piece of the story was left out: the role that foundations and other grantmakers played in helping make the organization’s accomplishments possible.

Since the late 1990s, a handful of U.S. grantmakers have invested heavily in the coalition and its campaign. Foundation funding made CIW’s initiatives possible. The coalition has a modest annual budget that only recently passed the $1 million mark, and most of its funding comes from foundations and other institutional grantmakers. Twelve grantmakers invested $100,000 or more to make this work possible:

  • The Kresge Foundation, a large foundation based just outside Detroit that works to create opportunity for low-income people, registered the largest single grant to CIW with $1,285,000 in 2011.
  • Public Welfare Foundation, an independent private foundation based in Washington, D.C. that has a strong commitment to workers’ rights, awarded CIW with nine grants over the past 11 years totaling $1,072,000.
  • Marguerite Casey Foundation, a mid-sized private foundation based in Seattle and one of the nation’s leading funders of community organizing, provided $1,000,000 through five grants from 2004 through 2013.
  • Ford Foundation, based in New York and the nation’s largest serious social justice funder, provided five grants from 2005 to 2011 for a total of $750,000.
  • Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, the grantmaking program of a congregation on Long Island, has continuously given CIW support from 1998 to 2013 with 25 grants totaling $621,100.
  • Mertz Gilmore Foundation, a modest-sized independent foundation based in New York, provided five grants for a total of $310,000.
  • Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the social justice grantmaking program of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, provided eight grants between 1998 and 2006 for a total of $262,500.
  • Humanity United, a San Francisco-based foundation established by Pam Omidyar, invested a total of $237,350 in from 2010 to 2012.
  • Public Interest Projects, a grantmaking public charity based in New York that is known for its expertise in creating and managing funder collaboratives, awarded CIW two grants totaling $150,000.
  • NoVo Foundation, a large private foundation based in New York that focuses on transformational change and movement building, gave CIW a grant totaling $125,000.
  • Hill-Snowdon Foundation, a family foundation based in Washington, D.C., provided four grants from 2004 to 2009 totaling $100,000.
  • Foundation for a Just Society was founded in 2011 in New York. It seeks to end discrimination against women and girls in marginalized communities and empower them to end discrimination. It provided the Coalition with $100,000.

Without the support of these twelve grantmakers, and others, it is likely that workers in Florida’s tomato fields would still be facing horrendous working conditions today. And with their continued support, the Coalition will be able to expand the remarkable gains enjoyed today by 30,000 Florida tomato workers to farm workers in other crops and other states.

What is the value to society when thousands of workers no longer face sexual harassment, get paid a fair wage and are no longer poisoned or otherwise endangered? I won’t even attempt to put a price tag on this victory. However, arigorous study conducted by the organization I lead shows that over time, foundation funding for high leverage strategies like advocacy, community organizing and civic engagement produces a return on investment of $115 to $1. That’s a pretty good bang for the buck.

Funding for work that brings about real improvements in people’s lives and changes unjust systems is still uncommon among U.S. philanthropies. Just fewer than 100 of the nation’s largest 1,100 foundations, about 8 percent, can be considered serious social justice funders, meaning they devote 25 percent or more of their grant dollars to high impact strategies like the advocacy and community organizing work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Our research on foundation giving trends shows this number is increasing, but slowly.

Kudos to these twelve grantmakers who have supported CIW’s important work.

Aaron Dorfman is executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow NCRP on Twitter (@ncrp).