If Philanthropy Won’t Take Risks, Who Will?

If Philanthropy Won’t Take Risks, Who Will?

As an activist in the Bay Area for nearly two decades, I worked on the front lines advocating for ideas that were considered "radical" at the time. I led organizations that organized and trained young people to fight for criminal justice reform and gender justice, and I helped organize rallies and protests calling for an end to mass incarceration for youth and adults. All of this work required money, but back then those issues were a tough sell to even the most progressive foundations.

A big part of my work was convincing foundation executives and program officers that previously incarcerated young people were worthy of not just redemption but also of leadership opportunities to shape their own destinies and even the very systems that oppressed them. The foundation leaders who listened believed deeply in our movement's idealism and power; they trusted us and placed big bets. And their gambles made California a more equitable state.

Now that I am in philanthropy, I take those experiences with me. At the Rosenberg Foundation, we spent the past year identifying emerging leaders across California who have the guts, skills, and audacity to take on issues and problems that many have deemed impossible to solve. This month, the foundation is announcing the creation of the Leading Edge Fund, which will invest $2 million over three years in brave leaders with their own radical and far-reaching ideas to fundamentally change how the most disenfranchised Californians experience democracy and freedom.

The initiative is based on a simple premise: philanthropy is a sector where risk and innovation can and should thrive. Governments are rarely nimble and are generally risk-averse. The private sector can be impactful but usually balks at supporting movements that truly rock the boat. Progressive foundations, on the other hand, can and should provide the fuel to drive ground-level cultural and political change in California and across the country.

The Leading Edge Fund aims to disrupt the notion that philanthropy can't, or won't, take real risks. The fund will seed, incubate, and accelerate some of the best and boldest ideas from some of the fiercest and most passionate change-makers we know. We'll start by supporting eight leaders who have the audacity to fight boldly as they test their ideas and work to move us all forward. Our 2016 fellows include a co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement who is building a network to fight police misconduct; a Native-American leader seeking to reduce over-incarceration in her community; and an activist working to eliminate the practice of placing children on sex-offender registries. By funding and supporting these fellows, we are betting big on their transformational vision and our own ability to help them get the job done. This means not just providing support and assistance for program development, communications, and support their coalition-building efforts; it also means giving them the room they need to face formidable challenges, to experiment and fail, and to get back up and try again. Each Leading Edge cohort will receive our support for three years, because we know revolutions don't happen overnight. And unlike the traditional funder-grantee relationship, we will encourage our Leading Edge fellows to create their learning and community-building process with the help of our team.

There are plenty of factors that discourage philanthropy and philanthropists from straying too far from the beaten path. But social justice funders today are supporting many movements for freedom, and true equity and social justice cannot be achieved without their investment in risky ideas and ventures. After all, today's radicals are tomorrow's visionaries.

Lateefah Simon is program director at the San Francisco-based Rosenberg FoundationFor more information about the Leading Edge Fund, visit

Featured commentary and opinion

May 26, 2019