Inside the Libra Foundation: How a Branch of the Pritzker Family Backs Movement Building

Photo: Stephanie Kenner / Shutterstock

Crystal Hayling didn’t set out to manage a family philanthropy. But in the founders of the Libra Foundation, where she currently serves as executive director, she found a family with “a really important progressive vision about the work they’re doing”—a family that shared Hayling’s ideas about how the mechanisms of philanthropic power need to grow more inclusive, and actually put underrepresented groups in the driver’s seat.

Libra is the foundation of Nicholas and Susan Pritzker and several of their children. The sprawling Pritzker clan is well known for its philanthropy, much of it centered in Chicago, but it’s not a name that immediately evokes social justice movement building. But through the Libra Foundation (which is not to be confused with a funder of the same name headquartered in Maine), one branch of this expansive, billionaire-laden family has quietly bankrolled a very progressive set of grantees since 2002.

For the bulk of that time, Libra’s operations were quite low-key, conducted through a consulting firm rather than full-time staff. Women’s rights formed the basis of the foundation’s initial grantmaking, a focus that soon broadened to a general human rights lens. But unlike the majority of funders who use that terminology, Libra’s sense of human rights is far more domestic than international. It’s also intersectional, engaging organizations working on social justice, women’s rights, environmental justice, and drug policy.

Prior to Hayling’s selection as Libra’s executive director in late 2017, the family made the decision to move the foundation’s center of gravity to the Bay Area, where Nicholas and Susan Pritzker reside.

Libra’s total assets are sizable—around $200 million—and as of this month, it boasts three full-time staff—a step up from where it previously stood, but still very lean for the number of grantees it supports.

Redefining philanthropic power dynamics

Like so many of the social justice funders we cover, the Libra Foundation is trying to come to terms with the current moment. It’s a stalwart supporter of national players like the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights. But with Hayling at the helm, the board is “excited to work more closely with grantees doing movement building and power building,” she said. “We’re focused on organizations led by and coming up from the communities most impacted.”

Libra is part of a larger shift in philanthropy that aims to disrupt traditional power relationships in the nonprofit world, elevate the voices of grantees, and channel new resources to diverse grassroots groups. Its approach parallels that of other progressive funders and affinity groups: the Marguerite Casey Foundation, for instance, or the Neighborhood Funders Group, both of which have ties to Libra. Racial justice is a key component here. “Let’s be clear that in the U.S. you have to bring a racial justice lens to the work,” Hayling told me. “Race is one of the primary ways in which we provide or deprive people of their human rights in this country.”

But moving beyond well-established grantees to fund the grassroots can be tricky. Even as the Libra Foundation grows, Hayling said, it’s still going to be modestly staffed, and that can make funder-grantee relationships feel “transactional,” despite best intentions on both sides. To tackle that problem, Libra keeps three principles in mind: (1) fund networks as opposed to individual organizations, (2) build relationships with grantees, and (3) decrease the effort nonprofits have to expend on those relationships.

Recently, the question of staff size has prompted plenty of conversation among Libra’s trustees. It also led to a series of “getting to know you” sessions last year, where the foundation invited current grantees to talk about their networks and identify organizations and leaders they’re excited about. That led to several new, unsolicited grants. Although the foundation does its due diligence on organizations identified this way, the process lets the field define its strong points and areas of greatest need, lessening the need for an extensive administrative infrastructure on Libra’s end.

Libra is a strong believer in providing general operating support, much of it multi-year. That fits well with what most nonprofits say they need, as opposed to one-off grants with strings attached. Unrestricted support is especially important for advocacy and grassroots groups, which often need to pivot their work quickly in the face of new developments.

Funding social movements on the ground

An illustrative example of the Libra Foundation’s funding approach took place at last month’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. Or, more accurately, on the streets outside the summit.

As we’ve reported, Libra joined funders like Chorus, Surdna, Kendeda, the 11th Hour Project and Hewlett in supporting Solidarity to Solutions Week, a series of demonstrations and satellite events that critiqued the summit for what activists characterized as an elite-driven, corporate-backed approach. The coalition included several organizations Libra supports, like the Climate Justice Alliance, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, and the Center for Story-Based Strategy.

The events surrounding the summit reflected rifts in the liberal funding world that essentially pitted funders against one another. The proceedings also made for some awkward moments for Michael Bloomberg, who made a comment comparing the protesters to Trump supporters who want to “build the wall.”

Libra’s focus on movement building is sharply different from more technocratic approaches to change that tackle specific problems with well-researched, targeted strategies. Such approaches are popular among wealthy donors who want to make the world a better place, but aren’t keen to challenge inequities in ways that might threaten their own position in society. Libra is unusual in that it’s underwritten by living donors and yet is focused on empowering movements that may take issue with how philanthropic fortunes were amassed in the first place.

One way Libra challenges the power of business and capital is by supporting labor movement organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Working World. It also funds left-leaning media and journalism through outlets like Mother Jones, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and New Media Ventures.

While Libra has committed to a greater focus on small grassroots organizations, bigger groups have still commanded the largest funding streams, lately. Some examples across Libra’s funding categories include the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Drug Policy Alliance, and Human Rights First.

Like a lot of foundations lately, Libra has engaged in a fair amount of rapid-response grantmaking—for example, to address family separation along the border. As news of human rights abuses emerged, Libra’s board moved $350,000 in rapid response grants to organizations on the ground over a period of three weeks.

In short order, that grantmaking let Libra exercise its network-informed process for finding the best grantees. “We wanted to be able to understand how our current grantees see these emerging issues in relation to what they’re already dealing with,” Hayling told me. In addition to bigger names like the Emergent Fund, the NDWA, and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, Libra funded local and Latino-led organizations like Mijente, the Texas Civil Rights Project, and Neta.

That last grantee, Neta, is an excellent example of the kind of grassroots effort Libra wants to fund. It’s intersectional: a bilingual journalism and media organization led by women reporting on the lives of people along the border. And as such, it’s keyed into rising movements and rising movement leaders.

“Many funders are realizing that just having an expert-to-expert policy strategy has not worked,” Hayling said. “We need to be setting people in the community up to lead, and that’s tough for foundations. It’s a new muscle.”

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