Advancing Conversations on Philanthropy and Social Change

Photo by Surya Prakosa on Unsplash

In her Philanthropy and Social Change course series, RGK Center fellow and associate adjunct faculty member Dr. Becky Lentz explores with her students the question: “How has philanthropy been used to address root causes rather than just the symptoms of systemic and structural inequality?” 

The series, which she piloted at the LBJ School through the RGK Center while on sabbatical from McGill University in Canada in 2016-2017 brings attention to the mostly invisible role philanthropic actors play in society.  

Dr. Lentz focuses specific attention on examples of how how funders working from a social justice perspective invest in "change, not charity.” This involves supporting specific types of work across a broad spectrum of public issues. Dr. Lentz incorporates the idea of “the five faces of oppression” from Iris Marion Young to identify examples of oppression in Austin and ways that social justice-oriented philanthropic actors could invest to address the root causes of problems affecting marginalized and disenfranchised identities and communities. Young describes five interrelated forms of oppression: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. Dr. Lentz uses The Oppression Tree: Facilitation Tool from the Centre for Community Organizations in Quebec, Canada for in-class activities related to this topic.

Prior to joining McGill in 2008, Dr. Lentz served as a program officer at the Ford Foundation between 2001-2007 where she made catalytic early investments in the emerging field of media justice.** 

“What I enjoy most about teaching in general, and the philanthropy and social change course in particular, is thinking with my students as they grapple with the inherent ambiguity of philanthropy as a supposedly positive force for good in society,” said Dr. Lentz. “Given that philanthropy is not accountable to the market forces that industry actors are, nor to the electorate as public sector actors are, students explore the complexity of its role in society and how to add their voices to this conversation.”  


For example, throughout the spring 2021 semester, students closely examined how ideas from the book Philanthropy in Democratic Societies, can be observed in Austin; in particular, distinctions between contributory and disruptive philanthropy and considerations of the moral limits of discretionary philanthropy.  

Students in this course also discussed the role of foundations in catalyzing social change and how these organizations can better understand and support social movements to work collaboratively toward this goal.  

“This course changed my perspective on philanthropy entirely,” said Social Work student Olivia Berkeley. “I now have the knowledge to critically examine philanthropic giving, messaging, and decisions in a way I didn't prior to taking this course.”  

In the spirit of collaboration and community involvement in these discussions Dr. Lentz invites guest speakers to join the class and contribute to its conversations. Examples of guests have included representatives from a philanthropy watchdog organization, impact investing experts, evaluation consultants, and grassroots-led organization leadership.  

By inviting representatives from these organizations into classroom conversations, Dr. Lentz exemplifies the importance of listening to and contributing to conversations around social justice philanthropy in the academic, professional, and public spheres.  

The course is often made up of a diverse group of students, including those from the LBJ School, the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, Community and Regional Planning, the McCombs School of Business, and other graduate programs at UT Austin.  

“It was great to have been in class with policy students and hear their perspectives, and in turn, share mine as a social work student,” said Berkley. “Traditional philanthropy and social justice philanthropy contain elements and themes from both the policy and social work worlds, so it was great to be able to challenge one another to broaden our thinking.” 

In the course, students are encouraged to apply course material to a policy issue or social problem they are interested in, exemplifying Dr. Lentz’s belief that philanthropy intersects with practically any policy issue or area of study.  

“The course further affirmed my passion for community organizing and gave me language with which to communicate the importance of organizing to people in other fields,” said Juan Cardoza-Oquendo, a 2018 graduate of the LBJ School who currently works as a Policy and Community Engagement Coordinator for Harris County. “[It] drove home for me the importance of breaking down silos among fields in social justice work, and that is a commitment I carried with me in my next position.”  

In the course, students learn how to find, follow, and eventually engage in public, academic, and professional conversations in the spaces where philanthropy intersects with their topic of interest. While still a student at the LBJ School, Cardoza-Oquendo wrote an op-ed, titled “Social Justice Funders: For National Movements to Win, Invest in Texas” inspired by and using skills he learned from Dr. Lentz’s course.  

Mary Elizabeth Kakales, a first-year student in the Masters of Counselor Education program in the School of Education, took Dr. Lentz’s course in the spring 2021 semester. In her final reflection essay, Kakales reviews her weekly journal entries from throughout the semester and shares how different her views on philanthropy and the importance of joining these conversations are now than when she began the semester.  

"Our words have power, and it is a privilege to use them to share opinions, incite action, and draw attention to important things happening in our society,” Kakales wrote. “It makes me excited for possibilities to come, and it instills confidence in me that I know how to use my voice in productive ways.” 

Future iterations of Dr. Lentz's course series on Philanthropy and Social change will likely zero in on the role of grantmaking to support efforts already underway to advance digital equity and data justice in Austin, the role of philanthropy in policy advocacy more generally, and international dimensions of philanthropy and social change. 

Questions about the course? Contact Dr. Lentz at 


**Dr. Lentz describes media justice as a long-term vision that guides the community organizing and advocacy work led by historically disenfranchised communities with the aim of ensuring that media communication and information technologies, systems, platforms, and related policies lift up the voices of low-income people, communities of color, and other under-represented communities in advancing racial and economic justice. 



Header photo by Surya Prakosa on Unsplash

May 25, 2021