Activist to foundation leader: JPB’s Deepak Bhargava to deliver ‘lightning bolt’ to philanthropy

Mar 7, 2024, 7:02 AM

As longtime progressive movement organizer Deepak Bhargava takes the reins of the multi-billion-dollar JPB Foundation, he is unveiling an ambitious plan to give big to democracy strengthening efforts.

The New York City-based foundation, which says it has assets of about $4.2 billion, announced it will increase grantmaking this year by 20% to about $510 million. JPB’s focus will be on supporting groups that increase the political sway of people of color, LGBTQ people, and workers; fighting online misinformation; and making grants to faith-based institutions and other groups that work to get people with different backgrounds and beliefs to find common ground.

Coming from Bhargava, the changes are not a surprise. Unlike other large foundation presidents who are often leaders in academia, Bhargava’s activist background makes him a different choice. To help in his movement-building efforts, he has recruited a cast of progressive stars including: Daniel Altschuler, former co-executive director of Make the Road Action; Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement; and Arianna Jimenez, who has held leadership roles at the Service Employees International Union and the California Democratic Party.

Under founder Barbara Picower, whom Bhargava replaced as president, JPB concentrated its grant making in three areas: reducing poverty, protecting the environment, and supporting medical breakthroughs.

Picower was married to the late investor Jeffry Picower, who got embroiled in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal. The foundation was created using Picower’s wealth after she agreed to pay more than $7 billion to victims of the scheme. She is now president emerita and remains chair of the foundation’s board.

The foundation’s new grantmaking programs are: Democracy, Gender, and Racial Justice; Community and Worker Power; Movement Infrastructure and Explorations; Faith, Bridging, and Belonging; and Reproductive Justice, Medical Research, and NYC Community Grants.

The changes signal a shift toward grants that build power for those who have been denied it on the basis of race, class, or gender, Bhagarva said.

“Supporting grassroots organizing and movement building will be an even more prominent feature of our approach in the next chapter,” he said. “The underlying issue underneath all the problems we face, from housing to health care to climate injustice, is really an imbalance in power.”

Current grantees embodying that approach, said Bhargava, include community-organizing groups People’s Action and the Center for Popular Democracy and the worker advocacy nonprofit Jobs for Justice.

Bhargava said grants to support policy research or service delivery will likely be cut.

“That’s where you’ll probably see some scaling back,” he said.

A philanthropy ‘lightning bolt’

Bhargava, a lecturer at City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, was previously president of Community Change, a grassroots group that supports organizing in low-income areas with a high proportion of people of color. But he is no stranger to philanthropy. He previously served on the boards of both the JPB and Open Society foundations.

Under Picower, JPB was active in progressive philanthropy, frequently participating in pooled funds with the Ford, Hewlett, and Kellogg foundations. But JPB did not seek the spotlight, said Gara LaMarche, former president of Democracy Alliance, a network of liberal political donors and former president of Atlantic Philanthropies.

LaMarche, who has frequently collaborated with Bhargava, said JPB is poised to become a more muscular and vocal leader of social change. Usually foundations that are JPB’s size pick a former university leader to serve as president, LaMarche said, citing the Hewlett Foundation and Carnegie Corporation as examples. In Bhargava, JPB has an organizer and public intellectual accustomed to banging the drum louder to bring more attention to its grant making, LaMarche says.

The changes under Bhargava, said LaMarche, “will be a huge infusion of money, brainpower, and strategic thinking.”

Naming Bhargava to lead JPB was like a “lightning bolt” striking philanthropy, said Patrick Gaspard, president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Gaspard, who previously served as president of the Open Society Foundations, said Bhargava’s years as an activist will help him bring an “obsessive-compulsive” and “incessant” focus on raising the foundation’s profile as an agent of change.

Bhargava sees the foundation taking a public leadership role.

“Philanthropy needs to be part of the chorus of voices that are speaking up for how essential multiracial democracy and its institutions and practices are,” he said.

The foundation’s grantmaking budget is expected to be about $510 million this year, up from $359 million in 2022, when its assets totaled about $2.9 billion. The more than $1 billion gain in the foundation’s assets have allowed it to increase its grantmaking budget.

But with an expected payout that could near 12%, JPB will still more than double the federal requirement of 5% that private foundations must distribute to charities each year. The increased payout will allow JPB to punch above its weight and have the grantmaking impact of a much larger foundation. For instance, in 2022, the $8.3 billion David and Lucille Packard Foundation made grants totaling $432 million, far less than JPB plans to make this year.

Democracy building vs. Election influencing

Progressive philanthropy has come under criticism for supporting movement-building efforts that are nonpartisan but could end up swaying elections. To some, pouring private dollars into nonprofits that mobilize voters and build movements seems like an end-run around laws limiting tax-exempt organizations’ ability to get involved in politics.

Michael Hartmann, senior fellow at Capital Research Center, a conservative philanthropy think tank, says he “gets skittish” when he hears about progressive foundations championing their democracy funding.

“When people hear progressive foundations say they want to help ‘small-d’ democracy, there’s a justified concern that they’re really going to just be boosting the prospects of ‘big-D’ Democrats,” said Hartmann, who was not familiar with the JPB Foundation’s plans.

Still, Hartmann said there is need for foundations across ideologies to support connecting people with one another and to the civic institutions that can create a more stable, representative democracy.

Gaspard, of the Center for American Progress, applauded JPB’s focus on movement building, saying that if people lose faith in their institutions and feel like they have no ability to shape their world, those institutions become susceptible to attacks by demagogues.

“You can only be a fulsome defender of our democratic institutions if you believe that they pay some dividends in your life and your well-being,” he said.

Bhargava said he sees JPB’s work building movements as having a longer-lasting impact than the results of a single election.

While the strategy is not fleshed out, the new faith and bridge-building effort, Bhargava said, will support in the mold of current grantees the Heartland Fund, which supports advocacy in rural areas, and the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of faith and community organizations.

Bhargava said the effort will work to bring people together who disagree on many substantial issues but who have a common belief that the nation is best served by strengthening its multiracial democracy.

“The defense of democracy requires a big tent,” he said.



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Activist to foundation leader: JPB’s Deepak Bhargava to deliver ‘lightning bolt’ to philanthropy