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The State of American Philanthropy
Improving the lives and livelihoods of U.S. workers is an interest that many philanthropic organizations
share. But there are substantial philosophical differences at play in their starting points for thinking about
jobs and prosperity, which affects how funders employ their resources.
The differences in foundational beliefs between two distinct areas of philanthropic support for better jobs —
workforce development and workers’ rights funding—are not always clear-cut. Nonetheless, the distance
between the two is a defining characteristic of a funding field that spans private foundations, community
foundations, grantmaking intermediaries, individual donors and corporations. This brief discusses funding
for both of those priorities and the places where they intersect. Key takeaways include:
- There has always been substantial separation between the funding ecosystems for workforce and
workers’ rights causes, though many funders support both. However, calls for more integrated and
holistic funding are on the rise.
- Workforce development funding, which sits alongside substantial public resources allocated for
training, adult education and related vocational education, comes from a range of sources: private
foundations, corporations, community foundations, individual donors and more.
- Workers’ rights funding is a less crowded space, with liberal-leaning foundations both large and small
providing the majority of support. Individual donors and corporations are much less prominent. Many
community foundations are very active on workforce development in their regions.
- Several major funders like the Ford Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the James Irvine
Foundation see workforce development and workers’ rights as complementary and fund both
- Across both workforce and workers’ rights, local and regional programming tends to be funders’ focus
—for services like job training or activities like ground-level organizing—but grantees receiving the
most funds tend to be national organizations or networks engaged in local or regional work in a variety
of places, or in support of local collaboratives and projects
- Workers’ rights funding is mostly concentrated on a set of labor movement nonprofits including the
National Domestic Workers Alliance (which took in $60 million from 2014 through 2018), Restaurant
Opportunities Centers United, the Jobs With Justice Education Fund and the National Day Laborer
- Top workforce grantees like Jobs for the Future (which took in roughly $100 million from 2014
through 2018), Third Sector New England and the National Skills Coalition often play consulting,
capacity-building and networking roles to serve local nonprofits, federally funded workforce
programs, employers and jobseekers themselves.
The Big Issues & Funding Trends
- In workforce development, factors tied to the supply and demand dynamics of the labor market are an
overarching consideration, though what was previously an almost singular focus on changing workers
is beginning to evolve toward one in which employer practices and issues of job quality are considered.
- Workers’ rights funders seek policy shifts as well as a rejuvenation and reimagining of labor
organizing, toward the goal of changing power dynamics inherent in the prevailing economic and
political order. Equity and intersectionality are crucial, since the low-wage workforce looks very
different today than it did when union power was at its height.
- Since the post-2008 recession, many workforce funders have been placing more emphasis on how their
money aligns with public funding via the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), and
upon employer engagement, in addition to worker-centric approaches like skills training.
- COVID-era strategizing around essential work and workers has taken on prominence for workers’
rights funders, as has a focus on racial justice, direct cash aid to essential workers and transnational
Equity in the Sector
- Although both workforce and workers’ rights organizations tend to serve groups facing equity barriers,
there is continued need for funder attention to questions of systemic bias and the lived experiences of
- There is increasing interest in funding BIPOC-led workforce organizations, though much of the
workforce infrastructure at large has yet to meaningfully interrogate its stance on equity.
- Given their progressive bent, workers’ rights organizations and their funders have often taken more
explicit stances on intersectionality and restorative justice.
- Many such funders are taking steps and providing resources to address broader systems of oppression,
such as combating violence toward women and LGBTQIA people in the workplace.
- Nonprofits that focus on workers’ rights and workforce development saw contributions rise in 2020,
often by healthy margins. That trend is continuing into 2021.
- In an era that increased public attention to racial injustice in job opportunities and worker rights in
general, many nonprofits that focus on work issues are trying to figure out how they can sustain
increased giving as the pandemic fades.
For funders interested in the world of work, this is a time of vast challenges, but also of significant
opportunity. As crises like COVID-19 and the continuing struggle for racial justice coincide with
skyrocketing economic inequality and faltering confidence in free-market capitalism, the biggest risk for
funders may be failing to adapt.
For workforce development, scaling an unwieldy and parochial job training infrastructure is one challenge,
as is the question of how to change or influence employer behavior—the demand side of the equation. For workers’ rights funders, maintaining and extending the political staying power of an emergent new labor
movement (within 501(c)(3) bounds) is a paramount challenge. That includes finding new ways to resource
key non-union nonprofit organizations and to deliver direct aid to low-wage workers and their families. In
both arenas, empowering those previously unheard in labor debates is both a key challenge and opportunity.