In Response to Violent Extremism, Some Funders Seek to Defuse Hate

Tree of life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Brendt A Petersen/shutterstock

A new documentary, “Repairing the World: Stories from The Tree of Life,” details how a diverse community in Pittsburg mobilized to stop hate following the killing of 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, according to the Anti-Defamation League

“The story of what happened in Pittsburgh starts with some of the worst pain that you could imagine, and it ends with some of the best and closest relationships that I could have never hoped for,” said then-director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh Wasi Mohamed in the film, referring to the rich work that emerged from a multi-ethnic partnership.

The film is a project of Not In Our Town (NIOT), a campaign of the Oakland, California-based nonprofit The Working Group, and it’s emblematic of the grassroots organizing against hate that the group has been doing across the country since its founding in 1988. The organization’s mission has become ever more pressing, said Patrice O’Neill, CEO and cofounder of The Working Group and Not In Our Town.

“There is an urgent need to look at how communities and schools can respond to the rise in hate speech and hate incidents at the local level, and how we can work on social norms change in this area,” O’Neill said.

While it doesn’t have a program area devoted to anti-hate initiatives, the Hewlett Foundation gave NIOT a $225,000 grant for the film in 2019 because of the potential impact it believed the film could have, according to Hewlett President Larry Kramer. The grant was part of $1 million in funding the foundation earmarked for anti-hate work two years prior, in response to the disturbing developments surfacing across the country.

Hewlett is not alone in its efforts to defuse the problem of hate and violent extremism in America. In the wake of Trump administration actions and the murder of George Floyd, countless donors and foundations committed funds to racial justice, support for immigrants and refugees, and other efforts to combat white nationalism. But for some funders, healing the rifts created by hate in all of its forms is a cause in itself. Supporting such work is not always a clear path, as few funders have a program or strategy devoted explicitly to anti-hate. There’s also disagreement in philanthropy over the underlying cause of hateful extremism and how to treat it, particularly regarding the role of polarization.

Hewlett, for example, set aside exception funding for anti-hate groups in 2017, and instructed the foundation’s fellows who were drawing up a list of potential grant recipients to be mindful that “this is not about supporting the left or the right, or one side over the other. It’s really just about anti-hate itself.”

The decision was motivated by two back-to-back events that year. One, he explained, was the “Unite the Right” rally of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville that August, during which Heather Heyer, a civil rights activist, was killed and dozens were injured by a white nationalist who drove his car into a counter-protest. The other event was former President Donald Trump pardoning the embattled former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was facing prison time for defying court orders to stop randomly rounding up Latinos to check their immigration status. Arpaio was also known for his brutal treatment of inmates in the Arizona jail he ran.

Hewlett awarded NIOT a $160,000 grant that year, along with grants to the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Alabama-based group founded by public interest attorney Bryan Stevenson; the American Friends Service Committee, a social justice group rooted in Quaker beliefs; the San Francisco chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild; and Race Forward, a movement-building group focused on racial justice. It also awarded $190,000 to ADL and $10,000 to a small organization called Life After Hate, which helps former violent white supremacists rehabilitate.

The ADL grant, recalls Kramer, was to fund a program in the schools, training students to recognize and push back against hate in any form. “The grants were all of that variety,” he said, emphasizing that anti-hate is not normally the way foundations structure their giving. 

Anti-hate work, as a result, sometimes finds support via other programs and priorities. The Gerbode Foundation, whose program areas include advancing truth, justice, the environment and the arts, is an example of an organization that funds NIOT, but does so not on the basis of anti-hate work, but what foundation President Stacie Ma’a calls its “community empowerment” model, which combines filmmaking, public education and organizing a broad swath of stakeholders. NIOT has received $200,000 from Gerbode since 2017, according to the foundation’s website.

While philanthropy rarely uses anti-hate as a term to define how grantees are selected, giving grants toward fighting violent extremism and hate is an area that private philanthropy needs to pay more attention to, according to Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on violent extremism.

Speaking on a panel on financing solutions at a 2021 summit to “Eradicate Hate,” Kleinfeld, a senior advisor to the Democracy Funders Network, said “Philanthropy has not yet fully connected the dots between different kinds of violence, hate crimes, other kinds of targeted violence, what we’re seeing against school boards and so on.” And it hasn’t made a tight connection between such violence and how it fits into established areas of giving. Kleinfeld argues that philanthropists “need to start mainstreaming targeted violence within these other areas that are very well established and see it as part of those problems.”

But she also said that key to expanding capacity is for donors to take a nonpartisan approach in order to avoid inadvertently increasing polarization, which can feed into hate.

It’s important to note that there’s debate in the sector over whether a focus on bipartisanship and curbing polarization is the right approach to the problem of hate. After all, hate-fueled violence is mostly coming from one side of the ideological spectrum. New data from the Anti-Defamation League found that “all the extremist-related murders in 2022 were committed by right-wing extremists,” who in any given year commit at least the majority of extremist-related murders.

In a widely read 2022 opinion piece for Inside Philanthropy titled “Hey, Philanthropy: Division Isn’t Our Biggest Problem,” Libra Foundation Executive Director Crystal Hayling pushed back against the polarization diagnosis. “Our problem is that a well-funded, white nationalist, authoritarian minority is determined to use lies, propaganda, corruption and violence to overthrow duly elected officials and turn Americans against one another.… Attempts to bridge with or mollify those forces emboldens them.”

For some, however, disarming the tensions between the left and the right is an important part of curbing hate in America. The Democracy Funders Network, for which Kleinfeld serves as senior advisor, is one example of philanthropy seeking to tackle divisiveness. The DFN is chaired by Rachel Pritzker, president and founder of the Pritzker Innovation Fund. The group describes itself as “cross-ideological” and brings together funders “to disrupt hyperpolarization and to maintain a cross-ideological commitment to fundamental values, norms and institutions,” according to its website.

Another philanthropic initiative that views addressing polarization as central to curbing hate is the New Pluralists, a cross-ideological group of funders launched in 2021 that includes the Charles Koch Institute’s Stand Together Trust, the Einhorn Collaborative, and the Hewlett Foundation.

“We see pluralism as the antidote to all of the tendencies that we’re seeing playing out, particularly at the edges and the fringes that are causing people to become more susceptible to becoming polarized and radicalized,” said Uma Viswanathan, the New Pluralists executive director. For the New Pluralists, part of the work for philanthropy in overcoming polarization involves looking inward, for which Philanthropy for Civic Engagement, a partner, is developing an assessment tool

Examples of their funding include grants to One America Movement to work in collaboration with other nonprofits to support clergy, including conservative evangelical Christian pastors, to provide community and support them in their efforts to navigate their parish away from “toxic polarization.”

As an example of how it works in practice, One America Movement President and CEO Andrew Hanauer, who says two-year grants from New Pluralists total around $400,000, recounts an evangelical pastor who was speaking to his parish the day after the shooting massacre of 50 people and the injury of 50 others at two separate mosques in New Zealand in March 2019.

When talking about it, Hanauer said, “he was saying it is literally against the tenets of your faith to commit an act like that. And so, if you are a Christian, it is part of your duty to stand against things like that.” How does the organization help pastors who deal with divisiveness navigate through any number of hot-button issues? The answer, explains Hanauer, is “rooting it in faith and in the shared values of the church.”

Hewlett’s Kramer also says that the underpinning of Hewlett’s democracy work is recognizing plurality. “Our democracy program begins with the proposition that in order to have a democracy, the people within the political community have to see themselves as part of the same political community, notwithstanding their differences. If you don’t have that, you can’t have a democracy.”