Inside Philanthropy: How Donor and Organizer Leah Hunt-Hendrix Uses Generation Wealth to Back Social Movements
By Philip Rojc
Inside Philanthropy – August 4, 2020
When Leah Hunt-Hendrix first showed up at Occupy Wall Street, few of her fellow protesters knew about her background. Then in her late 20s, Hunt-Hendrix was a daughter of the far upper crust, born into the privilege of a clan whose combined wealth has been pegged at upwards of $13 billion. Even back then, she felt drawn toward a path of active solidarity with movement organizing. That path has taken her from an Upper East Side childhood to a central role as a donor organizer and infrastructure-builder for social and economic justice.
“Social movements are one of the few ways people who don’t have power can get together and transform history,” Hunt-Hendrix told me. For those born into power and privilege, she said, “solidarity places the focus on the agency of the person you’re standing with,” rather than on yourself.
Hunt-Hendrix co-founded the Solidaire Network in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, in part as an attempt to create a donor organizing vehicle that mirrored the structure of social movements. Solidaire has since become a key player in the growing push to align the donations of wealthy progressives with grassroots activism, and in so doing, interrogate the power imbalances that riddle philanthropic and political funding. Post-2016, Hunt-Hendrix built on that work as a co-founder of Way to Win, one of many progressive platforms that came together in the Trump era to move money and build power.
With a Ph.D. from Princeton in religion, ethics and politics, Hunt-Hendrix brings a philosophical lens to a career saddled with grey areas and contradictions—between family wealth and working class protest, the agency of philanthropy and the solidarity of collective action, the ideals of democracy and the realities of political spending. “One mistake of western philosophy,” she said, “is that it tries so hard to envision us as completely independent, invulnerable, self-sufficient. We’re not. We’re born into families and communities that enable us to live how we live.”
Growing Up in the 1%
Hunt-Hendrix is typical of the philanthropic third generation in that, in many ways, she and her grandfather wouldn’t likely have seen eye-to-eye. H.L. Hunt, who passed away before Hunt-Hendrix was born, once earned praise as a paragon of “extraordinary, independent wealth” from none other than J. Paul Getty. A Republican, he built a mid-century fortune in the billions by parlaying gambling winnings into a Texas oil empire.
The patriarch had 15 children, and living members of the extended Hunt family include oil executives, sports dignitaries, a former U.S. ambassador, and the founder of the black metal band Liturgy. Lyda Hill, a Giving Pledge signatory and the founder of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, is a grandchild of H.L. Hunt.
Leah Hunt-Hendrix is the daughter of H.L. Hunt’s 14th child, Helen LaKelly Hunt. Helen Hunt co-founded some of the nation’s leading women’s funds, including the Dallas Women’s Foundation, the New York Women’s Foundation, the Women’s Funding Network, and Women Moving Millions, where Hunt-Hendrix’s aunt Swanee Hunt (the former ambassador) has also played a leading role.
Hunt-Hendrix’s mother’s place at the forefront of the women’s funding movement provided an early primer on philanthropy and its contradictions. On the one hand, she said, “I was surrounded by women donors who were trying to figure out how to enable their own liberation and the liberation of all women and girls.” But at the same time, the elite spaces and wealthy donors could be cloying to the young Hunt-Hendrix, who felt that “we shouldn’t have this disparity of wealth in the first place.”
Hunt-Hendrix recalls that in her early enthusiasm to tackle wealth inequality, she thought she was rebelling against the glamorous good intentions of elite women’s philanthropy. But in the end, she said, “I really did follow in the footsteps of my mom.” Both women have been serial entrepreneurs of the social sector, standing up a succession of platforms that aim to translate class privilege into movement power, or power for women, as the case may be.
Wrestling to come to terms with her privilege in the years before Occupy, Hunt-Hendrix came across Resource Generation, a key donor organizing platform for young progressives with wealth. She credits Resource Generation with furthering her political education and helping her parse the ramifications of an elite upbringing. That process continued when Hunt-Hendrix put her graduate program on hold to travel to the Middle East, where she observed that international aid programs and bids for dialogue often fail to achieve much. She attributes that to their tendency not to challenge the prevailing economic order in a meaningful way. Doing so, she says, often takes direct action.
Hunt-Hendrix initially went incognito at Occupy Wall Street, at least as far as her class privilege went. “I didn’t want to be associated with money at the time,” she said. And fresh out of her Ph.D. program and experiences in the Middle East, she said, “I was drawn to Occupy. I’d never seen anything like it in this country.” At first, Hunt-Hendrix spent her time facilitating working groups and orientations, where she enjoyed interacting with fellow protesters and learning the nuts and bolts of movement organizing.
As the protests continued, Hunt-Hendrix began having frank conversations with friends who knew of her background. Several of them suggested that instead of hiding her privilege, she could embrace it as a tool to help organize other wealthy people, some of whom were expressing their support on social media at the time as “one-percenters” in solidarity with the 99%.
Solidaire sprung from the post-Occupy zeitgeist. While Occupy was often panned for failing to achieve policy goals, what it did do was give many of today’s top progressive activists a crash course on intersectional grassroots organizing. The DNA of Occupy can be seen in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and popular young legislators like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the latest incarnation of the climate movement, and other corners of modern activism. On the philanthropy front, Hunt-Hendrix founded the Solidaire Network in 2013, alongside other young donors and activists like Farhad Ebrahimi, founder of the Chorus Foundation, and Billy Wimsatt, who founded and leads the Movement Voter Project. Hunt-Hendrix served as Solidaire’s first executive director, a role now filled by Vini Bhansali.
From its initial home at the Proteus Fund, Solidaire was one of the first funding organizations to back the Movement for Black Lives following the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Hunt-Hendrix says Solidaire came together in an organic way, building on the post-Occupy realization that during “movement moments,” activist groups need fast, targeted money and cannot wait half a year for grant cycles to roll around. Distributing that money requires infrastructure that centers the needs of movement groups rather than the preferences of elites. And when a movement moment isn’t currently underway, the work must be sustained via behind-the-scenes base-building.
The reckoning around racial justice that kicked off in June of 2020 saw those dynamics at play on the world stage. As we’ve seen, behind-the-scenes infrastructure-building laid the foundation for this summer’s historic protests, taking place back when the movement wasn’t in the limelight. Many of M4BL’s backers come from Hunt-Hendrix’s corner of the funding world, via networks like Resource Generation, the Women’s Donor Network and Solidaire itself.
For Hunt-Hendrix, starting Solidaire and building out those networks also helped her reconcile her class background with her political values.
Like many other progressive donors, Hunt-Hendrix found herself reevaluating the landscape after Donald Trump’s upset win in 2016. “Like many people, I assumed Hillary Clinton was going to get elected, and that we’d need outside movements to hold her accountable,” she said. Trump’s victory led her to begin thinking that, for funders, “maybe politics and movement-building shouldn’t be so separate.”
Way to Win, which Hunt-Hendrix founded alongside Jenifer Fernandez Ancona and Tory Gavito after Trump’s election, takes that idea to heart. Way to Win is a donor collaborative structured as an LLC that serves as an “organizational home-base” for three main arms: Way to Rise, a 501(c)(3), the Way to Win Action Fund, a 501(c)(4), and a PAC called Way to Lead. Way to Win is similar to many progressive platforms that arose in the wake of 2016 in that it seeks to pull as many legal levers as possible to further its aims.
In 2018, Way to Win moved $22 million to local movements, following that up with $27 million in 2019. In 2020, the organization has set in motion a broad bid for philanthropic funding to protect elections and drive voter engagement. The campaign calls for $60 million in (c)(3) funding to 70 groups and looks beyond the November elections toward a longer-term effort to engage young people and communities of color in the political process.
Outfits like Way to Win draw on rising interest in advocacy and movement-building from donors, especially on the left. Jolted into action by the Trump presidency and the nonprofit sector’s failure to combat skyrocketing wealth inequality, funders have flocked to places like the Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy program to learn more about legally funding edgier work. Much of that funding has taken the form of funder collaboration, which gained initial momentum through networks like the Democracy Alliance and now encompasses a much wider range of players including Solidaire and Way to Win.
Still, it’s easy to overstate the trend toward bottom-up movement funding. Support for grassroots groups, especially those led by women and people of color, still makes up only a small fraction of overall funding, even from philanthropies that profess to share their goals. And if they’re not careful, well-intentioned funders can stifle movement activities if they exhibit to their grantees a preference for tamer strategies.
Well aware of those realities, Hunt-Hendrix and other funders in her circle have experimented with ways to upend the typical donor-grantee power dynamic. One such effort is the Emergent Fund, a pooled vehicle founded immediately after 2016 with Trump-era rapid response in mind. It’s a project of Solidaire and the Women Donors Network, with additional support from the Threshold Foundation and the Democracy Alliance. To challenge the “hierarchical” nature of philanthropic funding, the Emergent Fund uses a participatory model in which an advisory council and nominations network of movement leaders (and some funders) collaborate to make funding decisions.
Philanthropy Versus Solidarity
For Hunt-Hendrix, solidarity isn’t a word to be thrown around lightly. In many ways, she has made it her life’s study. Late last year, she co-authored a piece on this multifaceted concept in the New Republic, and she’s in the process of writing a book that digs even deeper. In the article, Hunt-Hendrix and co-author Astra Taylor posit solidarity as an alternative to philanthropy as it’s traditionally understood.
“In contrast to charity and philanthropy,” they write, “[solidarity] isn’t one-sided. It is a form of reciprocity rooted in the acknowledgment that our lives are intertwined.” And unlike identity, solidarity “is something you do—a set of actions taken toward a common goal.” On top of that, solidarity must be understood in the context of economic reciprocity: Those born with privilege owe a kind of debt to those born without.
Hunt-Hendrix seems to have adopted a position of critical pragmatism toward philanthropy, which she embraces for its usefulness but of which she remains skeptical. “It’s not democratic,” she said. “A more democratic system would be to have fair taxation.” She’s open to a wealth tax and expressed support for an increase to the required foundation payout rate. “There’s a lot of room for philanthropy to improve, but it’s a structure we’ve grown up with,” she said. “In an ideal world, I don’t think we’d have huge private foundations.”
Until real reform around money in politics has a chance to proceed, Hunt-Hendrix believes it isn’t necessarily a bad thing “to use the tools that the other side is using.” Conservatives, after all, benefited by embracing values-based advocacy long before liberal funders began to follow suit. “The only option open to us is getting progressive lawmakers elected into roles that have power over [money in politics] decisions,” she said.
Toward that end, she’s been thinking a lot lately about how progressives might hold a Biden administration accountable to movement goals. Donors need to lean in after the election, not just before it, she said. That means resourcing organizations that aren’t afraid to get into intra-party fights, as well as policy efforts that look past the electoral arena and toward actual governance.
The Next Stage
For Hunt-Hendrix, one of the most exciting things about how progressive organizing has shaped up since Occupy is how much better advocates have gotten at “saying what they’re for rather than just what they’re against.” The ongoing racial justice movement, in particular, has transformed young people who weren’t political a year ago into dedicated activists, she said.
As a representative of the rising generation of philanthropic leaders, Hunt-Hendrix is building infrastructure that smooths the path not only for young activists, but also for progressive newcomers to big philanthropy. When MacKenzie Scott revealed herself as pretty much the biggest progressive donor out there right now, her list of grantees included the Movement for Black Lives as well as a number of movement-oriented platforms similar to those mentioned here.
Going forward, Hunt-Hendrix is eager to get behind the “next stage” in the movement for social justice, whatever that may be. She mentioned her ongoing interest in a more global analysis of racial justice, in which wealthy countries must reckon with the legacy and relics of colonialism—which include, in her view, international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank.
Hunt-Hendrix is convinced that for philanthropy to evolve, people with privilege need to find ways to leverage their blessings to expand the field of funding for social movements. “I have seen that as my role—someone has to build out the next stage,” she said. “It’s a role of privilege, and it’s something I love doing.”