Donors Leery of Supporting Grassroots Organizing Need to Rethink How They Approach Such Work
More than any time in recorded history, people around the world are using nonviolent activism to demand change. In China, the largest protests in decades erupted last fall in response to the country’s zero Covid policies. In Sudan, hundreds of groups known as resistance committees are demanding democracy and a return to civilian rule. And in the United States, Donald Trump’s presidency sparked the biggest sustained protest movement in the nation’s history.
Donors, however, consistently hesitate to support these grassroots people powered movements. The annual rate of funding for grassroots organizing remained at 3 percent from
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More than any time in recorded history, people around the world are using nonviolent activism to demand change. In China, the largest protests in decades erupted last fall in response to the country’s zero-Covid policies. In Sudan, hundreds of groups known as resistance committees are demanding democracy and a return to civilian rule. And in the United States, Donald Trump’s presidency sparked the biggest sustained protest movement in the nation’s history.
Donors, however, consistently hesitate to support these grassroots, people-powered movements. The annual rate of funding for grassroots organizing remained at 3 percent from 2011 to 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. This occurred even as events such as Trump’s election and high-profile police killings of Black people led more grant makers to espouse the importance of grassroots organizing and social movements.
Why does the disconnect between the use of nonviolent activism and donor support for it matter? As a scholar, I go to the data. Nonviolent activism is three times as likely to lead to democracy as any other means and two times as effective at achieving stated goals as violent movements. It has curtailed corruption and sparked democratic innovations on multiple continents. In short, nonviolent activism is not only ubiquitous — it’s effective.
In an era of increasing attacks on civic space — the physical and digital places where people can organize, participate, and communicate with each other freely and thereby influence the political and social structures — people around the world have shifted to grassroots organizing and social movements. As one senior staffer at a charity told me: If we’re serious about supporting local people to solve local problems, philanthropy needs “to follow the movements.”
I recently wrote a report, “Dollars and Dissent,” that reveals three primary reasons donors hesitate to support grassroots organizing and nonviolent movements.
First, institutional structures at many foundations create bias against such giving. This bias begins long before a program officer decides which proposals to fund. For example, requiring grantees to formally register as 501(c)(3) organizations or the equivalent makes many grassroots and movement organizations ineligible because they are often decentralized and organized outside of formal institutions by strategic choice. Ironically, as my research shows, it is exactly these informal characteristics that help make movements effective.
A second obstacle lies with the experience and values of foundation leaders. Most foundation decision makers have backgrounds in areas such as advocacy, law, and philanthropy — not grassroots organizing or movement building. There is nothing wrong with such expertise. But it can implicitly lead foundations to favor social-change strategies, such as like advocacy, that depend primarily on small numbers of experts and insiders, over grassroots strategies, which rely on a broad base of support from those who have firsthand experience with the social conditions they seek to change. In short, it’s easier for donors to support the people and approaches they’re familiar with.
Finally, many donors hesitate to support organizing and movements because they perceive such grant making as messy and risky. After all, movement goals and coalitions can shift quickly, and the demands organizers make and the tactics they deploy may make donors uneasy.
Such concerns have grown starker with the rise of strategic philanthropy and grants viewed as carefully calibrated investments. Yet the greatest power of movements is, arguably, not their ability to achieve policy reforms but their potential to shift the types of policies, practices, and values that are acceptable to most people. Changing norms about racism or inequality may be harder and far less concrete than providing laptops to kids, but that doesn’t mean such work should go unsupported.
Instead, grant makers should consider the wide range of strategies and practices that can help them support, measure, and evaluate the real and perceived messy work of organizing and movements — recognizing that this so-called messiness is often the very thing that gives this work integrity.
Embrace different ways of supporting movements. Here’s how three philanthropic experts writing for Alliance magazine put it: “Not every foundation needs to support the ‘rebels.’” Some movement leaders may be perceived as rebels because they challenge the status quo. These include climate-activist movements such as Extinction Rebellion, which deploys tactics many view as extremist, and Occupy Wall Street, whose goals some considered socialist.
But these informally organized movements don’t exist in a political vacuum. Movements include a vast array of players — advocacy groups protecting freedom of assembly, researchers documenting repression, and lawyers defending unjustly detained activists. All these players protect and expand the civic space organizers and movements need to win.
The easy part for donors is choosing which part of this ecosystem to support. The greater challenge is providing that support with a movement mind-set and coordinating with other donors who fund more or less rebellious parts of a given movement. The Alliance for Feminist Movements, Human Rights Funders Network, and EDGE Funders Alliance are all examples of collaborative efforts where such coordination happens.
Adapt foundation processes and structures. Learning directly from organizers and movement leaders is a critical first step. Adding them to a foundation board, hiring committee, or strategic-planning committee can help institutionalize that form of expertise and ensure it is incorporated into grant making and strategic decisions, such as the creation of grant-making portfolios or hiring new staff.
Examples abound of how this can unfold. Some donors cultivate relationships of solidarity and trust with organizers and movements, instead of control over them. Many donors have adopted participatory grant-making approaches that cede power to community leaders to decide whom should receive grants. The Sandler Foundation famously never asked for a proposal. Other donors have hired movement leaders directly to help build internal expertise.
All these practices help ensure that donors seek to shift power to the people in their communities — and in their relationships with grantees. Imagine what might have become of Gandhi if he had spent his days completing monitoring and evaluation spreadsheets for potential donors thousands of miles away.
Monitor and evaluate movement support differently. Effective evaluation of movement support often entails focusing on means rather than ends. Instead of measuring whether grants lead to a particular policy reform, donors can measure important movement characteristics such as leadership development, coalition building, recruitment and retention of volunteers, and strategic planning. The American Jewish World Service and the Global Fund for Women offer free downloadable movement-assessment tools.
Some donors use evaluation and accountability approaches grounded in the histories and cultures of their grantees — an approach that can result in improved accuracy. Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott offers unrestricted grants without rigid, donor-conceived reporting requirements that can constrain grantees. Others have developed mechanisms for reciprocal accountability that allow grantees to evaluate their donors. And still others do away entirely with the idea of grants requiring a return on investment, adopting a view of grants as a form of reparations.
Throughout history, movements have been central to changing norms and laws about women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, ending wars and securing peace, opening entire regions to democracy, expanding electorates, and provoking people’s imaginations about what is politically possible in their societies.
Philanthropy is an expression of political power, both in society and in relationship to grantees. That’s why shifting power to grantees is as vital as supporting the processes that lead to more just and democratic relationships within a society. Donor support for movements will succeed if it fosters the agency and resiliency of organizers and activists — recognizing that movements win primarily because of the power they build within their communities, not because of the support they get from afar.