In 2009, a popular book claimed that “the revolution will not be funded” because top-down approaches to philanthropy run counter to what it takes to support lasting social change. Five years later, forward-looking grant makers are demonstrating that collaborative efforts that take a bottom-up approach offer the greatest potential for solving large-scale social challenges.
Grant makers can play a powerful role in supporting social movements, but doing so requires some important shifts in how foundations typically think and act. For example, tightly restricted grants and one-year awards run counter to the long-term, flexible, and patient support that social movements need.
What’s more, foundations need to look far beyond the usual suspects to find activists and organizers who can persuade people to work together to fight for changes that may be unpopular among the social elite or powerful business and political leaders.
Recently, more than 200 foundation and nonprofit leaders came together at a meeting held by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations to explore philanthropy’s role in supporting movements. Following are some of the most often repeated recommendations from leaders of successful social movements and the grant makers who support them.
Fund the front lines. Social movements are, by definition, grass-roots led and work to empower people and communities that typically are left out of decision making.
“Foundations often say we want our funding to support disempowered communities, yet in the U.S. only 5 percent of total foundation giving goes to communities of color, only 7 percent goes to organizations serving women, and only 3 percent goes to grass-roots organizing,” says Vanessa Daniel of the Groundswell Fund.
For decades, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in North Carolina has worked to move people and places in the Southeast out of poverty and create more opportunities for economic and social justice. The foundation does this by supporting nonprofits and networks that have track records for helping low-income people build assets and transform economic conditions in their communities. The foundation gives priority to networks that include grass-roots organizations, paying special attention to their abilities to develop an organization’s management leaders and work effectively.
Erase boundaries. Traditionally, foundations and nonprofits focus on specific issues. For example, one foundation may support programs to help the homeless, while another may focus on promoting gay rights, and yet another may promote mental health. In reality, LGBT youths and mentally ill people make up sizable chunks of the homeless population in the U.S. How might nonprofits and foundations dealing with those issues work together for greater impact?
A recent report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy encouraged grant makers to support multi-issue organizing and advocacy as a key way to make progress on social issues.
California Civic Participation Funders is an example of a diverse group of grant makers supporting a range of issues that in concert move a common agenda—increasing the civic involvement of African Americans, Asians, and Latinos in four rapidly growing counties. The collaborative is a network of nine grant makers that focus on causes as diverse as immigrant rights, community health, women’s rights, and criminal justice. The groups work with a high degree of autonomy but in support of the network’s overarching goals. They have found that working together to increase voter participation is a powerful common denominator that is crucial to achieving real and lasting change on all of the issues they care about.
So far, the grant makers have contributed more than $5-million to stimulate civic involvement on vital issues.
Rethink roles. Grantmakers can offer more than just money to support social movements. Research by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations uncovered five key roles grant makers can play:
Investor. Philanthropy can provide financial resources to build the infrastructure of critical institutions to support social movements and the knowledge and skills of leaders who drive change. The Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund offers general operating and program grants, as well as money specifically for leadership development, to nearly all of its social-change grantees. It also reaches out to other grant makers to enlist their support.
The fund’s support of groups working to build coalitions that promote gay and lesbian rights has contributed to an increase in national support for marriage equality, with more than a dozen states moving to extend most of the protections associated with marriage under state law.
Broker. Grant makers can attract additional funds in support of movements they care about. The Brico Fund steps in to introduce its grantees to people and foundations that might become supporters and also helps groups navigate potentially tricky political situations. For example, the Brico Fund initiated a conversation with the local police force about allocating resources to help officers do a better job in handling sexual-assault cases. .
Connector. Next to money, perhaps the most important things a grant maker can provide to support movements are connections that lead to new relationships or faster progress. Caring Across Generations, a coalition of more than 200 organizations working to transform how America supports the elderly and the workers who care for them, benefited greatly when donors used connections to ensure the coalition was invited to a key White House meeting. Ultimately, that meeting led to a major policy win that benefited health-care workers.
Learner. Foundations have the time and resources for evaluation, research, and learning that many nonprofits don’t have. Grant makers can contribute to a movement by conducting or underwriting research that supports the movement’s goals, or investing in their own evaluation and sharing what they’re finding.
“There’s no one right way to do this work, and we should always be learning from others in the field,” said Surina Khan, a Ford Foundation official. “Just like we provide opportunities to individual organizations to come together for learning and sharing, we should be seeking out others in philanthropy to share with.”
Influencer. Movements are fundamentally about changing power. Recognizing that foundations hold a privileged position in their communities, grant makers should seek ways to use their influence beyond grants to affect social change. In Arkansas, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation testified before the state legislature, drawing on research the foundation had supported that ultimately helped lead to the creation of a commission that will recommend ways to increase the number of Arkansans with college degrees.
“In the movement landscape, we are all breaking down our own silos,” says Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs With Justice and co-director of Caring Across Generations.
The need for foundations to work together to prompt social-change efforts is urgent. “We are not winning at the level we seek,” said Ms. Gupta.
To make a difference, she said, “we need to have humility. We need to engage each other. Together we have a vision of what America should be, and we need to be moving values together.”
As foundations consider how they can support the networks and movements that are emerging around them, even small shifts in the ways foundations tackle social change can make a big difference.