Always Playing Catch Up? Philanthropy and Social Movements

The other day, I explored why so many funders love to back social entrepreneurs even though history shows that big changes are usually brought about by social movements—which today’s funders are decidedly less interested in backing.

I offered up several possible reasons for this imbalanced funding picture, but here’s one I didn’t explore: Maybe there’s just not much that philanthropy can do to ignite social movements and so the smart money doesn’t even bother trying.

Related: Is Too Much Funding Going to Social Entrepreneurs—And Too Little to Social Movements?

There’s something to this. After all, social movements tend to emerge in unpredictable ways, spearheaded by citizen activists—many of whom weren’t previously involved in organizing. These movements are often so powerful precisely because they aren’t led by the usual suspects who work in nonprofits with philanthropic backing.

If the social movements of tomorrow are catalyzed by people who, today, aren’t part of organizations or easily identified, what can philanthropy really do to foster such movements? Maybe very little. Perhaps the best funders can do is play catch-up, pumping resources into movements already underway with the aim of expanding their impact.

Certainly, there’s a rich history of playing catch-up. For example, once the civil rights movement was already underway, a number of funders gave heavily to top civil rights organizations and leaders, which I wrote about earlier this year.

Related: White Money vs. White Privilege: Philanthropy and Civil Rights From Selma to Ferguson

Funders also brought late but big impact to other movements such as the environment, the nuclear freeze push, and gay rights. Right now, some funders are putting money behind Black Lives Matter, resources which are likely to amplify the reach of a movement that began organically, without outside help. 

So to be sure, philanthropy can always play catch-up in regard to social movements. But before we leave it at that, let’s look more closely at what funders can do to help such movements emerge in the first place.

A few years back, a study by Barbara Masters and Tori Osborn dug deeply into how foundations can support movement building, looking at various examples. The study spotlighted a bunch of strategies that are hardly rocket science—like backing organizations with deep connections to communities, supporting leadership development, funding efforts to create a shared vision and strategy, and bankrolling long-term work to build alliances and an advocacy infrastructure.

While movement building may be dismissed as too vague an enterprise by many funders, the study emphasized that, in fact, there are clear benchmarks for tracking progress in this area. (Metrics for movements, if you will.)

An irony of recent decades is that it’s conservative funders who’ve embraced movement building with the most zeal. With the exception of backing groups rooted in communities, these funders have spent a fortune on every strategy that Masters and Osborn highlight. Many millions have gone to leadership training; to ideas and vision work; and to building up a movement infrastructure over time, anchored by institutions like the Heritage Foundation. These investments are widely credited with moving U.S. politics and policy to the right during 1980s and 1990s. As well, by mainstreaming libertarian ideology, these investments arguably helped lay the groundwork for the Tea Party, one of the most successful social movements in recent history.

Yet, while some progressive funders like Ford have spent heavily on movement building, too, the bigger liberal money has gone to more technocratic approaches to change.

Think of a place like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its work on health care. It’s spent a huge fortune since 2009 to make universal coverage a reality (and is still spending), but very little of this money has gone to support grassroots-style activism. While we now have the Affordable Care Act, public support for the law is very weak—and a big piece of the law, Medicaid expansion, has yet to be implemented in many states by Republican officials who live in terror of their party’s fiery Tea Party base. Obamacare may have passed, but it did so without a real movement behind the ideal of universal coverage or any sea change in thinking on healthcare. That doesn’t bode well for protecting and building on this victory.

So should funders like RWJF be investing more in movement building? I would say yes, but you can also understand the appeal of backing wonkier strategies that promise to offer more clear-cut and reliable results within a certain time frame. Even boosters of movement building acknowledge that luck and timing plays a big role in what outcomes might be achieved, and that this work requires a long-term commitment. Funders can put up money for all the right ingredients, year after year, and yet the cake may still never fully rise.

Ultimately, though, this shouldn’t be an either/or choice. And here, the choices of conservative funders are instructive. They’ve funded an infrastructure with strong anchor institutions that builds movement over the long term—but also serves as a flexible platform to mount short-term advocacy and policy campaigns across a range of issues. What’s more, these campaigns tend to be grounded in a larger vision that’s been honed over many years.

Pragmatic progressive funders shouldn’t stop backing narrow work on their key issues. But they need to make sure they’re also supporting an infrastructure and anchor institutions that engage in movement building for their values.

One positive trend is that funders are channeling more money for specific projects through intermediaries like NEO Philanthropy and the Proteus Fund—groups that work actively to make connections across issue areas and constituencies with an eye toward building a broader movement for equity.

I just wrote about NEO the other day, and its effort to knit together a social justice world with too many silos. As it turns out, many big foundations get the value of NEO—including RWJF.

Related: Inside NEO Philanthropy: An Unusual Funding Group Works to Unify the Social Justice World