Movement Building: Marguerite Casey's Push to Empower Low-Income Families

The challenges faced by low-income workers and families have been much in the news lately, amid protests at places like McDonald's and steps to raise the minimum wage. 

This moment didn't happen magically. It's been years in the making, and philanthropy has played a role, as we've often reported. 

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Consider the work of Marguerite Casey Foundation, which has has long sought to empower low-income families to do their own advocacy. As part of this effort, in 2007, the foundation launched the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign, a one-year effort that brought together over 30,000 families to develop a family platform and build a national family-led movement.

The campaign was a huge hit, and reinforced the foundation's core belief in movement building as a grantmaking strategy. The foundation supports efforts that put families at the forefront of fighting poverty and bringing about long-term change in some of the highest poverty regions of the country, including the Midwest, South, Southwest and California. The issues that the foundation funds often involve children and youth, such as advocating for better schools, more accommodations for working parents, and expanded support services for children suffering from emotional traumas.   

The foundation's grants are often pretty big, sometimes running into the six figures, and it generally awards multi-year, renewable general support grants. The Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama is a case in point. In 2013, the organization received a three-year, $465,000 grant to work with low-income families, helping them organize for better child care services in their community.

Another grant to Californians for Justice Education Fund helped to bring low-income youth and families together to work for greater equity in California’s school systems. This was another three-year grant starting in 2013 for $460,000.

Marguerite Casey also gave a three-year, $315,000 grant to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in 2012 to work with low-income families on improving youth school performance and finding employment. And it gave $120,000 to Tunica Teens in Action to organize activists in Mississippi on the issues of education, economic development, and affordable housing.

The foundation is also very diverse in the types of families and family situations its grantmaking supports. Earlier this year, we noted the foundation’s work helping immigrant families fight deportation orders. The foundation also provides aid to LGBT families, such as the $225,000 that it gave last year to the San Diego LGBT Community Center for its commitment to helping low-income LGBT persons and their families to organize and advocate for themselves to policymakers and the public.  

In 2014, the foundation made some big grants for a variety of community organizations, with a three-year $450,000 grant to Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, with the goal of "expanding outreach and training of families about their rights and providing legal advice to community organizations engaging families in advocacy in the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso, Texas." It also granted a two-year, $200,000 grant to the Disciples Center for Public Witness, for "engaging faith communities and networks in movement building in alignment with Equal Voice."

Its biggest grant in 2014 was to Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, a six-year, $1.5 million grant that meets a 1:2 match from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, for the purpose of "building a movement of low-income Asian-American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander families in alignment with Equal Voice." A full list of the 2014 grantees is available here. 

This is a foundation that understands that it takes time to seed a movement and that organizations need financial support to build capacity. In addition, the foundation believes that grantees, like family leaders, know how best to grow their organizations and support their constituency in building a sustainable movement.

The Marguerite Casey Foundation has an ambitious vision of what can be accomplished for families, and the importance of families advocating on their own behalf for policies that improve their lives and those of their children. While many funders steer far clear of advocacy, preferring to invest in direct services, Marguerite Casey makes a point of aiming to shape the actions of government and business. 

That's smart, whether you agree with the foundation's goals or not. Compared to other sectors, philanthropy's resources and problem-solving capacities are limited. One Holy Grail of smart grantmaking is successfully influencing how the real power centers in society approach problems. 

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