Organize, People! (And Here's One Funder Who Might Help.)


A surge in progressive funding is one likely outcome of a Donald Trump presidency, as advocacy groups put out urgent appeals to fight a raft of conservative policy changes and donors step up to help. Inevitably, though, grant dollars will be short supply when it comes to supporting grassroots organizing.

For a bunch of reasons, there are not many funders to hit up if you run a grassroots group. These smaller nonprofits often don't make the cut at big national foundations, while more local funders like community foundations tend to be too cautious and conservative in their funding. A broader truth is that activists who truly make a ruckus, challenging existing power arrangements, can have a hard time getting a hearing from a funding world that tends to operate within the system, not outside it.  

At IP, we regularly try to spotlight funders that do invest in grassroots organizing and one such funder to know about, for sure, is the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation.

This progressive funder is pretty small, but its grantmaking is diverse and interesting. The foundation has made notable efforts to boost youth literacy and just recently, we noted its role in the sustainable food movement. Here, though, we want to talk about its Grassroots Organizing for Social Change program, which is pretty unusual.

This program, like much of the foundation's work, is guided by a deep-seated belief that the people who are most impacted by local social and environmental issues are best able to formulate actionable solutions. Don't even think about approaching the Ben & Jerry's Foundation if you're with a big national group, or any nonprofit that already has substantial resources. This program only supports groups with budgets under $500,000. 

Also, don't bother if you're a mainstream group such as a direct services organization, a college, or a legal advocacy shop. Ben & Jerry’s wants to back activist action with a movement spirit, it seems. The foundation is staking out ground around the idea that “outside strategies” will do more to improve life for many Americans than well-worn institutional routes towards social progress. And rather than fund by particular issues, it's keen on backing certain strategies, such as improving community and ally outreach, developing local leaders, empowering constituents, researching root causes, developing campaigns, building coalitions, mobilizing constituents, and taking direct action. 

Check all the right boxes at your grassroots, constituent-led nonprofit, and your group is eligible for one-year grants of up to $25,000. These grants are super-competitive, for the reason I mentioned earlier: Not a lot of national funders make grants to small grassroots nonprofits. The ones that do get deluged with requests, and that's certainly the case for the Ben & Jerry's Foundation. 

One other thing: This foundation also takes a unique approach to selecting grantees: In 1994, the company re-organized the process to include Ben & Jerry’s employees directly in grant decisions. Community Action Teams were established at each site, and the Employee Grantmaking Committee was formed. The model is still in use by the foundation today, with Ben & Jerry’s employees playing an integral role in selecting the organizations who receive the foundation’s grants.

So where's the money going? 

In 2015, the foundation made 81 grants through the Grassroots Organizing for Social Change Grant Program, to grantees spread across the United States. It's a pretty remarkable list, offering a snapshot of the many different kinds of groups engaged in grassroots activism. Definitely take a close look. 

The foundation’s other grant programs in this space include the National Movement Building Grant Program, the Vermont Capacity Building Grant Program, the Vermont Economic Justice Grant Program, and the Vermont Community Action Teams Program.