Keeping Up: Philanthropy In an Era of Sweeping Social Movements

A protest in Phoenix. photo:  CREATISTA/shutterstock

A protest in Phoenix. photo:  CREATISTA/shutterstock

Just a day after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, vigils and marches formed across the country. One day after that, activists in Durham called an “emergency protest,” toppling a Confederate statue. Within a week, Black Lives Matter and other activists in Boston organized 40,000 counter-protesters, drowning out another far right rally planned for the weekend. 

Protests operating at this speed and scale have become increasingly familiar since the 2016 election, but also in preceding years, as have masses of people mobilizing against all manner of emerging threats, aided by online connections. Just since Charlottesville, Phoenix protested the looming pardon of Joe Arpaio, disability-rights activists stormed the capitol to defend healthcare coverage, and immigrant-rights activists nationwide continue to protest the end of the DACA program. 

A lot of these causes for which people are rising up in support are precisely those that philanthropy holds dear, at least among left-leaning funders, many of which are eager to throw weight behind these growing movements. In fact, we’ve watched since November as foundations and donors across the country have made a range of attempts to respond in the moment. 

And yet, all too often, this sector, known for its plodding application processes, quarterly decisions and rigid project requirements finds itself “always playing catch-up” in moments like these. Even as some funders have sought to become more nimble since the election, creating rapid-response funds, events of recent years raise an important question: Can philanthropy possibly keep up with modern, fast-moving social movements? Not only that, but when backing issues like racial justice, can funders be truly supportive of communities they tend to be a few too many steps removed from?


“The streets have erupted in this country, and we actually have to listen, instead of sort of being in these towers,” says Lateefah Simon, a longtime organizer for civil rights and racial justice, and current president of the Akonadi Foundation

While she’s optimistic about where the sector is headed, Simon agreed with others we spoke with in philanthropy who are engaged with social justice organizing and activism—if more funders are going to be truly supportive of social movements in this moment and beyond, they need to up their game in some important ways.

And it’s crucial that they do, given the tremendous potential resources they have to support social change and strengthen movement infrastructure. Consider that during the mid-century civil rights movement, for example, even though most foundations steered clear, certain funders did play important roles, backing legal support, activist trainings, public education, and more. Philanthropy played an even more critical role in backing the early infrastructure of the environmental movement in the 1970s. And a cadre of small activist funders were critical in financing organizing work against nuclear weapons in the 1980s. Philanthropic support of the LGBTQ movement offers a more recent example of donor dollars making a critical difference in the push for social progress. All this history, which included plenty of trial and error as funders searched for ways to be helpful to activists, is now more relevant than ever. If funders can improve in supporting those leading the way, there’s potential for real impact in a pivotal time.

“This moment is an opportunity to look in the mirror,” as Simon says. “We're in a moment, historically, that is unmatched.”

Trust and Accountability

One core factor in the disconnect between philanthropy and social movements is the lack of trust funders have toward grantees, combined with the inherent power imbalance that holds only grantees accountable. 

A 2010 paper on the subject by Barbara Masters and Tori Osborn posits that funders of social movements “cannot determine the goals and timetables of a movement.” Philanthropy instead must trust and follow the leadership of others.  

"When I was on the other side of the funder-grantee relationship, the best funders for me as an organizer were people who really understood that I had an expertise in my work—my community were experts in what was happening to us,” says Janis Rosheuvel, program director for Solidaire, a donor network supporting progressive social movements.

Before starting with Solidaire this year, Rosheuvel organized communities for more than a decade as executive secretary for Racial Justice with United Methodist Women, executive director at Families for Freedom, and other roles. “If you trust that I know what I'm doing, then you will support my work and not demand pages and pages of metrics that you design.”

Early in Lateefah Simon’s career, before she was a program director at the Rosenberg Foundation and then took the helm at Akonadi, she was executive director of the Center for Young Women’s Development, organizing formerly incarcerated women around criminal justice reform. While she was focused on building a base of support working toward long-term change (it’s still going, now called the Young Women’s Freedom Center), Simon would frequently meet with frustrated funders asking why it was taking so long, or why they weren’t more focused on short-term wins. 

“Systemic change doesn’t happen in a grant cycle,” she says. 

“If I give you $25,000, I know that that's not going to pay for an organizer or health insurance for that organizer, much less fund a movement. I need funders to know what they're doing is giving to something so much larger than themselves, and to be extremely honored to be a part of this moment.”

While trust requires relationship building, it can also manifest in process, or lack thereof. That could mean shorter application forms (Akonadi has one with just three questions), brief video or even phone applications, or fewer and less formal reporting requirements. 

“This provides us a moment to really understand the privilege of our grantmaking process, and design it in a way that allows us to live out our mission and walk our talk,” says Tyler Nickerson of the Solutions Project, which recently won an NCRP Impact Award for its influential support of the Standing Rock resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline.


“Grantmakers trip over their own processes,” Nickerson says, most of which are self-imposed. 

Aside from impeding funding, they often create rigid measures of accountability, only for grantees. In contrast, we’re seeing efforts among some funders to make themselves accountable to the communities they back. 

“Very rarely do institutions who are on the ground struggling to make payroll hold foundations accountable,” Simon says, a problem that the sector needs to address. At Akonadi, staff recently conducted the first of what will be regular, anonymized grantee and applicant surveys, presenting data to the board that directly shapes its current activities. 

At Solidaire, Rosheuvel describes a grantmaking process for its Pooled Fund for Movement R&D, which is guided by a committee with a slight majority of decision makers from the activist community and a slight minority from the network’s donor pool. “Ideally, that shared decision making means that there is some mutual accountability happening,” she says. 

Must Go Faster

Modern social movements are fast. As Zeynep Tufekci documents in her book Twitter and Tear Gas, organizers are commanding large numbers of people with a speed that was unheard of in past movements, which can be both a strength and a weakness. 

As I mentioned, one approach that philanthropy has embraced in order to keep up, especially following Trump’s election, is starting rapid-response funds, pools of money that can be disbursed with fewer steps than a foundation’s core grantmaking. 

Several of these funds have emerged in the past year among funders big and small. While some of them have struggled to move money with the speed they intended, rapid-response funds have become a powerful tool for shifting small bursts of money to groups facing immediate threats or opportunities.


These funds aren’t a new idea, however. Solidaire, for example, has offered a mechanism for rapid response funding since early 2013, which notifies individual donors via listserv of opportunities they can support directly. It moves about a million dollars a year, sometimes delivering funds within a matter of hours.

There’s also the Fighter Fund at Mark Ruffalo’s climate-focused Solutions Project, which is backed by several progressive and environmental foundations. The Fighter Fund was established in 2016, and has a rolling, open-access application it monitors regularly. 

“[It] certainly costs more in staff time on our end, but allows us to actually be relevant with the movement, and helps us learn,” says Nickerson, director of investments and state strategy at the grantmaker. Even with just two staff fielding proposals—himself and program officer Rudi Navarra—they manage the unfettered applications. 

In fact, they not only manage them, they actively seek out more. One thing Solutions has learned since launching the fund is the importance of marketing a rapid response fund, including media work and reaching out to local organizers.

“If you think about where you really want to put money… you have to go out and meet those applicants where they’re at, and in their networks, and in their fields,” Nickerson says.

Rapid Response is Not Good Enough

Discretionary pools of cash that can be moved quickly are useful, but organizers in the places where crises erupt—think of Ferguson, Standing Rock or Flint—likely needed funding years before and will need it years after. In that sense, keeping up with social movements sometimes requires speed, but it’s really more about providing patient support in the long run. 

"I struggle with things that are rapid response only,” says Rosheuvel of Solidaire. “Only because being in the right relationship with people who are impacted by injustice means that I'm not just with you when the cameras are here, I'm not just with you when the crisis is here, but I'm with you for the long haul." 

She oversees the network’s funding programs, including its Aligned Giving Strategy, a program that is currently working to align $25 million in donor support behind the Movement for Black Lives ecosystem over the next five years.

“Part of what we've got to do is be more diligent about being in right relationship with movements, not just in moments of crisis, but standing with people when they just need to keep the lights on,” she says. 

Akonadi, an Oakland-based foundation that supports racial justice movement building, has managed a rapid-response fund since 2016, but recently shifted its framing to a “community response fund.” It’s still a streamlined process, but it's now less about reacting to short-term crises and more about seeding new opportunities, with the understanding that the problems at hand are deeply entrenched. 

"I think it's a practice that we should keep up, not just when all hell breaks loose,” says Simon. Rapid response is useful, but really, program staff should have more discretionary funds at their disposal all the time, she suggests.

"Are they aligned and can they stand shoulder to shoulder and be learning partners with their grantees if they have no resources, nimble resources to give? We're underplaying what they can do and what they can be learning.”

Not long ago, we wrote about one funder, The Whitman Institute, which reflected on its post-election rapid response funding and found that what made it work were the same flexible, less restrictive qualities of its regular giving. In other words, rapid-response grantmaking looks an awful lot like plain old grantmaking that’s responsive and less burdensome on grantees.

That being said, funders that are new to the rapid-response party can use it as an opportunity to establish new long-term relationships, says Farhad Ebrahimi, president of the Chorus Foundation. Chorus has a unique spend-down strategy in which it’s supporting grantees in four geographies with unrestricted funds over the course of eight to 10 years, a rare level of reliability in philanthropy.

“Sometimes, as funders, we want to capture the lightning in a bottle, we want to touch it ourselves. We want to be like, ‘We funded the group that can claim this victory,’” Ebrahimi says.

More often, though, the role of the movement funder is to make sure the conditions are right if and when that lightning strikes and things accelerate. That means the solution isn’t to chase every emergency, and to stick around beyond the moment when responding to urgent needs. 

"Every single time there is something like a Charlottesville, or what happened in Durham, or the big turnout that happened in Boston or San Francisco, or other places… there's existing infrastructure that's had an impact on those things going the way they did," Ebrahimi says.

No Two Places

The logical extension of that focus on trust building and movement infrastructure is a focus on place. Effective funding for social movements done right often looks like community giving, and the constellation of groups and individuals working at the local level will vary considerably. 

"I think what philanthropy can learn from this moment is that every place-based strategy is not going to work in every place,” says Lateefah Simon at Akonadi. “Oakland is its own ecosystem, and it is different than Detroit, different than L.A."

Getting to know that ecosystem takes time, but doing so allows a funder to be truly responsive to changes on the ground. For example, the Chorus Foundation has been funding in one of their geographic focus areas in Kentucky for more than five years, and each year, it learns about new iterations of work happening on the ground, Ebrahimi says. 

Social movements often don’t fit into neat 501(c)(3) boxes, either, as we saw during the Standing Rock resistance and the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. Important new players form and take action, not yet concerned with incorporation, and loose affiliations of small groups and individuals serving policy issues that may seem unrelated to an outside funder become instrumental. Foundations tend to struggle to find entry points, but local connections make it easier to parse the key players at any given time.

Even funders acting nationally can still build local connections if they’re willing to spend significant time outside of the office, as Nickerson of The Solutions Project notes. While it's a national funder, program staff spend most of their time in states where they fund heavily, developing trusted anchor partners in key places.

One tactic that’s helped remote or national funders that want to support work on the ground is funding intermediaries such as The Solutions Project, or local fiscal sponsors that can more easily regrant funds where they’re needed in the moment. 

Become More Like Grantees

For some funders, being able to support social movements means closing the distance between themselves and their grantees. Philanthropy is a wealthy, generally very white space, in contrast to the country as a whole, much less the communities it often seeks to serve. Aside from lacking diversity, funders also don’t always understand organizing (an interesting exception being conservative funders, which have invested heavily in movement building since the 1970s to great return).

“It is abstract if you haven't done it. If you don't know about it, and if you don't see it as a practice that is ongoing, that leads to change, then it can seem like, well, why are you doing all these leadership development seminars?” Rosheuvel says. "There are some funders out there who are really like, ‘we get organizing...’ maybe they their staff come out of organizing. But there are not that many.”

Foundation leaders coming from movement spaces can increase a funder’s literacy about the field and the community. It can also deepen racial and political analysis. At Solidaire, for example, Rosheuvel is creating a political education program for donors in the network and beyond.

Especially for place-based foundations, hiring community leaders, not just funding them, can make a big difference, Lateefah Simon says. “I think foundations have to hire locally. I think that they have to be heartbeats of communities in the same way that they expect the community organizations they're funding to be,” Simon says.

But beyond issues of staffing and understanding, Simon also challenges funders to push themselves to share the qualities and passions they would expect from the people they fund: "I'm watching so many folks in big spaces and small spaces just really step out into this moment of philanthropy, where they realize… the opportunity to push ourselves, to be just a little bit like the folks we're funding—brave and courageous, and graceful yet bombastic. Those values are amazing. And we have to live that way too."