Yes, they can: Foundations and Movement-Building

These are bleak times for many of us committed to progressive social change and a vision of social justice that includes an end to poverty, full protection of civil rights for citizens and for immigrants, real power for working people, universal health care, and a sustainable environment. The ongoing economic hardship that has plagued our country for all of my twins’ young lives, and a much more constrained understanding of the social contract among policymakers in our state and federal governments, can lead to despair and retrenchment.


We can focus on building long-term movements for social change, the kind that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, are our only hope for bringing about the world as we wish it anyway. What the almost three years since the 2008 elections have taught us, or perhaps reminded us, is that there are no shortcuts, and that we can never, ever, ever stop organizing.

And that’s why, for me, it’s the perfect time for this Foundation Review article outlining how foundations can (and should!) support movement building. It begins with the obvious acknowledgement that philanthropy does not a movement make, and that successful movements must, by definition, be driven by those animating them with their own passions and pains (so foundations have to relinquish control over the ultimate (and even many of the interim) goals, as well as the timeline).

But it analyzes powerful movements from history to define their core elements, and then suggests activities in which foundations can invest in order to infuse social movements with essential resources. My own study of the civil rights movement (I finally accomplished my goal of reading all of Taylor Branch’s trilogy on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) shows the many points when donations, from individuals and from philanthropic and religious institutions, facilitated the next steps that, combined, built one of the greatest movements for social justice our world has known. The article also illustrates the role that foundations can play in very long-term movement building with a brief history of the conservative movement and the foundations that decided in the 1960s to systematically invest in building capacity–investments that began to pay real dividends with the election of Ronald Reagan and, certainly, is very much in play still today.

Bringing these ideas to our progressive work requires some shifting on the part of foundations, to be sure, so that they see themselves as movement strategists, more than as funders, with a commitment to changing the terms of the debate so that, ultimately, the kinds of policies we support are seen as “natural”, because we’ve framed them that way. If progressive foundations are to build the kind of world they seek, they’ll need movements to create it. And those movements will happen much more surely if they can hire the people they need, purchase the media to communicate, and conduct activities in pursuit of their vision.

And that means, yes, multi-year grants and general operating support and transparent, mutual relationships with those receiving investments. It means not expecting grantees to demonstrate their unique “niche”, but encouraging collaboration and even “duplication”, as reflecting convergence of focus and enhanced overall capacity. This report uses the term “advocacy infrastructure” to talk about these long-term investments that cross organizational and issue boundaries.

But putting all of this on foundations is unwise and unfair. Community organizers, direct service practitioners engaged in social change, and all of us who care about building movements need to think beyond single-issue campaigns, too, and develop relationships with philanthropists so that we can help them to see the future through our same vision.

We need to have clear strategies related to each of the components of successful movement building: base-building, research and framing, strategic power assessment, organizational management, engagement and networking, and leadership and vision development. We can’t expect foundations to invest in these activities if we continue to zero in on tactics immediately and populate our grant applications with detailed descriptions of what we’ll do, with little attention to the who, and, most importantly, the why.

One of my favorite parts of this discussion was the inclusion of direct service providers as a key avenue to base building. That thinking builds on foundations’ existing relationships with social service agencies and could leverage those considerable resources for real power building. It’s also significant that their discussion of leadership development transcends the intense “academies” that are fairly popular with foundations (and, absolutely, potentially very impactful), because they have a pretty high initial “cost” of entry, and we need leadership capacity development at all levels of engagement.

Of course, my interest in advocacy evaluation made me hone in on the discussion of outcomes and assessment, especially because it’s very true that our nascent field of policy and advocacy evaluation misses many of the elements of movement building that would need to be included in a more comprehensive evaluation. There’s a table at the end with the stages of movement building, the five core elements, and benchmarks for each that I’ve printed out to refer to for my evaluation practice; it’s only a beginning, but it’s a good place to start. This piece is critical not only because it will add to the field of knowledge about what works and increase our understanding about social movements, but also because speaking philanthropic language about accountability and measures can help us to bridge these gaps.

As the authors say, “Foundations do not make history. They fund it.”

And then I’ll have even more books on my nightstand, to retrace the victories and the roles that activists and the philanthropists who invested in them played in creating the victories that we can’t imagine living without.

Here’s to a brighter future and the movements that will bring it.

We’ve got long-term work to do.

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