How Philanthropy Can Reimagine its Role in the Movement Building Ecosystem
Movements are a catalyst for change — without their bold ideas, actions, and organizing, systematic inequalities would remain largely preserved and unchallenged. And yet, to this day, harmful power dynamics exist in the relationships between funders and changemakers that impede movements from realizing long-term change.
Philanthropy California’s recent program, United We Stand: Creating an Inclusive California through a Robust Movement Building Ecosystem, hosted Crystal Hayling (Executive Director, Libra Foundation), Dana Kawaoka-Chen (Co-Director, Justice Funders), Retta Morris (President, Borealis Philanthropy), Lateefah Simon (President, Akonadi Foundation), and Sabrina Smith (Deputy Director, California Calls) to hold a frank conversation on how philanthropy can reimagine its relationships with movements and their leaders. The speakers had a candid discussion on how funders can meaningfully support — and not co-opt — the movement-building ecosystem and proposed a new allyship model centered on trust, where funders follow more than they lead and where they seek to understand more than to fix.
We invite you to read the speaker’s critical recommendations for funders below and view the full program recording.
“Movement is the ocean, campaigns are the waves. We need to fund the coral, the ocean, floor, the whole ecosystem not just one wave.”
Abandon Transactional Funding
When a foundation stops funding a movement after it has entered the mainstream or made significant headway, it has essentially just capitalized on the movement’s momentum for its own relevancy and internal goals. Short-term commitments don’t yield critical social gains or systemic change. When funders don’t commit to a movement for the long term, they are expressing that they weren’t committed to the vision or in actually addressing root causes. Additionally, de-funding a movement can create a deep divide with communities that feel abandoned and are left to figure out how to move forward. Philanthropy has an opportunity to end its short-term, transactional relationships with movements. Instead, philanthropy should always fund movements like they want them to win.
Understand & Avoid “Movement Capture”
In the wake of the past year’s crises, waves of philanthropic leaders committed to evaluating their internal efforts to undo practices that perpetuate harm to better support communities and movements. In many cases, funders made notable efforts to shift their strategies by taking steps such as righting the wrongs of their operational systems, engaging in political education, taking a community-centered approach to their relationships, practicing accountability, and more. However, while many of these actions are commendable, increased funder influence and involvement in movements can be obstructive if left unchecked.
All too often, well-intentioned funders unintentionally steer the ship in determining which issues we collectively consider urgent, meaningful, and worthy of being funded. Dr. Megan Ming Francis proposes a description of this sectoral norm with the term “movement capture,” which describes the process by which private funders use their resources and inﬂuence to shape cultural perceptions and the agendas of vulnerable civil rights organizations. As philanthropy continues to grow to support the work of courageous activists, it must be vigilant about whether it’s genuinely helping a movement versus co-opting or derailing it.
Don't Constrain the Movement's Potential
By shifting attention away from complex, uncomfortable issues to more palatable versions of central topics, funders have historically applied their positional power to prescribe a softer or alternate solution to what movements should accomplish. For example, before the NAACP was known for its work on black education and economic opportunity, its central focus was on anti-black violence and anti-lynching in the early part of the 20th century. They lobbied Congress, took legal action, won a landmark decision in front of the Supreme Court, and petitioned three sitting presidents to make anti-lynching statements. While their movement was making progress, they could not get the financial support needed, as grants supporting anti-violence work were scarce. However, education grants were abundant, so the organization gradually shifted its central purpose to qualify for grants and align with a foundation’s funding focus.
This historical example helps illustrate a form of capture that happens when movements adapt to meet a foundation’s priorities to acquire funding. When those in positions of power get to shape the terms and goals of a movement, issues considered uncomfortable or radical become diluted to be palatable, and the root causes are often erased. Funders must recognize the complex ways that their power and privilege can impact movement work. Instead of imposing parameters on movements, funders should allow communities to set the goals and help direct attention to the root causes of our nation’s most persistent inequities.
Follow & Support the Established Efforts of Movement Leaders
Many thinkers, strategists, leaders, and communities are already working in partnership across sectors to dismantle our country’s long-term systemic inequities. These movements are tackling issues on the ground, embracing trust, and welcoming discomfort to find bold solutions and envision a thriving future for our communities. If philanthropy is to make life better for other people, it should focus on shifting its money, power, and influence to support the efforts of those closest to the ground. Today, funders have an opportunity to model a new form of allyship centered on listening, learning, and trusting movement work. Moreover, funders can make the long-term investments needed to realize a movement’s core purpose and create a more equitable future.
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