How to Fund Social Change in an Increasingly Networked and Volatile Environment

Pixabay. Public domain.

February 24, 2017; National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

As the ground continues to shift beneath vulnerable individuals and communities throughout the United States, many people are getting directly involved for the first time. Although protestors are not paid, the infrastructure, planning, and organizing provided by the staff of diverse nonprofits is essential for success. Foundations and other major donors are putting recent efforts fueling the Black Lives Matter movement to use, developing new, flexible funding systems to effectively and efficiently grow these activities.

Last month, over two hundred philanthropic leaders participated in a webinar titled “Creatively Funding Social Movements,” organized by the National Committee of Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP).

NCRP is a 41-year-old watchdog of the philanthropic community. Their mission is to promote philanthropy that serves the public good, is responsive to people and communities with the least wealth and opportunity, and is held accountable to the highest standards of integrity and openness.

The webinar’s goal was to encourage collaboration and fuel change within the philanthropic sector. Speakers included funders and grantees. This collaboration illustrated the effort to build a single movement to protect those that are under attack and to advocate for resiliency.

Because laws and regulations are changing quickly, the webinar urged funders to step up and take risks with their grantees. These efforts include foundation staff educating and working with their boards to push funds closer to the movement’s frontline. Examples might be: guaranteeing core financial support, providing grants after phone conversations instead of proposals, creating pools of funds that can be released quickly without board meetings, and following up after grants are approved to see if a pivot in the use of funds is required.

Presenters spoke of the need to fund the movement rather than individual agencies. These types of grants often require funders to work together, become more accessible, and shatter grant area silos. These activities go beyond translating materials into multiple languages to creating simpler proposals that encourage applications from those without a college education. Funders are also reaching out and organizing safe meeting places to introduce themselves to movement leaders, providing fiscal sponsorships, and pooling or co-funding resources to support the entire cohesive movement ecosystem. For example, many nonprofits depend on the ACA to provide health insurance for their employees; as the ACA is “repealed and replaced,” nonprofits will need more funding to provide essential health insurance benefits.

Here are the seven key takeaways published by NCRP afterward:

  1. Communication: Name your values and vision for structural change, speak honestly about threats and what’s happening in the current environment, and identify how issues intersect. Align your messaging with the needs, concerns and advocacy of your grant partners.
  2. Proactive outreach: Don’t wait for social change groups and grant partners to come to you in times of crisis. Initiate conversations, ask questions and listen intently. Build relationships with organizations led by and organizing in communities that are directly impacted.
  3. Risk and flexibility: Fund an ecosystem of social change groups, including those that are small, emerging or rough around the edges. Don’t restrict or hinder how activists choose to disrupt and resist.
  4. Collaboration: Partner with other grantmakers or collaboratives to pool and leverage additional funds, and with place-based intermediaries/public charities to provide fiscal sponsorship to non-registered groups. With co-funding, grantmakers can fund different aspects of the same grant partner’s work.
  5. Grant applications and reporting: Streamline your application and reporting requirements, and minimize what you require of applicants and grant partners. Offer alternative communication methods, such as phone proposals and interviews.
  6. Rapid response: Activists’ work shifts quickly. Be nimble and reactive by offering rapid response grants. Speed up the turnaround on applications and timing of grants distribution.
  7. Operations and safety: Provide unrestricted funding and support for digital and physical security. Social change groups are targeted for attack and infiltration, and potential policy changes, such as a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, may bring a rise in costs. Project funding isn’t adequate to respond in a volatile environment and ensure resilience.

Overall, success of the movement depends on the entire community working together to become more accessible, flexible, and sustainable.—Gayle Nelson