The Messy Business of Social Movement Funding

I recently worked for a foundation that had admirable aspirations of creating large scale social change, potentially through a social movement. As we researched the business of social movement building, it proved to be a topic mired in caveats. In speaking with various funders throughout the country, we found that organizations’ timelines for shifting toward social movement building is a great unknown. Funders seeking to fuel this kind of change are in various stages along their journey, as shown by the graphic below. Some organizations have been on this trajectory for decades, while others are just beginning. But in every case, the tactical shift to building social movements as a means to fueling societal change certainly did not happen overnight.

Messy business picture v3 5Nov14
Messy business picture v3 5Nov14

One of the primary hesitations from these funders is their resistance to leading the social movement. The big question that these funders are grappling with is “how do we make a movement happen, without being the movement?” The funders understand that a social movement cannot be dependent on one organization, but to be successful, a movement must take on a life of its own, with the vision and energy coming from the community. Foundations can fuel the movement via funds, capacity building and strategic support during the ebbing periods, but cannot be the movement itself.

Funders’ apprehension to the term “social movement building” itself also stood out. The majority of funders with whom we talked noted that this language can be counter-productive. Even if they internally understand they are using the tactics of social movement building, they use language such as collaboration, networks and ecosystem to represent their approach, while avoiding the potentially stigmatized label.

It seems that a sizeable number of funders are more thoughtfully seeking long-term, deep social changes, requiring the tactics of social movement funding. An admirable goal, foundations should be prepared for a very long-term, difficult-to-define, ever-evolving journey.