A funder’s guide to direct action

Rowena Young

Last summer, the Camp for Climate Action was dominating newspaper headlines. All with no formal organization, no staff and no budget to speak of. But the corridors at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship were silent. I imagine the sight of thousands of protesters occupying a field outside Heathrow airport may well have caused many in the social entrepreneurship field to shudder. Pamela Hartigan, one prominent cheerleader, once commented, ‘Social entrepreneurs are … too practical to be placard-carrying types.’

Last summer’s show-stopper demonstrated how mistaken this view is. Participating in the Camp and the autumn debriefs, I witnessed the best designed and executed attempt at systemic change I had seen during my tenure at the Skoll Centre.

Robust action

Climate Campers illustrated all that is good about taking aspirations for change to the streets. Participants used consensus-based decision-making to try to:

  • Establish air travel as a major target of action to reduce carbon emissions, and see an end to airport expansion, a drop in short-haul flights and the introduction of fuel taxes.
  • Demonstrate that low-impact living is a viable alternative to a slash-and-burn economy. Supplies were bought locally and transported on bikes and in wheelie bins.
  • Provide a programme of sustainability education. Workshops ran all day on topics like decentralized energy policy.
  • Build the climate action movement. The camp linked long-standing local community groups with radicals like Plane Stupid and household names like Greenpeace.

Did they succeed? Achievement of the second and third goals is self-evident. On the first, the Camp represented a peak of activity among many actions before and since, but if you take all these activities together, they do appear to be making inroads. Before Plane Stupid staged a sermon on the taxiway at East Midlands airport in September 2006, the then Secretary of State for Transport threw his papers up in the air with exasperation when asked to climate-proof his department’s policies. Today, they are working on it. The public mood has also changed. National newspaper journalists are calling for an ultra-fast north-south rail to help cut demand for short-haul flights, while a recent Populus survey reported 65 per cent of British people as saying they would consider travelling by rail or sea for holidays while 70 per cent will try to stay domestic.

Some outcomes are attributable, others less clear-cut. But it’s fair to say this small band of people have created the space for ministers, NGOs, businesses and citizens to accelerate their role in tackling what is arguably the most important issue of our times.

On the fourth goal of movement-building, one measure of success is that while none of the UK environmental NGOs had an aviation specialist before the high-profile anti-aviation actions, they all have them now. The impact was also felt internationally, with Climate Camps planned for 2008 in Germany and Australia.

New traditions

As with any social change strategy, there are dead-ends as well as successes. One strategy will not be suited to every task, or necessarily effective in isolation. But even a cursory glance at history reminds us that direct action has a noble track record as an instigator of social change. The early 20th century suffrage movement in the UK resulted in specific groups being granted voting rights, while the US civil rights movement finally led to enfranchisement for America’s Black citizens. Gandhi’s satyagraha movement heralded the end of the British Raj. The 1970s peace movement was instrumental in America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.

The Camp for Climate Action is just the most recent illustration of the efficacy of direct action in shocking us out of complacency. This time its outcomes are not rights but new behaviours, facilitated by regulatory changes. Its enemies are also its allies: it embodies a belief that all of us have a role to play in restoring environmental equilibrium. It’s not hard to see how a proliferation of climate action groups globally could hasten the sense of urgency that will be required to spur the institutional arrangements needed to respond to so pervasive a problem.

So why aren’t charitable foundations and individual donors playing a more active role in cultivating today’s social movements and the campaigns that kick-start and sustain them? I see three sets of problems, and avenues for progress.

Why to fund: identity and risk

Activists are usually most critical of the incumbents of power. They seek either to change the system that rewards them or to shame the worst offenders into adopting new practices that will influence their peers. This is deeply uncomfortable for the founders and guardians of foundations and individual donors. Both are symptomatic of excess wealth and operate in networks of the powerful. Direct action brings them face to face with painful critiques of their position. Were they to embrace this paradox – and none are unaware of it – they fear their legitimacy will be eroded.

They are right in identifying these risks, but the problems are not insurmountable. In fact, the best way to tackle them is from the ground up. Anyone can participate in direct action groups and I would encourage funders to start here. Among Climate Campers, yes, I met anarchists, but I also heard a collective voice which kept moderating ideological prejudices with a persistent concern for what will actually inculcate change. I anticipate foundation staff would find the constraints of their roles well understood. Funders will need to be ready to discuss their role publicly, but the risks can be managed.

How to fund: control and downward accountability

Another problem is that many direct action groups are not legally constituted. Most British foundations can support any charitable cause, but in practice look for the comfort of a charitable entity. Perhaps there’s room for give and take here. Direct action groups could establish non-profit arms, much like Earth First, which provides capacity-building in participatory decision-making to environmental activists. Alternatively, donors could learn to give money – the amounts are modest – to informal networks, given their open accountability. The problem here is as likely one of capacity and lack of experience of delegation to frontline staff. The third possibility is to fund through intermediaries – the Urgent Action Fund-Africa and Global Greengrants Fund are well-tested international examples.

What to fund: supporting voluntarism

Direct action groups turn out to be much like other voluntary groups. Given that many members are time rich and cash poor, help with travel and childcare costs will be welcome, as will help with infrastructure and project costs, including databases, mobile phones, meeting venues, props and artwork. Education, outreach and capacity-building represent the bulkier costs, and legal aid is under-supported – at the risk of leaving individuals isolated and vulnerable. There is also a need for R&D on new repertoire. The Church for Stop Shopping (professionally trained opera singers), for example, is demonstrating the value of new ways to reach apathetic audiences. The idea is not to fund the voluntarism that drives the movement but to remove the costs of practical barriers.

Rowena Young is Director, Social Innovation and Finance, at NESTA, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. She was formerly founding Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University. Email Rowena.Young@nesta.org.uk

NESTA welcomed direct action groups to its Big Green Challenge, a £1 million challenge prize for community action on climate change.


Comment Joss Garman

It’s incredible what some drama, colour and human interest stories can do. As Rowena Young highlights, peaceful direct action adds all this and more to what are often dull, techie yet critical issues like climate change.

It’s difficult for even the most well-meaning journalist or politician to keep talking about ‘growth trajectories’, ‘parts per million’ and ‘tipping points’. People tend not to respond to preachy men in suits. Put a Baptist minister and 20 young, passionate activists on an airport taxiway, on the other hand, as Plane Stupid did in September 2006, and you force an imminent threat from airport expansion right to the top of the political and media agenda.

Just as the anti-roads movement of the 1990s succeeded in bringing together different interests to form a broad church of resistance – ‘Middle Englanders’, tunnel-dwelling eco-activists and national NGOs – so Plane Stupid activists have been youthful enough to engage students and radicals and sufficiently eloquent to connect with and complement the work of residents’ groups and NGOs.

Our campaigning has undoubtedly been effective. Eighteen months and a few creative direct actions later, you can’t open a newspaper without encountering a raging debate about the impact of air travel. Green taxes and other measures are beginning to present a threat to aviation growth. The air industry is fighting back with injunctions, PR campaigns and intense lobbying. The proposed third runway at Heathrow is now far from a done deal.

We’ve achieved this with no formal structure or leadership. We’re somewhere between being a respected NGO and a bunch of randoms. I’ve no doubt that is our strength but it is also our weakness. We don’t have sufficient capacity to respond to all the inquiries and opportunities that come from supporters and the media. Donors prefer to fund specific projects rather than essential necessities like professional activists’ time. That presents some fairly fundamental difficulties!

We have, however, garnered support from funds like Artists Project Earth and the Network Foundation as well as from individuals and from Lush, the high street cosmetics chain. Our minuscule budget is spent on everything from fines resulting from our actions to paint for banners and travel expenses to give seminars at universities. What exists now is an informal network of hundreds of people prepared to put themselves in front of plans for new runways.

Joss Garman was co-founder of Plane Stupid. http://www.planestupid.com
He now works as a climate campaigner for Greenpeace UK. Email joss@planestupid.com

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