Funding unexpected political opportunity – Occupy Wall Street


Chet Tchozewski

Chet Tchozewski

Chet Tchozewski

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has captured the imagination of the world, or at least the part of the world that’s online or in lower Manhattan. As a social change movement OWS is as spontaneous and self-organized as it gets, but some believe that it lacks the political sophistication, imaginative tactics and organizational skills necessary to actually succeed in fostering large-scale social change – the kind of social norm shift that goes beyond policy change to a value shift that permanently redistributes financial wealth and social power.

What role has philanthropy played in the emergence of this important social phenomenon? Almost none, as far as I can tell. Apart from a few foundations that have emerged from previous social movements, foundations today avoid, and are avoided by, social change movements because they’re ‘too messy’. Witness OWS. Occupy Wall Street so far has raised less than US$500,000 in cash.

Why does philanthropy avoid movements? First, they never see them coming. Second, organized philanthropy is much too risk-averse, mistrusting, slow and unresponsive to rapidly changing circumstances. Emergent movements know this instinctively and avoid dependence on philanthropy for the resources necessary for rapid evolution.

According to social movement scholars, historical evidence suggests that social movements succeed most often when they can create or identify political opportunity, and respond to it quickly and effectively. This kind of opportunity is rare, but decisive. Therefore social movement leaders need to have preexisting networks of trusting relationships – a virtuous circle of high social capital – that enables them to adapt quickly when they suddenly face a worthwhile unexpected political opportunity.

Philanthropy is notoriously mistrustful, slow and unadaptive – and therefore not much help when it comes to capitalizing on unexpected political opportunity such as the surprisingly rapid rise of Occupy Wall Street.

Apart from those few foundations designed specifically to empower social movements to respond with financial resources when opportunity strikes, perhaps the best thing for philanthropy to do to capture enduring social value from the OWS movement is to focus its customary slow response on strengthening the institutional core of the institutions that kept the lights until this opportunity presented itself – what scholars call the ‘mobilizing structures’ of a movement – formal organizations and semiformal structures such as NGOs, community groups, unions and alternative media.

Do you think philanthropy can learn to effectively support social change movements and become more trusting of the complex shifting political alliances necessary for success? If so, how?

Chet Tchozewski is the founder and a board member of Global Greengrants Fund

Tagged in: Occupy Wall Street Social change Social movement

Comments (3)

Mercy Nduku

i am very grateful with the contribution of everyone on these important topics of global concern. I would wish to say that environmental justice and economic change are synonymous and run hand in hand, however, very little has been achieved in spite of greater effort and big spending. This i associate with the BIG MAN syndrome which has affected us all world over. Funders are free only to give their money to organizations with big names to carry out projects across the world while ignoring the very small and poorly facilitated community organization in the rural which are directly affected and involved in the designing of the interventions. We have developed mistrust and allowed the kingdom of darkness and mistrust to overcome our thinking and decide the fate of the world. Risk management is a term we hardly associate with our success, we want risk free initiatives while not knowing that the millions we continue to give to the big organizations are spend in hotels during seminars and make very limited impact on the target projects. Have we ever asked why until today, the world has spend over 3 trillion on poverty eradication while upto know the world poor continues to grow? Most of these big organizations are managed by power elites through their sycophants, relatives and friends who are secretly placed there to serve their interest, they lack even the slightest understanding of the real problem. CRESED Foundation which was started by poor rural youths in Kenya has succeeded without funding to establish a tuition free vocational training Institute where today 580 young people are making their lives. The Institute which depends on volunteers is true testimony of the power of the poor to change things if they are directly involved without obstacles placed by the BIG MAN disease. The foundation which has currently launched a three years campaign to help save lake Victoria is slowly succeeded in this campaign without funds while UN through government of Kenya has spend billions of shillings and nothing has been achieved due to corruption and none involvement of the locals who are using the lake. Carrying an environmental professor from Japan , USA,UK or elsewhere in the world to Kenya may not translate to success but using a local person from within the lake has worked for our foundation. The world environment risk to deteriorate even further because the world powers have succeeded i n luring the philanthropic community to their political game and funds are now channeled through them. These funds are misused to make few people extremely richer while 98% continues to languish in poverty. Poverty and growing unemployment among youths will send the whole world to the gallows and not even the rich will survive.

Charlie Bernstein

Yes! Shake 'em loose! This is an exciting historic moment, and a wonderful opportunity for funders. So glad to see Vic weighing in here. The Noyes Foundation is a real inspiration to the many (though not enough, never enough) foundations dedicated to systemic change. Here at Maine Initiatives, we made a $1,000 grant in early November to Occupy Maine. And like the Noyes Foundation, we also (at a smaller scale because we're a smaller foundation) fund many of the organizations that are advancing the Occupy movement's cause of social, economic, and environmental justice. Chet's pessimism about foundations has After all, most were created to remember the founder, not to uproot the economic system that created the founder's fortune. But organizations take on lives of their own when their founders are gone. While most foundations are run by people driven by a vision of a just society, the movement for change is, for many of them, simply uncharted territory or - worse - its imperatives are lost in a labyrinth of long-standing program commitments. Foundation staff, board members, and consultants who want to learn more about the nuts, bolts, mission, and language of funding systemic change, abundant resources are available. Here are a few: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy ( Neighborhood Funders Group ( Alliance for Justice ( Funders Committee for Civic Participation ( Interfaith Funders (www.interfaith

Vic De Luca

I think more funders need to do a site visit at their nearest Occupy site. When I visited Liberty Square (Zuccotti Park) in New York’s financial district I saw the passion, the energy and the will to make change. People are expressing their anger at an intertwined economic and political system that disproportionately represents the interests of global corporate power and the wealthy rather than average people – the 99 percent. The Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation made a $5,000 general support grant to Occupy Wall Street. We think the more people that talk about, and take action on these issues; the more likely it will be that positive steps are taken toward bringing about real change in the fight for economic and environmental justice. We want to be part of that action. Our grant is not large but it represents our belief that change needs to occur and it is best achieved from the ground up. Spend some time there and hopefully you will go back to your foundation and shake a few dollars loose for the Occupies.

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