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