Investing in community organising nourishes social movements from the ground up


Martha Mackenzie


In the wake of our collective global reckoning with racial and economic justice two years ago, Alliance magazine asked how philanthropy can best support social movements to win change.

But two years on – we face yet another critical juncture. Prices and temperatures are rising, destroying lives in the present and threatening our future.

In this moment of urgency, philanthropy is once again wondering how to respond. 

For as long as we’ve been asking this question, one answer has remained steadfast: invest in community organising as the route to authentic and sustainable movements.

Why fund organising? 

Organising brings people who share a problem together to win change that matters to them. It is a transformative practice because of three core principles. 

1. Self-determination

Affected communities have led every successful movement in history. 

Winning systemic change takes time. We turn up and turn out for the long haul when our own rights and those of the people we love are under threat.  

Organising’s grounding in self-interest and authentic leadership thus makes it a uniquely sustainable route to change. When media momentum wilts, these deep community roots grow. 

2. People power 

Building a sustainable base of people power is the only way to challenge the status quo. 

Or as union organiser and scholar Jane Mclevey puts it: ‘the only concrete advantage ordinary people have over elites is numbers.’

This process rests on communities being aware of both how the system works against them, and their capacity to do something about it.

Organising combines a grounding in self-determination with deep knowledge of power and how to build, wield, and influence it. 

3. Solidarity

This base of people-power starts with communities of self-interest. But to win change, we must build solidarity beyond our base. 

Organising encourages us to listen to each other, build reciprocal relationships, and find common cause in the pursuit of change.

Hahrie Han describes this as: ‘developing people’s… sense of their own agency, and their loyalties to one another.’

By combining these principles, community organising transforms our communities, and the systems that shape our lives (Tamber, 2022).

Racial justice is the most potent example of this. From Abolition to Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter, Black communities have organised personal passion, strategic vision, and wide coalitions to build movements for change.

Given this, organising should be a cornerstone of our support for social movements. 

Yet despite some pioneering funder practice, we are not seeing a collective resource shift towards communities organising for their rights. 

What needs to change?

This is particularly pronounced in the UK. Recent analysis by the Civic Power Fund and The Hour Is Late found that only 2.3 per cent of UK social justice funding goes towards community organising. This equates to just 0.04 per cent of all UK foundation giving. 

If we are serious about winning change, we must change this.

Not only is this a justice issue; oppressed communities should be the drivers of their own liberation. It is also a strategy issue; it is this base of people-power that sustains winning social movements (Center for Economic Democracy, 2022). 

Back in June 2020 pan-African feminist Theo Sowa urged that ‘it is not philanthropy’s role to seed movements, but to support those that emerge’. 

By funding grassroots organising, philanthropy can ensure these seeds have soil from which to grow. 

Sadaf Shallwani of Firelight argued just last month that we need to move towards a solidarity mindset.

Funding community organising gives us a toolbox to do this.

It requires taking the time to find and know groups. It means ceding power and control to them. It means measuring impact based on accountability to communities. It means relinquishing issue silos and following the lead of communities. And it means investing for the long haul, so groups can plan, grow, and adapt. 

At the Civic Power Fund, we are using an intermediary model to encourage this practice. 

By pooling resources behind movement-led governance, each penny not only goes further but is accountable to the communities it serves. 

And by investing in grassroots organising, we hope our funding nourishes social movements from the ground up – moving us beyond moments of crisis to the deep roots of justice.

Martha Mackenzie is the Executive Director of the Civic Power Fund, a new pooled donor fund investing in grassroots community organising. 

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