Occupy Philanthropy


Chet Tchozewski

Chet Tchozewski

Chet Tchozewski

The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Martin Luther King

In my last blog for Alliance I mentioned that organized philanthropy seldom effectively supports social movements because it doesn’t know about them, and when it does learn about them they are quickly dismissed for being too informal to meet the routine due diligence requirements of formal philanthropy. The dearth of foundation support for the Arab uprising and for Occupy Wall Street are two current examples. Many observers also believe that foundations typically avoid social movements because their demands frequently include social justice – a fundamental shift in power dynamics – that might be viewed unfavourably by elite wealthy donors.

But this donor reluctance may be gradually ‘bending toward justice’ – at least among a few visionary risk-tolerant foundations and thoughtful venture philanthropists with an emerging sense of enlightened self-interest. Donor networks in the US are now all buzzing with briefings on social movements. The Funders Network on Transforming the Global Economy recently held a briefing webinar with over 130 registered funders (to access a recording of the call, dial +1-712-432-3131 and enter the access code 16582297), published a valuable guide to funding the Occupy Wall Street movement, and now manages a listserv to provide daily updates.

Another good sign of a shift toward better funding for social movements is the Ford Foundation initiative – Philanthropy for Peace & Social Justice. This is a global network of philanthropy practitioners working to increase the impact of grantmaking for social justice and peace. One of the best general resources for foundations on funding social movements is a publication from the New World Foundation – it is also available from the French American Charitable Trust.

A few foundations have also stepped up to publicly proclaim that they are part of the 1% that supports the 99% – including the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation and the Quixote Foundation, and many others now seem to be considering how best to support the institutional structures that support the movement, and the public policy and education initiatives that the movement itself depends on in the complex formula for success.

According to an article in the Huffington Post, ‘over one third of US millionaires agree that “Occupy” protesters make a good and valid point,’ and even more remarkably some of these millionaires have actively pleaded with the US Congress to raise their taxes in a public campaign organized by ‘Patriotic Millionaires’.

Meanwhile, if donors had been able to visualize what 69-year-old Kalle Lasn, the founder and editor of Adbusters magazine, imagined when he first conceived of the Occupy Wall Street strategy last spring, they would have seen how a visionary social movement strategist conceptualized the emergence of a leaderless, self-organized movement that quickly evolved to capture the imagination of the world and frustrate authorities around the globe. According to a recent profile of the OWS movement by Mattathias Schuartz in New Yorker magazine, Lasn didn’t only have a vision of a movement, he had an uncanny sense of how to manage the cycle of resilience – the escalation and de-escalation of the protest in New York City while living on a 5-acre farm outside of Vancouver, British Columbia and being connected in real-time to street activists by phone and internet.

In November, after months of peaceful occupation of Zuccotti Park near Wall Street, the Mayor of New York, Michael Blumberg, suddenly ordered police to remove protesters. According to the New Yorker article, ‘The police had established a strict media cordon, blocking access from nearby streets. “It was a military-style operation,” he said. These words made Lasn think of the bloody uprising in Syria. He quickly decided that the apparent end of Zuccotti was not a tragedy but the latest in a series of crisis-driven opportunities, what he calls “revolutionary moments,” akin to the slapping of a Tunisian fruit vender. “I just can’t believe how stupid Bloomberg can be!” “This means escalation. A raising of the stakes. It’s one step closer to, you know, a revolution.’

Social movement funders need to build close relationships with, listen to, and learn to trust, strategic visionaries like Mr Lasn, an absentee leader of the leaderless.

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”Mohandas Gandhi

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

Tagged in: Arab spring Occupy Wall Street Social justice Social movements

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