The global Corona pandemic might very well be the biggest crisis of our lifetime. The current situation has the potential to not only disrupt the status quo but to change our social, economic and political systems forever. It demands us to suspend great plans, focus on being present and think about what feels right in the current moment. As guest editors of Alliance’s June 2020 special feature on the relationship between philanthropy and social movements, we asked ourselves about funding social movements and alternative forms of organizing in a time of social distancing.
In the formal non-profit sector, as in-person interactions shrink to the very minimum, virtual spaces are expanding to make up for and offer new forms of creating ‘we-spaces’. Some issues, like rising CO2 emissions and air pollution, seem to have some respite as the economy slows down and demand for travel grinds to a halt. Other issues, like threats to civic rights, potentially aggravate as some governments resort to authoritarian measures such as phone surveillance to tackle the crisis. Also, inequality results in disproportionate effects of the crisis for precarious and poor populations and in fact is further exacerbated by it.
Social movements and community organizing mechanisms are more important than ever at this time. Where social and health systems crumble, mutual aid societies are being established and are in the position to quickly react. In some places, activists are mobilizing their networks and communities to assure that the opportunities arising from this historic moment do not go unused and that earlier demands (e.g. universal basic income) and practices (community supported agriculture) be translated to fit the current situation (pandemic emergency basic income, massive expansion of local supply chains). In other spaces, local organizing systems are coming together to explore how to support vulnerable populations; reaching out to those without the resources and safety nets to take the precautions that we, who are privileged, can take and playing crucial solidarity roles at a time where fear is the predominant factor.
There is a huge opportunity for foundations and wealth owners to be catalysts who help bring about a future in which we make use of these windows to tackle some of the social and environmental challenges that until a couple of weeks ago seemed so impossible to tackle at a systemic level. The Coronavirus might have just put the right amount of shock on the overall system to allow for this to happen. Therefore, instead of pausing operations to ‘return to normal once the crisis has passed’ foundations should realise now that this crisis will not just pass with several weeks of social distancing. Indeed, there are several positive signs from some Foundations about changing practice, but we need this to be significantly more widespread and longer-term.
Researchers already predict several months of emergency situations with repeated waves of infection rates rising and falling and lasting restrictions on international travel depending on the newest wave of the outbreak with all the associated social and economic effects. In such a scenario, for foundations and wealth owners to wait it out until your investment portfolio again generates returns to be spent on your pre-crisis philanthropic strategy is not the right course of action.
This is a call to foundations to make use of their privileged position that is largely unaffected by the current downturn: forget about your long-term strategy, be in the present, look around and spend your capital stock to support the range of civic action taking place where you are. Be flexible with your existing grantee partners whose activities will be severely affected but who need you the most right now. This is also the time to give new unrestricted core grants to trusted partners to support them in addressing the situation with their communities in the ways they see fit. Think about how to support community activists/groups and others who are doing important work in places that will see the most vulnerable and marginalized hit the hardest. Reach out to movements – many already have intricate systems of outreach to their constituencies – to see how you can help/support the efforts they are engaged within the response to this pandemic.
But don’t just stop at providing emergency support. Look for groups and activists that are working on turning the crisis into a motor for positive change, who are already building the online/other communities, micro-solidarity and mutual aid groups, those individuals and groups who are shaping the discourse to have all of us use this as an opportunity to re-evaluate who we are and what really matters.
Romy Krämer, Graciela Hopstein and Halima Mahomed are guest editors of Alliance’s June 2020 issue on philanthropy social movements