The case for funding social movements


Cathy Rogers


When I started researching what makes social movements succeed, I thought the main questions would be about strategy and tactics, organisation, and planning. I hadn’t thought that an unexpectedly big barrier might be something much more basic: activists need money.

In a recent Alliance opinion piece, Dan Stein, founder of Giving Green, honestly described the shock he felt as an economist when he calculated that climate activism was many times more cost-effective than carbon offsets in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Activism has simply not been thought of in this way: as something that works. Yet we are living in mass mobilisation times – the number of protest movements trebled between 2006 to 2020. And despite attempts to curtail protest, in many cases, activists are winning, both on direct policy changes (like ending Covid lockdowns in China) and in changing public opinion (public concern for climate went up by 10 per cent in the UK after a period of Extinction Rebellion mass actions). It might be time to rethink protest funding.

In the complex ecosystem of social change, protest has a crucial and unique role: to change people’s minds about what is acceptable and what is possible. While insiders focus on what’s practical and achievable, social movements ‘change the political weather’; they make the previously unthinkable first thinkable and then conventional wisdom. Just think of how attitudes to marriage equality have completely changed over a few short decades. The determined efforts by activists to shift social and cultural assumptions allow those ‘on the inside’ (political lobbyists, litigators) to take the momentum and run with it, converting it into tangible policy changes. Looking back through this lens, social movements and grassroots activists are nearly always undervalued because their ends are less visible, less measurable, and often longer-term than inside-track approaches. But the wins wouldn’t happen without them.

Yet activists remain underfunded and overlooked by most philanthropic funders. For example, of all the funding globally for human rights, just 3 per cent went to grassroots organising. In the climate arena, ClimateWorks found that just 1 per cent of European foundation giving went to grassroots and movement building. Even within cause areas, there is a huge funding imbalance to different players, with grassroots mass movements invariably losing out. In the climate movement, Extinction Rebellion, probably the best-known climate protest organisation, had an annual income of around £750k in 2019/2020, while Greenpeace International’s income in the same period was £75 million – a hundred times as much. The Sunrise Movement in the US is better funded – but still gets a tiny fraction of the funds going to big charities such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Yet activists need money for trainings, to pay stipends to retain key volunteers, for mobilisation materials like flyers and for legal costs. Consistent funding allows them to build up to and exploit the momentum of ‘trigger events’ which push their issue to the foreground.

So why is there a funding blindspot? A recent survey by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) asked US funders what they saw as the barriers. 30 per cent said that their priority was law and policy reform (though as we’ve seen, mass mobilisation could be instrumental in achieving this). Many also said that administrative barriers, safety concerns and a lack of understanding played a role. 

It’s true that funders often lack direct contacts within movements and might not know who to fund. They might feel outside their comfort zone, being more at home with ‘insider’ approaches through advocacy or law. There can be an element of risk – in terms of reputation, say, if disruptive actions lead to negative media coverage, or in risks to charitable status. And administrative hurdles, such as grantees being required to have the sort of formalised structures which activist organisations often lack, can make for complex logistics. We believe all these problems are surmountable and that overcoming them could offer an important pathway to change. Here are some suggestions which we hope will inspire funders who want to take the plunge:

History has repeatedly shown the importance of mass mobilisations and grassroots collective action in changing society’s views – on women’s rights, on racial justice, and on climate change. The groundwork done by mass movements changes the political climate so that more visible wins become possible: advocacy groups can now get the attention of policymakers; legal cases are more likely to be won. 

But activism is hard work. Changing people’s minds takes time, commitment, tenacity, a thick skin, courage, confidence, and energy. And cash.

Cathy Rogers is a Research Consultant at Social Change Lab.

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