This is how philanthropic institutions and social movements can work together effectively


Huub Schreurs


After reading the latest issue of Alliance magazine, I note a lot of concern on both sides to achieve effective forms of cooperation, mainly due to stereotyped perceptions and prejudices. It is time to overcome them, to acknowledge that there are common interests and to find new ways to collaborate. The programmatic approach offers a highly dynamic framework for joint action.

While social movements are booming everywhere and there is an increasing awareness among philanthropic institutions of their potential to achieve social change, the two worlds have a hard time to find each other. For a variety of reasons.

The  June issue shows that both sides do not know each other, due to mutual stereotyped perceptions. Just as the one assumes that philanthropic institutions always want to keep control over agendas, the other tends to see a social movement as a nebulous and unstructured phenomenon. Just as the one has mistrust of established institutions, the other does not believe in a movement’s long-term effectiveness.

Yet, it is somewhat peculiar that two parties that together make up the mainstay of civil society,  have remained strangers to each other for so long. It is time to recognize their common interests, like indeed recapturing the civic space that is shrinking in so many countries.

Certainly, social movements would impose unambiguous and clear demands on cooperation, but the real hampering factor is that those in the vanguard of movements are not familiar with the culture and practices of philanthropic institutions. As, on the other side, many philantropic institutions find it extremely difficult to establish a modus operandi for collaboration with partners who operate in a highly non-formal setting. The traditional grantmaking and investment tools and associated single project methods don’ t comply with the complexity and unique configurations of social movements. It is time, indeed, to rethink funding strategies.

The quest is for a way of thinking and acting that meets requirements and preconditions for collaboration set by both sides. I refer to a line of thought that calls for a highly dynamic program concept well suited to helping to shape transition processes in a structural manner and to playing a crucial role in initiating broadly conceived processes of social change. Contentwise guided by a particular development paradigm or theme, the concept calls for a comprehensive and multifunctional program approach devised and pursued in close collaboration with a diverse group of actors.

The concept concurs with many points raised by various parties in the June issue. A few examples  just to illustrate.

I would advise to consider, for example, the intermediary resource development program model as it  equals a ‘self-organising system’ andfurthers equity in the relationships. While enabling movement agents to hold the reigns during the entire process, the model would allow funders ‘to act as amplifiers of movements’ by helping to ‘conceptualise customised programs’ and to build bridges with key players outside the movement.

Funders learn from such programs ‘to operate with longer-term horizons and in fluid contexts’, as it would grant them an opportunity to educate social movements how to think and grow beyond momentum, e.g. by putting more structure and finetuning into their actions.

Intermediary program constructs would not force social movement stakeholders to become part of a formal entity of whatever kind and, at the same time, leave philanthropic institutions with the option ‘to fund  social movements through a formal organisation acting as a fiscal agent for an unregistered group’.

I am convinced, based on my own experiences, that such program concepts could help to align the world of social movements and philanthropy and thus ‘bring formal and informal civic dynamics together’ to achieve a just world in new and innovative ways.

For those interested in this line of thought, please, check my website: It includes sections on the role of funding agencies and the relationship between program concepts and social movements.

Huub Schreurs is a former senior program specialist at the Bernard van Leer Foundation.

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