by Benjamin Naimark-RowseSeptember 07, 2022
ICNC will be hosting a special report launch for Dollars and Dissent by the author of this post, Benjamin Naimark-Rowse, on September 13. Click here to register.
From 2011 to 2018, public charities and private foundations gave only 3 percent of their total human rights funding to support grassroots organizing and nonviolent movements. Yet, we live in an era when people around the world are using nonviolent collective action to achieve rights, justice, and democracy more than ever before.
Nonviolent movements are not only ubiquitous, they are also effective. Scholarship finds that nonviolent collective action has been twice as effective as violence at achieving revolutionary movement goals. And political transitions initiated through nonviolent action have been three times as likely to lead to democracy as political transitions initiated through all other means.
Why does such a small percentage of human rights funding support grassroots organizing and nonviolent movements? Why and how have some donors chosen to support the work of grassroots organizers and nonviolent social movements? What can we learn from their experiences?
A forthcoming, ICNC-supported special report, Dollars and Dissent opens the black box of donor decision-making. It brings to light common tensions donors have faced when considering support for grassroots organizing and movements in the world’s closing and closed spaces. It assists donors seeking to deepen their understanding of whether, when, where, and how to support the work of grassroots organizers and social movements, especially in the world’s closed and closing spaces. And it offers actionable principles and practices that donors can adopt and adapt to better support the work of organizers and movements. It does so through in-depth interviews with donors and grantees, an electronic survey of donors, and case studies of two donors, Humanity United and the American Jewish World Service.
The goals of nonviolent movements intersect with the priorities of a wide range of donors. Throughout history, movements have been central to shifting norms and laws related to women’s and LGBTQI+ rights, ending wars and securing peace, opening entire regions to democracy, expanding electorates, achieving social and economic justice, and provoking individuals’ imaginations of what is politically possible in their societies.
For some of us, for much of our lives, it was easy to think of democracy as something we had and could rely on. Yet, rising authoritarianism around the world has laid bare the fact that democracy is not something one “has.” Democracy is something one does. It requires constant practice and support.
As donors, we often seek to support and measure outcomes such as democracy. Yet, my forthcoming report suggests that instead of supporting and holding grantees accountable for achieving democracy as an end, it may be more effective to support and hold grantees accountable for the means used to achieve or defend democracy.
It is possible to support and measure democracy as a practice. Donors have supported physical and digital spaces for organizers to convene, develop relationships, and collaborate. They have supported trainings in leadership development, strategic planning, public narrative, and nonviolent discipline. And they have supported resiliency, as well as legal and physical protection for organizers. These are just a few examples of the support that movements seek, that are measurable, and that have proven effective at fostering movements.
When donors support organizers and movements in the spirit of solidarity, they aren’t just helping to build political power. They are also fortifying activists’ agency over their own lives. Such a positionality has the side effect of helping donors avoid the uncomfortable position of having to determine if a grantee successfully led their country to democracy with a $250,000 multi-year, core operating grant.
As three philanthropists put it, “…movements serve as expressions of local agency. If our goal is systemic change so that people can claim agency, then we need to see support for movements (and other alternative organizing) […] as important civic spaces in their own right.” In sum, as a staff person at a public charity told me in an interview, “Movements are your funding strategy.”
A growing body of research shows that these movements win primarily because of what they do within their country, not because of the support they get from outside their country. They win by building power and legitimacy within their communities. This includes organizing and mobilizing mass participation from diverse sectors of their society. Moreover, organizers and movement leaders often come from historically excluded communities. And they operate under the threat of repression. This makes them the experts in the struggles and needs of their society. So, in addition to abiding by the principle of do no harm, donors should:
Whereas the success of formal civil society organizations depends largely on a small number of experts, lawyers, and advocates, the main way movements win is by increasing levels of mass participation in their society. Movements succeed through mass collective action.
When donors offer conflicting support, when support leads to competition among organizers, or when grantmaking decisions select winners and losers, then donors are creating collective action problems. The very support intended to foster collective action, hinders it.
Philanthropy is an expression of donors’ power. So as donors consider whether, when, where, and how to support the work of grassroots organizers and social movements, it is important to focus not only on supporting the processes that lead to more just and democratic power relationships within a society, but also on how to shift power in their relationships with grantees. Likewise, it is important for donors to stand in solidarity with organizers and movements, to do no harm in the process, to be transparent about and learn from mistakes, and to keep showing up in moments of failure just as in moments of success.
Ben Naimark-Rowse is a Topol Fellow in Nonviolent Resistance at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston, USA). His expertise on social movements and resourcing of movements draws on two decades of work with movements, scholars, NGOs, and donors.Read More