by Hardy MerrimanJanuary 10, 2019
An increasing number of human rights foundations focus on supporting movements and the grassroots. Definitions of these terms may vary, as do approaches.
Amidst this backdrop, I want to share some lessons learned from ICNC's Learning Initiatives Network (LIN) and Activist Education Grants programs. Consider this one of many reference points in the growing conversation about the role of funders in these areas.
In 2014, ICNC started its Learning Initiatives Network, which provided funding for projects that spread knowledge about nonviolent civil resistance (defined here) and movement organizing (defined here) in communities around the world. The goal was to build the skills and capacity of people to struggle for rights, freedom and justice.
The program had four steps:
LIN started as an outgrowth of numerous ICNC-organized educational institutes on civil resistance that drew international participants.
Over the years hundreds of people attended these convenings, and LIN was established to support alumni in carrying out their own educational projects (i.e., leading workshops, or developing a training manual or films on civil resistance) in their communities. The application process was competitive and funding per project ranged from approximately $6,000-$10,000.
The fact that every LIN applicant had already spent approximately a week of intensive learning with ICNC staff was very significant. It meant we had talked with applicants, seen them interact with others, and built trust in their judgment, abilities, and intentions prior to reviewing their application. This trust building was a significant front-end investment, and it served as the foundation of all future engagement with them.
The second step of the LIN program was to take all accepted LIN applicants (which ranged from 7 to 15, depending on the year) and engage in a two-month online learning program, developed by ICNC, in which they read, watched films, posted to an online classroom, shared their knowledge and experience, and offered feedback to each other. ICNC has always put emphasis on our staff building deep expertise in the field of civil resistance, so we offered the knowledge that we had, and listened to and learned from the participants.
This step had three benefits—it developed the skills and knowledge of the participants, built a small learning community of individuals that could support each other, and further strengthened relationships between ICNC and those we were funding.
This step happened concurrently with co-learning. Activists often learn best from other activists, and current LIN participants mentored each other. As the program grew, we also had past participants mentor current participants. Additionally, we drew from our broader network to try to connect LIN participants to the best knowledge, resources, and experts we could.
Most importantly, after two months of distance learning, we convened an in-person workshop with the entire LIN group from a given year for several days of face-to-face feedback, practice and simulations. This offered more opportunities for the participants to connect and mentor each other, and ensured they were all thoroughly prepared to carry out their projects.
Providing funding was the easy part. After the capacity, networks and trust built in the first three steps, we could offer support with great confidence. We often gave funding to people who had little or no experience applying for grants before, and who could not have met certain reporting requirements that might be required by other funders. It was worth the investment.
You can see a small sample of LIN projects here. There were 30 participants in total, in 22 countries, but most are not listed publicly. We do not promote the work of our grantees unless we have permission from them to do so, and some of them work in sensitive environments. In total LIN participants developed workshops, training manuals, and translations on civil resistance in 20 languages, and organized workshops that directly impacted over 3,000 people, with an estimated secondary reach of over 30,000 people. We evaluated LIN as one of the most impactful programs we have ever run.
Success brings its own challenges. After three years of running LIN, many LIN alumni wanted additional rounds of funding for their great work. We did not have the capacity to continue to fund alumni and simultaneously continue accepting new people to LIN every year. We chose to invest further in alumni and launched our Activist Education Grant program as the vehicle to do so. Because Steps 1-3 (above) were already accomplished for most of our Activist Education Grant recipients, the primary focus of these grants was providing continued funding from ICNC, as well as developing skills for grantees to diversify their funding sources in the future. You can see a sample of our 21 Activist Education Grant projects here.
I could write pages of reflections and lessons learned from both our LIN and our Activist Education Grants program, but since this is a blog post, I’ll make a list and try to be brief:
There is no substitute for a front-end investment in trust building, especially when working with the grassroots. It enables future possibilities to emerge.
As a private operating foundation that both runs our own programs and provides grants, ICNC was in a strong position to do this. A good step for any funder of grassroots groups is to continually evaluate whether their trust building process is sufficient.
Just as there is no substitute for trust building, there is also no substitute for investing in the skills, learning, and network building of grantees. This process can further strengthen trust, confidence and impact. Without exception, LIN participants said that the intensity of learning and sharing throughout the program was greatly beneficial to their work. Many relationships formed during this time, and numerous LIN grantees continue to be in touch. Some have also collaborated without any additional effort by ICNC.
The general consensus among human rights funders is that local communities know best what they need and that funders should defer to this local knowledge and control. We agree with this, but in practice we found great value in vigorous engagement and knowledge sharing with and by our grantees. Because ICNC invests in the training skills and subject matter expertise of our staff regarding how and why civil resistance works, we bring a lot of experience to the table, and thus we view all of our engagements with grantees as entailing significant exchange of ideas.
This approach works when our grantees trust us enough to give us feedback and speak candidly with us (trust, after all, is a two-way street). We also make sure that we recognize the limits of what we know, and accordingly set a policy that no ICNC staff person is authorized to give strategic advice to grantees (more on this and our other rules for engagement here). Our staff can share research, case studies, and insights that we’ve learned from other practitioners about how movements struggle and win, but applying this knowledge requires deep understanding of the local context, and therefore deference to local decision-making.
The cost of trust building, co-learning and connecting people to peers and mentors through LIN exceeded the actual amount of the grant at the end of the process. Multiple ICNC staff were also engaged in the LIN program and gave a large amount of time to it.
Therefore, it was expensive for ICNC to give away approximately $100,000 in $6,500 increments (as we did in 2016, for example). It would have been much cheaper for us to give that amount of money away to a few larger, more established organizations. But this was our approach to grassroots funding—as the title of this blog post states, “Small Grants, Big Commitment.”
In addition, the multiplier effect that Steps 1-3 in the LIN process had on our grantees’ impact (both in their LIN project and beyond) made these steps worthwhile. We may have been giving a $6,000-$10,000 grant at the end of the process, but the overall impact was far greater.
Grassroots and movement-oriented groups should be challenged to engage in monitoring and evaluation. However, we know that some very noble and effective local organizations deserve funding and do not have the capacity to deliver the kind of monitoring, evaluation, and reporting that some funders demand. Fortunately, because we invested in trust and relationship building with our grantees, we had confidence in them and could be more flexible in tailoring these requirements to our grantees’ needs and capacities.
The significant human resources, time, and program funding that the LIN program entailed could happen only because of broad alignment and commitment among people at different levels within ICNC. Accordingly, grantmaking to the grassroots will be much more effective if it is felt as a broad organizational commitment—shared among the Board, leadership and staff.
The staff, leadership, and Board at ICNC has confidence in our funding model and the embedded theory of change in our work. Research on civil resistance supports the premise that education in this field is important. Our experience as an organization reinforces our view that knowledge on this topic has intrinsic and ongoing value that can open new possibilities over time. This allows us to take a long-term view with our grantees, understanding that we may not always be able to determine clear causal impacts of a particular project in a given year.
Any grantmaking program is likely to result in a mix of success, ambiguous results, and failure. However, larger grantees may have the ability to provide numbers on paper that satisfy their funders, even if a particular project itself was not successful or impactful.
I’m not sure the probability of failure is any higher when working with the grassroots, but it may be harder for grassroots grantees to obscure failure with numerous other metrics and reporting requirements. Furthermore, if reporting lacks a large-scale monitoring and evaluation component, short-term impacts can sometimes seem ambiguous. Accordingly, a question for foundation Boards and leadership is what level of success, ambiguous results, and failure are you comfortable with if you work with the grassroots? If you give dozens of grants, how will you respond to a few anemic reports or projects that did not go as planned? If commitment to grassroots funding is shallow, will a few underperforming grants derail it?
Is more funding better? Our experience working with the grassroots is that there is not necessarily capacity to absorb large amounts of funding at once. In addition, external funding can potentially cause divisions within movements, and larger grants may increase this probability. Thus, our emphasis generally is on trying to provide better funding (more trustbuilding, a more grantee-friendly grantmaking process and reporting requirements, better educational and network building investments in grantees) rather than providing more funding. We recognize there are cases where larger grant sizes may be appropriate, but in general, we would question the assumption that larger grant sizes for the grassroots necessarily lead to proportionally larger impacts.
These are some of our experiences and lessons learned. Encapsulating them is the four-step LIN process of: 1. Trustbuilding; 2. Co-learning; 3. Connecting to peers and mentors; and 4. Funding. Beyond LIN, we also find these four steps to be a useful general framework that can be applied in a variety of programs. Some of our grantees have drawn on aspects of this model in their own civil resistance education projects.
We welcome the insights of other funders, and non-funders, who have different models for engaging the grassroots and supporting movements, and who may come to different conclusions. We don't feel we've found the way to do grassroots funding, but just a way. More healthy debate and exchange of ideas about how to be more impactful and responsible as funders is important. We owe this to those for whom the stakes are highest: the people who invest their lives in organizing on the ground and who trust us to support and partner with them in their efforts.
Hardy Merriman is President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), and led ICNC as President & CEO from 2015 until 2021. He has worked in the field of civil resistance for over 20 years, presenting at workshops for activists and organizers; speaking widely to scholars, journalists, and members of international organizations; and developing educational resources.Read More