From Talk to Action: Behind a Call for Funders to Back Social Movements

Monday, June 3, 2019

A decade ago, when the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) published a report called “Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best,” not everyone was thrilled. In a recent op-ed, NCRP president Aaron Dorfman recounts that the paper “had more than a few people aghast.” The gist of the report? That funders should do things like provide general support, fund underserved communities, back advocacy and maintain transparency. Dorfman says, “I'm pretty sure that if we released the report today, few would bat an eyelash. What’s changed?”

A lot, it turns out. There’s been a mainstreaming of progressive discourse across much of the foundation world, pushing the sector to become more diverse, less elitist, and better attuned to the needs of front-line organizations. Moreover, since the 2016 election, many funders have stepped up in new ways to back advocacy groups, including with rapid-response grants and much-coveted general support funding.

But according to the folks at NCRP—who make it their business to study these trends—the money still has a long way to go to catch up with the rhetoric. “Why is it that dollars aren’t following discourse?” said Timi Gerson, vice president and chief content officer at NCRP. “It’s critical that funders understand movements and the role they play in social change.”

Along with colleagues Ryan Schlegel and Stephanie Peng, Gerson is co-author of a new brief from NCRP examining how foundations have supported—and failed to support—the pro-immigrant movement. The brief is the first publication of a new initiative for NCRP, the Movement Investment Project. As the name implies, the aim is to attract more philanthropic resources to social movement organizations, in this case, movements working toward progressive goals. 

"Big questions are being asked about what kind of country we will be,” Gerson said. “History tells us that forward motion on social issues in this country comes about through movements, and funders have urgent opportunities and a role to play.”