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  • Writer's pictureJames Ozden

How philanthropists can support social movements - and why they must

It’s an exciting time for Social Change Lab as we’ve got a bunch of projects that are ready to be released, so watch this space! In this email, we’ve got a few announcements:

  • Our first-ever webinar, presenting the updated findings from our radical flank effect polling with Just Stop Oil

  • A new report by my colleague Cathy overviews the grassroots funding landscape, and how philanthropists can meaningfully support social movement organisations.

  • The applications for our Director role close on June 2nd. Please share this around with anyone who might be a good fit, or apply yourself!


Social Change Lab is organising our first webinar to discuss the (slightly updated) findings from our public opinion polling for a Just Stop Oil campaign in November 2022, looking at the impact of radical tactics within social movements. It will take place from 6-7pm BST on June 5th and we’ll have plenty of time for a Q&A at the end. Don't miss out and please invite anyone else who might be interested!


We’ve just released an exciting piece of work that my colleague Cathy has been working on: an overview of the grassroots movement funding landscape, addressing common barriers for funders and how they could meaningfully support grassroots organisations. We’ll put some highlights below, but encourage everyone to check out the concise report in full:

  • Activists remain underfunded and overlooked by most philanthropic funders. For example, of all the funding globally for human rights, just 3% went to grassroots organising. In the climate arena, ClimateWorks found that just 1% of European foundation giving went to grassroots and movement building.

  • A recent survey by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) asked US funders about the barriers as they saw them. 30% said that they saw law and policy reform as their priority, suggesting a misunderstanding of the role that social movement activism plays in achieving precisely that goal - in other words, this should be a reason for funder support rather than neglect. For example, our report on protest movement outcomes finds a consistent positive effect for protest influencing policy. Other barriers funders cited were administrative and safety concerns and a lack of understanding.

Given these barriers, we suggest a few practical ways how funders could meaningfully support grassroots organisations:

  1. Be willing to support unregistered organisations

  2. Accept that large-scale social change requires some risk

  3. Use appropriate frameworks to evaluate the impact of movement organisations

  4. Fund through an intermediary organisation to reduce risk

  5. Support movement infrastructure

  1. Be willing to support unregistered organisations

Supporting unregistered, informal grassroots organisations might require grantmakers to forgo or adapt some of their usual processes. Many activist groups lack legal status and formal structures; they often emerge rapidly due to societal events, or benefit from the flexibility of being unregistered. Funders can help practically by simplifying grant applications, helping organisations with proposals and offering support to informal and unregistered groups - or even, as funders such as Joseph Rowntree have, remove the stipulation that organisations be registered altogether. Participatory grantmaking, unrestricted grants and funding long term are all important considerations that require mutual trust and patience; new movement funders the Carmack Collective show what can be done when the will is there.

2. Accept that large-scale social change requires some risk

Funders vary in their appetite for risk. For example, determining the scope of what constitutes ‘charitable purposes’ is not black and white. While funding can go to activities which are completely legal such as recruitment, training, press support, education and capacity building, some organisations do take part in illegal activities. Funders will also have different attitudes to potential criticism from the media, another potential risk. For example, the fact that recent Just Stop Oil protests were partly funded by ‘Getty oil fortune heiress’ did not escape press attention. SMOs themselves also vary greatly in how overtly political they are and in the radicalism of their tactics and demands.

3. Use appropriate frameworks to evaluate the impact of movement organisations

And how can funders know whether their grantmaking is achieving its goals? There are several useful pointers to effectiveness, many of which will be familiar to funders: a well-articulated theory of change, appropriate governance and the ambition and organisational know-how to scale. There is also a slew of metrics to get at organisational breadth and depth - how many members, how deeply engaged - including the number and size of protest events and trainings, organisational growth (membership size, leadership development), outreach efforts and fundraising. The American Jewish World Service has developed a tool to help funders assess how well a social movement is achieving its goals. Organisations such as Social Change Lab can also give bespoke advice to funders based on their specific interests about SMOs they could support.

4.Fund through an intermediary organisation to reduce risk

Direct funding might still feel too risky or complicated for some. In this case, funders can give to a growing number of intermediate umbrella organisations which focus on mass mobilisation and grassroots activism. Some of these give specific reassurances regarding risk; for example, the Climate Emergency Fund can ‘take the risk for you’, and provide a “safe, legal and tax deductible way” to support the climate movement (they directly address many other funder concerns here). Other funder networks which pool donor funds to support grassroots activism include the Climate Justice Just Transition Collaborative, Global Greengrants Fund, Human Rights Funders Network, EDGE Funders Alliance and the Solidaire Network. The Guerilla Foundation, co-founded by Antonis Schwarz (a vocal advocate of a wealth tax and member of Millionaires for Humanity) has a funders circle of donors committed to funding activism; the foundation has become something of a poster child for radical grantmaking.

5. Support movement infrastructure

An alternative path is to support organisations that train, develop and build social movement infrastructure. Funding options here include the Momentum Community, Ayni Institute, Future Matters Project, Climate 2025, Social Change Agency and NEON. Funders can also support organisations like Pax Fauna and Social Change Lab who carry out research to support the development of the social movement and campaign funding ecosystem.


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