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Social Movement Digest #7: Why don't funders support grassroots groups?

We’ve been a bit quiet recently, mainly because we have lots of projects on the go right now! Some exciting things coming up or that have happened recently:

  • We’re polishing up the manuscript of our Just Stop Oil radical flank effect work to publish academically - watch this space! (Although we expect publication to take a while yet)

  • Relatedly, James just presented this upcoming paper at the Climate Protest & Resistance workshop organised by the University of Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

  • We’re speaking at EAGxNordics in Stockholm (April 21-23rd) about some of our recent research – come listen if you’re around!

  • Faunalytics, an animal advocacy research non-profit, did a summary version of our protest outcomes report – worth checking out!

  • James did an interview with the Morning Star newspaper which covers some of our recent research, the reasons behind why Social Change Lab was founded, as well as reflections on the strategies of XR.

In terms of current projects, we’ve got a few key things we’re working on:

  1. An expert survey covering social movements and protests with key scholars who work on political science, sociology, psychology and more – launching very soon!

  2. An experiment looking at the public opinion impact of various kinds of disruptive climate protest, done in collaboration with the Polarisation and Social Change Lab at Stanford

  3. Analysis of the social movement funding landscape, including looking at why donors may not support activist groups and how they can do so in ways that reduce risk.

  4. Additional analysis for our April 2022 polling for Just Stop Oil, as well as getting it ready for academic publication

  5. Public opinion polling for the upcoming disruptive campaign organised by Animal Rising (formerly, Animal Rebellion)


Without further ado, here is some interesting social movement-related news and research from the past month.


Top Recommendations

  • A great article on funding grassroots movements, titled Donors Leery of Supporting Grassroots Organizing Need to Rethink How They Approach Such Work. Based on this extensive report, the author, Ben Naimark-Rowse highlights how institutional funders need to adapt their approach to funding grassroots activism (of all the funding globally for human rights, just 3% went towards grassroots organising!). Some notable points why traditional foundations might not fund social movement work relative to their impact:

    • Evaluating social movement on the wrong outcomes: “Yet the greatest power of movements is, arguably, not their ability to achieve policy reforms but their potential to shift the types of policies, practices, and values that are acceptable to most people. Changing norms about racism or inequality may be harder and far less concrete than providing laptops to kids, but that doesn’t mean such work should go unsupported.”

    • A lack of understanding and experience within grassroots organising: “Most foundation decision-makers have backgrounds in areas such as advocacy, law, and philanthropy — not grassroots organizing or movement building. In short, it’s easier for donors to support the people and approaches they’re familiar with. “

(Graph using data from the report, made by my colleague Cathy).


And how they can adapt their processes to better evaluate and support social movement organisations:

  • Loosening requirements on organisational status: “Requiring grantees to formally register as 501(c)(3) organizations or the equivalent makes many grassroots and movement organizations ineligible because they are often decentralized and organized outside of formal institutions by strategic choice. Ironically, as my research shows, it is exactly these informal characteristics that help make movements effective.”

  • New measurement and evaluation frameworks: “Instead of measuring whether grants lead to a particular policy reform, donors can measure important movement characteristics such as leadership development, coalition building, recruitment and retention of volunteers, and strategic planning.” Such as the rubric by AJWS, on how to evaluate the strength of different social movement organisations.

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  • A new study looking at the impacts of the 2019 Extinction Rebellion UK protests has just been released, titled: Do protests influence environmental attitudes? Evidence from Extinction Rebellion.

    • This study, using data from a large-scale survey of 30,000 people that was underway at the time of the XR protests, looks at the impact of the April 2019 Rebellion on various environmental attitudes. The headline findings are roughly as follows:

    • “Responding after the protest also appears to improve attitudes towards climate policy. Specifically, the protest is related to a 5.6 percentage point decrease in the probability of opposing climate change policy” – this is worded somewhat bizarrely due to the way the questions were asked but in essence, it seems to show significantly increased support for climate policies after the protest.

    • Interestingly, they also find that ”exposure to the XR campaign decreases the probability respondents are willing to pay extra for environmentally friendly goods by 12.6 percentage points”. The authors attribute this somewhat contradictory finding to the fact that XR had a strong “systems change” focus, rather than a focus on individual behaviour and consumption. As a result, people exposed to the protests might have internalised this messaging as expecting the government to do more whilst themselves to do less.

    • They also note that “Finally, we do not find evidence that the protest is associated with changing perceptions about the severity, or imminence of environmental crises, and climate change impacts.” which is also interesting as it somewhat contradicts another study from the same April 2019 campaign (see this pre-print from Ben Kenward and Cameron Brick). In essence, this paper by Kenward & Brick (and YouGov polling) suggests that environmental concern did increase over the course of the April 2019 XR protests.

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  • Interesting research on the intention-behaviour gap within climate activism and the importance of social identification – see a helpful Twitter thread from the author, Laura Thomas-Walters, here. Some key points:

    • Identification with a social movement is a predictor of actual engagement (e.g. attending a protest). Somewhat obvious but underlines the importance of having a broad and diverse movement that many people can relate to.

    • A common qualm of survey research (including ours) is that people may express intention to take collective action, but they might not actually do so. Here, the authors tested people’s intentions against their actual behaviour and found that found 50% of the participants were inclined abstainers, i.e., they expressed intentions to take collective climate action despite not having performed any actions with XR so far.


Research

  • This paper, Making their Mark? How protest sparks, surfs, and sustains media issue attention, analysed television news coverage of over 1,277 protests in Belgium over 16 years, finds that (somewhat unsurprisingly) the protests can cause a significant increase in media attention to an issue. Interestingly, they find that this depends considerably on to what extent that topic is already gaining attention or has been covered in the media. Overall, the authors note that they think media cycles rather than elements of a protest might be more important for the understanding if a particular protest or campaign will lead to agenda-setting, or changing discourse more broadly in society. This highlights the importance of timing within campaigning with the authors saying that “protest agenda-setting is more a matter of exploiting discursive opportunities than of forcing one’s issue on the media agenda by signaling newsworthiness”. For a tangible (and obvious) example, a timely protest around COP28 may be better at generating and sustaining media attention towards a certain climate topic rather than during a time where the media is focused squarely on other issues, such as technology or AI.

The plot below also shows the different kinds of protest e.g. ones that cause sparks of media interest, ones that cause no additional interest (stagnants) as well as ones that sustain or surf existing attention!

  • In this next paper, Fossil fuel divestment and public climate change policy preferences: an experimental test in three countries, the authors test whether being exposed to information about corporate divestment would change public attitudes on climate policies or on fossil fuel companies. They find, to their surprise, little evidence that exposure to companies divesting actually impact public beliefs and policy support, even when manipulating how people were exposed to this information (e.g. lots of companies divesting vs only a few, high costs of divestment, etc.).

  • In some ways, I think this article does a good job at capturing the limitations of focusing too much on the public opinion impacts of campaigning. One plausible interpretation of this paper is that divestment campaigns might not lead to the stigmatisation of fossil fuel companies, as has been theorised, so they’re not particularly effective. However, I think this would also miss possibly the largest benefit of divestment campaigns: the fact it built an international climate movement focused around winning divestment at different levels of institution, from universities to companies to investors and more for a total of over 1500 commitments. It’s quite plausible that some of the biggest benefits is that it led to huge numbers of young people getting involved in climate campaigning, and the incubation, growth and success of climate campaign groups such as The Sunrise Movement or 350.org. So whilst the direct impacts on climate policy preferences or climate attitudes might be limited, the indirect impacts might be much larger. In all fairness, the authors do discuss this point, alongside seven (!) other reasons why divestment campaigns might still be a more promising strategy than these results suggest (e.g. exposure to divestment in this experiment came from a single source, rather than a variety of outlets as happens in reality). However, surprisingly, not everyone reads academic papers in full so these limitations can easily be overlooked, especially for those who seek to back up their pre-existing beliefs.

  • (There was also this recent paper, showing that "Fossil fuel divestment pledges by investors including sovereign wealth funds, trusts and foundations which gain traction on social media have an outsized impact on carbon-intensive companies, wiping billions off their market value”. Another important reason to consider a variety of outcome measures, and not just public opinion!)


News & Media

  • Schiphol airport said that they would ban private jets no more than 5 months after a big protest organised at Schiphol, by Greenpeace and XR Netherlands, asking for the same thing!

  • An interesting podcast episode, by Outrage + Optimism on different theories of change within climate activism and climate action more generally (labelled momentum vs perfection).

  • Unsurprisingly, Britons report higher concern for climate change after a heatwave. However, cutting meat and dairly remains the least attractive (at least on this list) thing for the public to do to address climate change! Climate and animal activists seemingly have a long way to go on this front.

  • Animal Rebellion (now Animal Rising) plans to disrupt the Grand National, with their plans exposed by an undercover journalist. Watch this space for some surveys we’re doing around their campaigns!


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