How Do Social Movements Fund Themselves?

Social movements often struggle with finding the material resources needed to support themselves. Yet with seemingly little to work with, social movements grow, thrive, and succeed. How do they do it?

We’re looking at this question right now in Mexico. Together with Scott DuPree of Civil Society Transitions, we are doing three case studies of how people’s movements in Mexico are getting what it takes to organize people, craft good messages, get the word out widely, and protect their rights in the face of corporate and state opposition.

I was in Mexico recently and spoke to a Mexican TV news station about what we were doing. Here are excerpts. (If you want to see the whole story, you can watch it here.)

If your Spanish is a bit rusty, here’s what we said:

“For us it is interesting to see how people organize, participate, to defend their rights, and to defend their economic and cultural interests. We will also have a two or three page summary and also a presentation to use in public forums. If we can give a little help to understand our struggles in the world, it would be good.”

The three cases involve communities fighting against an ammonia plant to be built on the shores of a thriving coastal fishery, a proposed gold mine in an area supported by tourism, and a massive dam that will displace Indigenous people and threaten fisheries downstream. We’re finding that people are ingenious in coming up with what they need to keep campaigns moving, and that it makes a huge difference who it comes from. Movement allies who support them – local NGOs, businesses, and sympathetic donors – can not match the huge money that corporations are putting in. But organizers turn down the much greater amounts of money, goods, and services that corporations are offering in order to maintain trust within the movement.

The work is funded by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, based in Washington, DC. We will be releasing the study late in 2019.

Our new publication in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: Crackdown on Environmentalists

Stanford Social Innovation Review has just published our blog, Crackdown on Environmental Action: How Funders Can Respond.

In the face of increasing restrictions from legal barriers to murder, environmental and conservation funders are finding new ways to support civil society organizations. The blog draws on our recent briefing on the issue for environmental funders, Closing Civil Society Space: What Environmental Funders Need to Know. This issue cuts across all areas of citizen action, with some unique issues in the environmental realm where megaprojects by governments and corporations so often threaten community livelihoods and health.

Funders and Closing Space

By Chris Allan

What’s going on here? Internets of funders. Consulting contracts for services. Telling the story of the value of citizen action. Networks with multiple, diverse connections.

Foundations and civil society organizations are finding ways around the ballooning restrictions on what citizens can do. The Funders Initiative on Civil Society counted nearly 60 reports in the last two years on the closing space for civil society, most focused on diagnosing the issues. Citizens from China to the United States are finding themselves legally restricted and harassed, threatened with shut down or violence, and accused of being against development or agents of foreign influence.

What’s a funder to do?

Fortunately, the burgeoning field building social resilience gives us tools to keep operating in the face of shocks and stresses. When governments restrict NGO activity, non-registered, informal organizations step up. When foundations are threatened, they create coalitions with other funders to advocate, and to create pooled funds that change the game. Scott DuPree and I document all this in our recent article in The Foundation Review, and we suggest a simple yet powerful framework for understanding what might help.

Dozens of funders told us how they are responding with:

  1. Varied procedures– rethinking how to support social action
  2. Multiple strategies– opening up to a variety of ways of solving problems
  3. Adaptive environment– improving the conditions that organizations operate in.

In each of these areas, using a resilience lens show how to increase the capacity of organizations to adapt to these changing conditions. Funding organizations are more resilient when they increase their:

  1. Flexibility– The more ability you have to change processes, procedures, and strategies, the more likely you are to continue to support civil society in new ways.
  2. Diversity and redundancy– The ability to fund through multiple channels – directly, through intermediaries, or via pooled funds – allows you to keep support flowing. And supporting different kinds of civil society organizations that vary in strategies, structure, legal status, geographic focus, scale of operations, and styles of working diversifies the ways you work on social issues, and the likelihood that you’ll be able to continue.
  3. Ability to learn and resourcefulness– The ability to monitor changing conditions and adjust operations accordingly, experimenting with new approaches, increases your capacity to be effective in changing circumstances.

So in addition the tactics noted in the opening of this blog, there are a lots of others. Fellowships. New revenue sources like small businesses and rent. Funds for non-registered organizations. Support to triple bottom line businesses. Joint advocacy to protect the right to citizen action.

There is no magic formula to respond to the closing space of civil society. The right approach will vary with local conditions and what you’re trying to do. But learning what makes us resilient, what allows us to weather the changes we encounter in our work, increases our capacity to adapt to whatever happens.

What have you seen that is working to keep support to civil society flowing? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

You can read the full article here.