Black Lives Matter -A Catalyst For Philanthropic Change?

Black Lives Matter is challenging philanthropists to rethink what constitutes ‘success’ when it comes to collective action.

11/08/2016 03:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2016

The Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM), a decentralized and well-organized network of young men, women, immigrants and queer activists who aspire to end systemic discrimination, has attracted serious attention and, more recently, dollars from US foundations. Interestingly, BLM has also succeeded in forcing well-established funders to rethink assumptions about what constitutes effective organizational models. This marks a notable and laudable shift from small episodic grantmaking to longer-term investments supporting a movement-building process via a flexible giving model.

So far, Black Lives Matter has attracted funding from the corner of American philanthropy often called “social justice philanthropy” (SJP, to insiders). Though there is no official definition for SJP, NCRP defines it as “contributions to nonprofits who are working for structural change to increase opportunity for those marginalized politically, economically, and socially.” SJP often supports organizations which, like Black Lives Matter, seek to upend the status quo, often by using a mix of advocacy, organizing and civic engagement. The Ford Foundation, Borealis Philanthropy, and Open Society Foundations are widely considered social justice funders and they all support Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, some smaller regional SJP funders, such as the Minneapolis-based Headwaters Foundation, featured recently by the Sillerman Center, support local BLM chapters.

In the case of Black Lives Matter, though, SJP funders have offered not only immediate financial assistance, but movement-building resources to strengthen the decentralized, radical, and controversial movement over the long term. Following Black Lives Matter’s publication of a detailed policy agenda this past summer, Ford and Borealis announced a 6-year pooled campaign of $100 million to the Black-Led Movement Fund (BLMF). They designated the money for collaborative efforts that “support the infrastructure, innovation and dynamism of intersectional Black-led organizing”.

The nature of the philanthropic investment in Black Lives Matter is markedly different from the disjointed investments provided to the Occupy movement, a comparable movement that developed in 2011 and sought an end to social inequality by advancing new radical forms of democracy. The group’s fiscal sponsor, the Movement Resource Group attracted about $300,000 from funders including George Soros, The Ben and Jerry’s Foundation and several individual donors, including the filmmaker, Michael Moore. But the money was earmarked for conventional things ― “rent and equipment for an office in New York” and smaller projects. In contrast, the most recent BLM funding is designated for a mapping to identify “movement needs and resources”, and an organizational development initiative focused on capacity building among a new cohort of activists.

Perhaps even more important, is that SJP foundations providing the money to Black Lives Matter are, according to the Ford Foundation, actively seeking not to “dictate or distort the work underway.” It appears that while funding and consultancy is being channelled towards developing the movement’s wider agenda, social network and infrastructure, foundations at the helm of these initiatives are attempting to ensure that it evolve organically from within the movement, and are determined not to impose a direction or rigid framework on it. Moreover, these same funders also appear self-consciously aware of the historical pitfalls of large foundation support to movements. As such, they may be trying to avoid what happened in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement and the ongoing dilemma of the environmental movement, where philanthropic support forced a moderation of the movements’ agendas, causing them to become less receptive to their constituencies.

Finally, its seems that Black Lives Matter is also challenging philanthropists to rethink the long standing theoretical debate of what constitutes ‘success’ when it comes to collective action. One recent example is the publication of the results of the GenForward Survey sponsored by the Ford and MacArthur Foundations, which revealed widespread support for BLM among young White, African American, Asian and Hispanic adults aged 18-30. The funding of the survey points to the increased investment foundations are making to track less tangible outcomes of collective action such as awareness, through fluid measures that explore the impact of social media and individual affiliations.

This is an exciting moment for philanthropy, one with the potential not only to empower the fledgling Black Lives Matter movement, but to transform grantmaking. This moment could mark a turning away from traditional assumptions and stale models and turn toward more responsive, less rigid giving processes.

Liora Norwich, PhD, studies social movements and conflict in Israel and United States. She has extensive experience working within non-profit organizations and is currently pursuing an MBA in non-profit management at the Heller School for Public Policy at Brandeis University.

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