Compared with the pace of change of other social movements, the LGBTQ movement’s success in achieving marriage equality occurred quickly. And in reaction, energized by this significant policy victory, many individual donors have asked themselves, “How can we hasten the achievements of other social movements?” That’s a difficult question to address in any case, but for individual donors who don’t have the research capabilities and grant-making staff of large foundations, it can be particularly daunting.

One of the biggest reasons why that’s so is the lack of immediate tangible impact in building or encouraging a movement; the work is risky and may not yield results for a long time. The marriage equality movement is a good example. While it might seem to some that success came overnight, the fact is that transforming marriage equality from a fringe issue into the law of the land took decades and relied on the leadership of committed activists as well as on donors who were willing to support the issue over the long-term and knew that such an outlook was critical.

It was a very successful campaign, and yet it doesn’t present a perfect roadmap for every movement. In fact, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for generating momentum in a movement, because each faces its own set of challenges. The good news, however, is that this victory does suggest some lessons to help individual donors who are committed to supporting other social movements.

Specifically, it underscored the fact that donors who are interested in movement building should engage in a process that:

  • Spells out their own motivation, vision, and timeline;
  • Takes time to understand and align the strategies of the donor, movement, and grantee organizations; and
  • Provides flexible funding that supports these strategies and adapts to the movement as it evolves.

The Donors’ Motivations, Vision, and Timeline

Would-be donors should start by developing a deep understanding of their own motivations and goals. By exploring their beliefs about how change happens in the world and developing a deeper understanding of the change they want to see, they can develop a personal giving strategy. At Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, we often take our clients through an exercise based on our publication “Your Philanthropy Roadmap.”  In this exercise, donors ask themselves numerous questions, including: “Why am I giving, what do I want to achieve, how do I think change will happen, how will I assess progress, and who will join me?” This exploration can help donors assess their priorities and values, and establish a giving plan. The plan doesn’t require a six-month-long process to develop—a basic version can be done in a few hours—but is an important component of developing a defined strategy that is broad, flexible, and responsive to changing conditions.

Supporters of marriage equality employed many different strategies and supported many different tactics. Some were motivated by their own sense of fairness and justice, and focused on legal advocacy. Others knew that the hearts and minds of everyday Americans would need to be changed, and they supported a robust communications and media strategy. Still others supported organizing because they felt that change always comes from the grassroots. In the end, each of these donors got it right because all these tactics were crucial. The decision to focus on one tactic over another is often a personal one. It relies on specific motivations and past experiences, all of which lead the donor to determine how, in his or her mind, change happens.

Aligning One’s Strategy with the Greater Movement

Once donors have identified the approach (or approaches) they want to prioritize, they should build a “giving portfolio” of organizations that align with their objectives in advancing the movement’s goals. No single organization or tactic can achieve a truly transformative victory. Instead, movements are built through the work of organizations that address different and complementary parts of an issue, such as organizing, public relations, and legal strategy. Only some donors will have the capacity or comfort level to support the whole chain of organizations in the movement, but even support for one or two links can help advance a movement in the context of a shared strategy and a broad base of support.

The history of successful social movements suggests that an environment in which groups collaborate on a shared goal by leveraging their (sometimes overlapping) capacities is necessary for success. Different groups can expect some tension as a natural part of a collaborative experience, but they can prepare for it by ensuring that they have a shared agreement around the goal, and by being willing to work together.

We see these patterns unfolding in the emerging stages of the movement for transgender justice. Donors are building diverse portfolios of grantee organizations that support the broad spectrum of needs, including a focus on lived experience, changing policy and transforming institutions. Meanwhile, organizations working on these issues are building a collaborative infrastructure that is making significant gains despite the relatively miniscule amount of funding that is (thus far) supporting this work.

The Importance of Flexible Funding (“Movements Move”)

While a solid strategy is essential for the success of a movement, it is equally important that donors give grantees room to adapt and modify their approaches based on what they learn as they proceed, and on the facts on the ground, which may change.

Funding social movements effectively, then, requires investment in the form of general operating support. Instead of being overly proscriptive, donors should think of grantees’ strategies as experiments that may take some trial and error to perfect. They should also acknowledge that what works today might not work tomorrow. As many movement veterans will remind us, “movements move.”

This flexibility requires trust in the donor-grantee relationship. Grantees must trust that their donors will stick with them, through successes and challenges, even after what could be seen as a tactical error. Donors must trust that their grantees are giving it their all, are in the fight for the long term, can align the resources needed to win, and will collaborate and ask for help when necessary.

As donors contemplate how to support other social and economic justice issues, they should take the time to understand their motivations, identify what success looks like, and understand that progress will be slow. Veterans of the marriage equality fight often say how frustrating the work was, and that it was never a sure thing. Throughout the process, though, they had a clear vision of success that motivated a cadre of activists, donors, and organizations that ultimately set the stage for that victory and others.   

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