The history of activism is, in part, the history of a struggle between opposing worldviews. On one extreme is the idealist who hews to highest principles and refuses to compromise, regardless of efficacy, in service of radical transformation. At the other pole is the pragmatist who prioritizes progress, even if it is incremental or at the expense of ideological purity, and makes compromises behind closed doors to achieve any amount of progress.

This debate continues in this new golden era of grassroots politics, and it inevitably involves the foundations and professional advocates seeking to improve public policy.

Some advocates and foundations view their role as following the lead of grassroots activists who build a movement that may take years to emerge, and who may resist accountability for near-term policy change while in pursuit of radical transformation. Recent waves of mobilization have led many to contemplate how to channel this energy into effective advocacy to solve social problems. How can activists on the left and right move beyond rhetoric to support policy solutions? For example, what can protestors opposing white supremacy in Charlottesville, Boston, and other US cities do to achieve true racial justice?

Other foundations back campaigners who target specific, discrete policies and venues driven by pragmatic assessments of feasibility. They may poll, message test, and track outcomes extensively, all as part of a process that remains beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. (Note: All instances of “campaigns” and “campaigners” here refer to 501(c)(3)-permissible issue advocacy campaigns, and not efforts to influence elections or legislation.)

While much thought has gone into how to sustain elevated levels of civic engagement and how to choose effective activist tactics, philanthropic foundations and advocates must also consider how to overcome this paralyzing debate between pragmatists and idealists, so that targeted campaigns on specific issues and broader grassroots movements are mutually reinforcing. Moreover, while there can be tradeoffs between idealism and pragmatism in any given advocacy campaign, we believe this debate hinges on a false dichotomy that hinders the immense potential of grassroots activists, professional advocates, and foundations to work together to use policy to solve social ills.

We interviewed 20 leaders, funders, and movement-builders who are at the forefront of reimagining how professional advocates can run movement-guided campaigns and help build campaign-ready movements (see illustration below). They described a new synthesis in the age-old idealist vs. pragmatist debate, which boils down to: Let’s build movements that can run successful, successive campaigns using a “pragmatic” approach, and campaign for good policy in ways that build a grassroots base inspired by the idea of radical transformation. (See our white paper for examples and illustrations.)

Campaigns and movements are distinct but mutually reinforcing. (Image by Blanusa, Chen, and Huttner, Grassroots Rising, 2018)

Campaign-ready movements

Funders with five-year strategies and professional advocates with impatient boards have big policy ambitions, but face pragmatic constraints. Great movements have energy and members, but also factions and competing idealistic visions that make it difficult for funders and advocates to support just the policy goals they prioritize when they invest in movements. For instance, how can grassroots organizers building a broad public movement for gun control prepare their supporters to act effectively when a future opportunity arises to persuade stores to implement safeguards on gun sales? When funders do engage in movement-building, they can help effectively deploy new tools so that movements can truly change institutional thinking. They can:

  • Create opportunities for organic leaders. “Organic leaders seldom self-identify as leaders and rarely have any official titles, but they are identifiable by their natural influence with their peers,” says Jane McAlevey in her 2016 book, No Shortcuts. Movements require strong, authentic leaders who have deep relationships in communities. Online networks and communities can help find and engage organic leaders more efficiently. Funders and advocates can examine burgeoning networks to identify individuals and organizations that have large followings within an important community or are frequently engaged by other activists and community members, and connect communities and influencers who might otherwise not engage each other.

    For example, social network analysis of the test refusal movement revealed a set of early leaders that included not only well-known education policy advocates but also rising influencers, such as educators and parents. These rising leaders intentionally grew and strengthened their networks by engaging on Twitter with influencers and connectors of different segments of the conversation.
  • Build an infrastructure that will link campaigns and the movement. A strong movement infrastructure can help campaigns succeed more consistently in a movement context. Movement infrastructure offers critical functions, knowledge, and strategic coordination to leaders who may be replaced by other people over time, rather than providing infrastructure to a static team of advocates during a time-bound campaign. This infrastructure could include: easy-to-use tools for real-time communication and information sharing; evidence-based recommendations for messaging and tactics; a database of allies and stories; and replicable trainings for grassroots advocates (see below).

Movement-guided campaigns

Infrastructure should remain responsive to bottom-up leadership, grassroots requests, and local adaptation of national strategies. (Image courtesy of Blanusa, Chen, and Huttner, Grassroots Rising, 2018)

When funders and professional advocates run policy campaigns on topics with burgeoning grassroots movements, their work has implications for movement-building. If a top-down campaign is bolted on to a grassroots movement, it can distract movement leaders or sap movement energy in ways that stunt growth. For example, how can funders and advocates seeking regulatory changes that protect equal access to online content tap into and bolster the work of grassroots organizers for net neutrality? Funders can use new tools to run successful campaigns that also strengthen movements rather than deplete them. They can:

  • Create a compelling “movement journey” for campaign participants. Great organizers learn how to move people up the “ladder of engagement,” encouraging them to get more involved by starting with small actions, and promoting a sense of efficacy and community to motivate bigger commitments. For example, easily accessed online actions can extend that ladder to newcomers. Organizers can then work to transition these newcomers to additional offline actions. At the same time, talented offline activists and organizers who are motivated by the big asks at the top of the ladder can spread their message more broadly and engage with new audiences online. It takes infrastructure to engage users across a series of policy campaigns, and the ladder of engagement for any given user can and should extend across campaigns.

    MomsRising, an advocacy group for moms and families, illustrates the power of integrated online and offline campaigns. Its campaign to win expanded overtime pay regulations included more than 25,000 supportive letters and comments; a “Twitterstorm” that reached tens of millions of people; mom blogs with personal stories; a report on the overtime rule’s impacts; and press outreach. MomsRising Executive Vice President Donna Norton credits the diversity of opportunities with rallying so much support: “Moms write us and say, ‘I’m a single mom, I work all day, I come home and take care of kids…and then at 10 p.m., I get online and see there’s something I can do from home that makes a difference in the world and … in my life.’ We have this incredible ability we haven’t had before to engage.”
  • Take advantage of online communities to test and refine messages. Personal stories and demonstrations of power help shift a movement into decisive action on policy. New media enables advocates to quickly identify the most compelling stories and disseminate them through virtual communities. MomsRising Vice President Monifa Bandele explains, “We use stories both to persuade policymakers but also as a way to engage and build the leadership of moms. … We usually take whatever messaging we see works online and use it in our physical printed materials and talking points.”

    Online tools also offer new ways to conduct simple demonstrations of power, or “structure tests,” that serve as lower-stakes ways for movements to convince themselves of their efficacy, steeling them for more intense campaigns. These tests carry the risk of failure and reprisal, but success in the face of shared risk builds confidence. To make an online structure test carry real stakes, it should be personal and require people to stake a claim to their position in public, whether via personal Facebook pages, online petitions with names and addresses, or personal stories on blogs.

The practices above can be integrated with a broader set of approaches that collectively build campaign-ready movements and launch movement-guided campaigns (Image adapted from Blanusa, Chen, and Huttner, Grassroots Rising, 2018)

The golden age that could leave philanthropy behind

We are in a new golden age of grassroots political engagement, but philanthropy and professional advocates are at risk of being left behind. Top-down campaigns will miss movement energy. And a failure to help movements engage the gears of policy campaigns will miss the power of this moment. It’s time for a new synthesis to emerge in which empowered movements make real change.