Effectively Resourcing Social Movements

This three-part series from Open Philanthropy and the Ayni Institute highlights some of the ways philanthropy can best support emerging social movements, drawing on examples from criminal justice reform and the oft-overlooked strategy of mass mobilization.

We have recently seen mass mobilizations break out around the United States and have tremendous positive impact on public discourse. But it is not always easy to know how best philanthropy can support these efforts. Gaining familiarity with the cycles and dynamics of movement growth, however, can help funders assess what movements need and at what time.

Movements move in cycles

Simply put, movements go through ups and downs. Mobilizations are easy to spot during their peak moments, when thousands of people take to the streets, but the organizing and capacity-building that takes place during slower, quieter times can help consolidate movement gains and lay the groundwork for future outbreaks. For funders, the important thing is recognizing what stage a movement is in at any given moment and adapting support to that moment’s needs.

Many scholars of social movements (and the participants themselves) have observed that movements experience periods of high and low energy. The most successful ones go through multiple cycles of activity, building each time, until they gain enough public support to win their demands.

The emotional state of participants fluctuates as social movements cycle through different phases. (Based on a chart by Movement NetLabs)

At the Ayni Institute, we call the moments of highest energy “trigger events”—moments when a galvanizing incident such as a public tragedy, a political announcement, a creative action, a journalistic exposé, or the violent repression of protesters breaks through the regular news cycle and grabs the public’s attention. These moments can be thrilling and offer an unparalleled opportunity for activists and organizers to dramatize their issue, powerfully frame their concerns, and directly engage droves of newly interested people.

Yet, after periods of exhilarating growth and promise, there will always be periods of disillusionment and contraction as opponents adapt, change slows, and hope dims. But while participants and observers often experience the decrescendo as a defeat, that isn’t always the case. Downturns are a normal and inevitable part of social movement life.

Receiving the right support at the right time in the cycle—or cycles—can make the difference between a mobilization that disappears for good and a movement that sustains and wins.

Following is an introduction to the three main parts of the mass-protest movement cycle—during trigger events, as trigger events wind down, and planning for the next trigger event—and how funders can best support each phase.

Funding the Cycle During Trigger Events


Many donors get involved in a movement for the first time during moments of peak activity. A new and exciting mobilization appears on the scene, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, and foundations and individuals alike are inspired to help.

It is important to recognize that established organizations (groups with pre-existing infrastructure, staff, budgets, partnerships, and political access) rarely drive the outbreaks surrounding trigger events. Instead, many leaders who emerge during mass protests come from outside established organizations and may have little experience with leading movements at mass scale.

One example is Millions March NYC, a protest during the height of the 2014 #BlackLivesMatter mobilizations that ended up drawing more than 30,000 people into action. The event was instigated by two women—Synead Nichols, 23, and Umaara Elliot, 19—who had never before done political organizing but who were fed up with police violence.

Established organizations are sometimes taken by surprise when thousands of people who are unaffiliated with them but who support the same cause suddenly take to the streets. Leaders and staff within these organizations, whether political advocacy groups or community-based organizations, are accustomed to certain rules that define their work day to day, including how many people they can expect to volunteer and how receptive insider politicians will be to their proposals. Because trigger events can suspend the usual rules of political engagement, leaders and staff are not always prepared to respond to the unique opportunities of a moment fueled by the energy of mass protest. Nor are they trained in how to spark new upheavals when initial disruptions die down. Usually, their instinct is to return to what is familiar—to stay on track with a predetermined plan for the year, to preserve their relationships with political insiders, and to adhere to funders’ expectations.

By contrast, newcomers, and small, upstart groups are more likely to say, “What do we have to lose?” They are well positioned to respond nimbly to trigger events, and to undertake the types of actions that amplify and renew mass protests.

Yet without adequate access to resources, movements made up of volunteer leaders are precarious. Major donors can support protest and organizing activity in the midst of a trigger event in two main ways:

1. Fund trainings that will empower people to make the most of a social movement upheaval.

In our research, we have found there is nothing better to arm a multitude of volunteers than training. In the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, student volunteers studied strategic nonviolence during rigorous workshops and weekend sessions. These trainings cultivated both practical skills and sense of unity among participants; in doing so, they helped undergird the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, one of the most famous and successful mass actions of the Civil Rights Movement.

During trigger events, participants need to acquire roles and skills relevant to a moment of heightened public attention and participation—topics not necessarily covered in typical community organizing trainings. Some of these include: how to maintain nonviolent discipline; how to plan direct actions and deploy escalation tactics to keep momentum; how to manage public relations and social media; how to conduct rapid-response fundraising; and how to absorb masses of people very quickly into movement structures, using email lists and further cycles of training.

The new mass protest leaders that emerge during trigger events may not have the existing relationships required to get relevant training for themselves—let alone training at large, even national, scale. In August 2017, for example, in the wake of white supremacist attacks on racial justice protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, Kazu Haga, a Kingian Nonviolence trainer based in Oakland, got requests from all over the United States to do trainings for response actions. But his resources and capacity were limited, and he could not match the demand.

This situation is not atypical—and yet, the success of a movement is highly correlated with increasing rates of participation. At peak moments, protests can quickly spread across large areas, drawing in scores of new people who would benefit from training that, unfortunately, is rarely designed or funded well enough to scale.

Because of this, funding trainings on a diversity of skills relevant to mass mobilization can both fill in an institutional gap and support the growth of new leaders. Training institutes are uniquely prepared to develop the necessary infrastructure for both rapid-response and long-term training. Examples include Momentum, Training for Change, the East Point Peace Academy, and my own organization, Ayni Institute. Funders could also provide project-based grants to many types of organizations to build a mass training programs.

2. In the midst of trigger events, give small stipends to sustain “anchor volunteers.”

Some of the most-involved volunteers in any movement are also paid staff at established organizations. But the majority of those who show up during mass mobilizations are people who temporarily “drop out” of their normal lives and occupations, because they feel deeply motivated by the urgency of the issue at hand. We call the most committed and essential of these participants “anchor volunteers.” They are people who either bring unique, hard-to-replace skills, or “anchor” a larger group of participants by managing group work and growing the skills of others.

Anchor volunteers often have basic reserves to sustain themselves, such as money in savings that allows them to take time off work, or a network of family and friends that can help watch their kids. But that support can run out very quickly, and when resources grow scarce, anchor volunteers experience tremendous tension. They simultaneously feel pressure to serve the new movement and to resume their normal lives. To avoid burnout, these leaders need a new injection of support so that they can stay involved until the movement’s peak phase dies down and transitions into a more stable phase.

For fledgling movements, the loss of anchor volunteers—and thus, the social infrastructure and capacity they bring—can be dire. Over and over, mass protest movements fizzle out before they have realized their full potential, in part because anchor volunteers do not receive adequate assistance.

The best way for funders to support anchor volunteers is to provide small stipends designed to help cover their basic necessities over a two- to four-month period. Such stipends allow people to continue playing their critical role and gives the movement more time to grow at its own pace. In a typical movement cycle, two to four months is a common period for peak mobilization, after which activity naturally slows down, and the movement begins to recollect and plan for its next cycle.

Of course, it is never possible to give every movement participant a stipend, and to reach scale, volunteers—not large donors—must be the primary organizers and leaders. It is therefore important to identify which volunteer leaders have the most need and are the most essential to sustaining the movement. To identify these anchor volunteers and prevent simply channeling more funds into pre-existing relationships, funders should seek out the knowledge and expertise of on-the-ground leaders, local community organizations and foundations, and experts who understand mass mobilization.

Increasing volunteers’ skills and capacities would do much to support emergent movements, and it can make a significant difference in extending the high-energy period of a movement cycle. Eventually, however, every trigger event ends. Whether after days, weeks, or months, the people in the streets go home. And at that point, funders must respond to a different set of needs, which leads us to the second phase of the mass movement cycle.

Funding the Cycle as Trigger Events Wind Down

After a trigger event dies down, it is common for outside critics to announce a movement’s defeat, and even those inside the movement may feel a sense of failure. But the truth is that movements win by shifting public opinion over time. Research has found that mass mobilizations that sustain the engagement of 3.5 percent of the population over three months are extremely likely to succeed. In the United States, that threshold is roughly 11 million people. But regardless of the number, the data unequivocally shows that participation matters—the more participation, the higher the likelihood of success. And for a movement to reach high participation rates, it must undergo multiple cycles of activity to win over larger and larger segments of the public.

So how can movements build momentum from one trigger event to the next? The answer is what we call “absorption.” During each wave of heightened public interest, activists must draw in the most energetic volunteers, and plug them into structures of sustained training and engagement, so that when the next wave comes, those same people can continue to expand movement participation. The crowds may go home, but if a movement can absorb increasing numbers of people into ongoing work, it will eventually reach a critical mass.

During the 2017 Women’s March, documented as the largest single-day protest in US history, up to a third of participants reported they were attending their first-ever protest. Many other participants had not protested for decades. Having an absorption strategy in place before these kind of peak moments happen is critical for allowing movements to engage and build on these new connections, rather than letting everyone go home without a clear sense of how to move forward.

Funders can bolster mass movements after trigger events have passed by supporting a robust absorption strategy for the newly interested, as well as by re-absorbing the most involved volunteers back into the long-term movement.

3. Help established organizations absorb new people during movement moments.

A lot of the temporary supports that pop up during a trigger event later dissolve. But established organizations have the capacity to keep people involved for the longer term—as long as they create a premeditated strategy for absorption and commit to engaging volunteers in meaningful work.

Too often, basic activities that would greatly increase the capacity of a mobilization to retain participants and develop them as leaders never get done. Absorption activities can include gathering names for an email list, holding information sessions, registering participants for trainings, and putting a plan in place to build relationships and structures for long-term engagement. The key is to engage newly interested people as long-term volunteers.

Many traditional, established organizations are not used to recruiting and making meaningful use of an army of volunteers. And those who do rely on methods that scale at a much slower pace, such as one-to-one meetings. Consistently, these organizational models struggle to capture even a fragment of the energy of an explosive mass mobilization.

Paid staff are often not enough when the opportunity for a movement response is ripe. For example, during Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, an army of volunteers made a notable share of the campaign’s success possible. In a piece for The Nation, Sanders’ distributed campaign organizers Becky Bond and Zack Exley—the engineers behind much of the volunteer-led system—reflected, “One of the greatest lessons from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign was that a relatively tiny number of staff using fairly basic technology can unleash hundreds of thousands of volunteers to do serious work to advance a nationwide movement.”

They emphasize that this is not a “hippie-dippie” sentiment that glorifies lack of structure for the sake of inclusivity, but an effective solution to the need for high-levels of participation that lead to success. They write, “[M]ass participation won’t lead to mass power without organization. We don’t have the money to pay enough staff to manage a movement big enough to win.”

As the Trump resistance movement was emerging at the beginning of 2017, a grassroots group of young Jewish activists called IfNotNow invited people to attend events and mass trainings that integrated a lot of newly angry and activated Jewish people into their organization. The group not only prepared itself for explosive growth in temporary participation, but also developed a nimble and adaptable means of absorption.

After participants went home from large protests, IfNotNow invited them to attend one- to two-day trainings, where they learned the movement’s story, strategy, and structure—and, importantly, formed small teams. This system was unique, in that it added people to an email list with in-person engagement in mind, and slowly built up the group through one-on-one conversations with IfNotNow. Through good absorption, IfNotNow bridged the gap between a winding-down trigger event and the next phase of momentum.

Funders can help by giving more resources to established organizations that have established volunteer programs, incentivizing ones that don’t to create them, and helping organizations innovate better models of volunteer engagement.

Finally, sometimes established organizations are cautious about getting involved with mass protest activity because they fear losing funding over their involvement. Funders can counter that fear by encouraging organizations pursuing mass protest activity to include volunteer involvement and absorption as part of their master plan.

4. Fund longer-term infrastructure to support the basic needs of movement organizers.

As trigger events wind down, there is also a need for productive transitional space that allows anchor volunteers—who may have left jobs, school, or family obligations to take on leadership roles during the movement’s high-energy period—to rest, reflect, and regroup. When these hundreds, sometimes thousands, of volunteer leaders experience a downturn in the movement cycle, they typically feel a loss of support, community, and energy. If they don’t receive support when the energy dies out (or when responsibilities call them out of the movement), they can feel burned out and carry a sense of failure.

These leaders need places where they can temporarily live, be fed, and go through the next stage in their development as organizers. They need support to transition into a long-term commitment to the movement, and later re-engage in the next movement cycle or become mentors for the next generation of leaders.

In the United States and abroad, the most enduring mass protest movements have incorporated some form of volunteer infrastructure to provide these basic needs. Examples include the network of activist black churches during the US Civil Rights Movement, which sustained for more than a decade, and the collective farming communities built by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil, which has lasted more than 30 years and is still gaining rights and protections for rural communities today.

Infrastructure can include volunteer and staff housing, retreat centers, and in-kind donation structures. For instance, in the 60s and 70s, United Farm Workers volunteers received communal housing, allowing the organization to build an army of more than 300 volunteer organizers and lead one of the most successful boycotts in American history. Similarly, in the mid-1900s, the Catholic Worker movement dedicated more than 100 houses to supporting poor and homeless individuals. During both the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras, movements made use of these houses to host volunteer civil rights activists and war resisters.

During the Indian independence movement, rural “ashrams” (small monastic communities) were used to house and train volunteers, giving them temporary food, housing, and community work. Over the course of 40 years, hundreds of thousands of Indians mobilized through multiple movement cycles, during which time many top leaders lived at the ashrams. The ashrams gave leaders time to develop and prepare for future campaign cycles, bolstering the independence movement’s scale and longevity.

Meeting basic needs is an efficient way to prevent leader burnout and increase volunteer retention. Funders can support the provision of housing, food, and community resources for long-term volunteer leaders and those who want to heighten their commitment. This support can be channeled through existing religious institutions, retreat centers. Funders should also collaborate with mass protest leaders directly to address the specific needs that arise in their contexts.

With adequate support, movement organizers and volunteers will be better positioned to strategize and prepare for the next mobilization. But to spark another burst of public energy and complete the cycle, a movement also needs funders who are willing to invest in escalation.

Funding the Cycle When Planning the Next Trigger Event

To the casual observer, outbreaks of movement activity often seem spontaneous or out of the blue. But social movements at their best reflect a purposeful craft; skilled organizers can do a lot to enhance and extend trigger events, and even play a role in setting them off.

The truth is that the trigger events that give rise to mass action are rarely the result of unexpected incidents themselves; rather, they happen when a highly visible event meets with the determination of a community to respond and turn it into something bigger. For decades, daily incidents of violence by police against communities of color in the United States provoked little public response. For the 2014 shooting and murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to become something more than a forgotten tragedy—and indeed to trigger the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement—it took persistent and creative escalation, and determined organizing.

Sometimes, organizers trained in mass protest can respond to unexpected events (a surprise announcement by a politician, an immigration raid, a dramatic breaking news investigation) by amplifying these stories and making them into movement moments. Skilled mobilizers work to draw greater attention to the events, activate more people around them, and create avenues into which the public can effectively channel its outrage. Other times, organizers can do even more: They can strategically plan and spark moments of heightened attention themselves, as the Civil Rights Movement did with its daring 1963 campaign in Birmingham, Alabama.

To encourage movements to take the kinds of risks that can produce breakout moments, funders can provide an extra level of support for those willing to plan the kind of high-disruption, high-sacrifice actions likely to set off trigger events. This leads us to our last recommendation:

5. Fund those courageous enough to escalate.

Escalation refers to any set of actions that increasingly ups the ante in terms of participants’ disruptiveness and sacrifice. Going on hunger strike, setting up an occupation, or risking arrest are all actions capable of keeping the momentum of a trigger event alive—or even being the trigger event that sets off a chain of protests.

Funding movement escalation is somewhat akin to the calculated risk-taking that venture capitalists routinely engage in. Some investments may fizzle, and some will be only moderately successful. But occasionally, one will be far more successful than anyone expected. Investments in movement entrepreneurs must embrace a risk-tolerant approach, with the expectation that most experiments will generate positive development, but only some will produce exceptional results.

To protest New York City budget cuts and layoffs in the summer of 2011, activists attempted an encampment in front of City Hall. The effort rarely exceeded 150 people. Only a few months later, Occupy Wall Street started with that same number of people and—through a series of symbolic actions, including occupations, rallies, and civil disobedience—drew increasing amounts of attention to the issue of inequality until, despite a national political climate previous considered adverse to the movement, the issue exploded into public consciousness. (And although Occupy did not sustain itself toward a clear objective, it nevertheless made an important contribution to the national conversation on wealth inequality.)

Funders should focus on resourcing high-stakes actions designed to grab public and quickly shift the tide of public opinion. As we mentioned earlier, established organizations are often wary of taking action that could risk relationships, antagonize supporters, or stray from regular programming. Meanwhile, upstart mass protest groups have less to lose but have far fewer resources to channel toward bold action.

Few foundations actively support the types of creative interventions and direct actions proven to escalate movements, but there are avenues for doing so. The creation of a dedicated fund to encourage nonviolent direct action, for instance, could spur tactical innovation and provide a lifeline to groups that need financial help to experiment with high-disruption, high-sacrifice actions.

By dedicating resources toward escalation, funders can be among the few who see promise and potential in a movement before the world knows its name. They can also be the difference between a one-hit wonder that fizzles out, and a movement that can generate momentum again and again.

Boosting Movements When It Matters Most

Funders who want to contribute to the expansion and sustainability of mass protest movements will be best positioned to help if they understand that the process of preparation, absorption, and escalation for new waves of activity is a natural cycle that movements repeat until they capture widespread public support and win their demands. A willingness and commitment to embrace bold and unconventional players is a critical precondition to fostering change that truly transforms national conversations and decisions—and knowing how to inject the right kind of support into social movements, at the right time, allows this commitment to produce its fullest fruit.

Correction: January 21, 2019 | A chart based on one by Movement NetLabs was previously removed from this article but is now included.