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.

Among the most iconic images of the civil rights movement is that of police officers unleashing fire hoses and dogs on black children in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. That spring, in 1963, families throughout the United States huddled around their televisions, watching in horror as racism in the segregated South was exposed in its most visceral and violent form. Many historians cite the confrontation in Birmingham as the pivotal moment that paved the way for the Civil Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson just over a year later. The confrontation changed the political atmosphere in the country and crystallized an overwhelming public demand for action toward racial equality.

Did this dramatic conflict occur by chance—emerging simply from the zeitgeist of the time? Was the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act merely the work of politicians in Washington? Hardly. The protests in Birmingham were part of a carefully crafted mobilization, and their impact was far-reaching. Moreover, they are emblematic of how protest movements can break out quickly (often to the surprise of outside observers), alter public consciousness, and affect both our society's social norms and its laws.

When civil rights organizers—then led by Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, Fred Shuttlesworth, and others—planned to confront Eugene “Bull” Connor, the infamous police chief of Birmingham, they did not set out to change Connor’s mind. Rather, they set out to generate popular pressure that would split the segregation establishment. The organizers intentionally chose the heart of the segregated South to dramatize the violence that black people had been suffering for generations. Their campaign, and their effective drive to use the national media to demonstrate how the violence of Jim Crow was an affront to American values, brought public consciousness to a boiling point.

Birmingham was only one moment in a period of intense movement activity that spanned almost a decade. Although the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools came down in 1954, that ruling by itself did not ensure justice. In fact, the court's decision actually engendered more racist backlash in the South, where embattled racists dug in and increased repression of those who stood up to Jim Crow. It was only with intensified social movement activity—which produced important breakout moments such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956, the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Birmingham campaign of 1963, and the Selma campaign of 1964—that politicians were decisively moved to take the necessary steps to dismantle the legal and political foundations of segregation.

Although many of the breakthrough campaigns were local in character, their impact was national. In 1967, King wrote an account that summed up the impact of some of these dramatic movement moments: “Sound effort in a single city such as Birmingham or Selma produced situations that symbolized the evil everywhere and inflamed public opinion against it. ... Where the spotlight illuminated the evil, a legislative remedy was soon obtained and applied everywhere.”

Shortly before Birmingham, many political experts considered passing substantive civil rights legislation an impossibility, given conditions in the Senate, which was largely controlled by southern delegations that were strongly pro-segregation. President John F. Kennedy was pragmatically averse to risking support from southern Senators and was reluctant to put forward full support for the cause. Yet suddenly, one month after the campaign in Birmingham made international news, Kennedy delivered a fiery address in support of civil rights. This historic about-face ushered in concrete legislation. As historian Tom Purdum writes, Kennedy “moved forward because events forced his hand.” The years of mass mobilizations that peaked at Birmingham had dramatically changed the terms of Kennedy’s political calculus. Public outrage, among both whites and blacks, had shifted so that he risked more by not supporting civil rights than by taking a strong stance.

This is how social movements work: They turn developments once seen as impossible into feasible ones by shifting public opinion and altering the limits of political possibility. At the Ayni Institute, we like to say that movements “change the political weather.”

The Birmingham case in not unique. In many places and time periods, we see that mass mobilizations have a profound effect in setting the stage for legal and legislative change. Unfortunately, despite playing a critical role, protest movements are dramatically underfunded. Foundations and large donors are far more likely to focus on the endgame of social transformation—backing the lobbyists and lawyers who formalize the agreements made possible by movement activity. But this approach leaves a huge gap in the social change ecosystem and often makes possible only piecemeal reforms. To promote more transformational change, funders must recognize the vital role that mass protest organizing makes in creating the conditions for substantive reforms, and they must work to bolster activity in the parts of the social movement ecology that remain undernourished.

Same-sex marriage: hearts and minds, then courts

When it comes to social change, our society has a huge bias. In hindsight, our history books and media spokespeople tend to attribute major social changes to the actions of powerful officials rather than the political forces that compelled such individuals to act. Even in cases where movement activity is well documented, such as the Civil Rights Movement, accounts often fixate on the actions of presidents and powerful senators in moving legislation. Too often, they chalk up the social change victories to the leaders' humanitarianism or to the natural tides of history. This bias toward emphasizing the actions of powerholders overlooks how the decisions of officials are often a consequence of organizing and pressure applied from below.

In recent years, we have seen this bias at work in accounts of how marriage equality for LGBTQ couples was won. Many political commentators see the 2015 victory as a primarily the product of Supreme Court jurisprudence and as the result of dedicated lawyers pushing the issue through the courts. However, this view is incomplete at best. Certainly, legal advocates did critical work. But to tell only their story is to miss the wider picture of social change—and to distort the process by which important legal and political victories are achieved. Take it from one of the lawyers who fought for decades to secure that win: Evan Wolfson.

In 1996, Wolfson was a young lawyer working in Hawaii who was asked to join a landmark case on marriage discrimination. Being in a progressive state like Hawaii, he thought they had a shot at winning marriage equality, and, in fact, they did. In 1996, the Hawaiian Supreme Court made a historic ruling that legalized unions between same-sex couples. Just two years later, however, what seemed like a victory turned into defeat when voters overturned the ruling.

Wolfson was devastated. But this early loss provided a strategic lesson that would later steer the movement toward national victory. The setback at the polls in Hawaii made him come to a profound realization: that court victories alone were simply not enough. As Wolfson later told Slate, “What our movement needed was not just a good case, a good lawyer, one battle here and there. We needed to be able to mount a sustained affirmative campaign to drive a strategy all the way to completion through ups and downs.”

In the 2000s, Wolfson continued pushing forward legal cases in pivotal states such as Massachusetts. But now, he did not limit his work to the courtroom. Instead, he insisted that the movement supplement legal challenges with organizing campaigns to engage the public. Campaigns that Wolfson supported set out to tackle public sentiment state by state. In many cases, they sparked mobilizations of tens of thousands of people—protests that responded to important developments such as the passage of the discriminatory Proposition 8 in California.

Beyond classic demonstrations, the broader movement for marriage equality worked to gain acceptance within specific institutions, pulling down each pillar that propped up discrimination. Youth constituencies activated campuses around discrimination by establishing LGBTQ clubs at a majority of colleges all over the United States. Within major religious institutions, there were significant efforts to gain acceptance within congregations and leadership positions. Even professional institutions were pulled into the public debate. The American Psychiatric Association, for example, was pressured to remove homosexuality from its list of psychological dysfunctions.

The movement used a slew of tactics, including traditional door knocking campaigns and more creative cultural interventions. The movement actively encouraged people to come out of the closet in their communities—to go beyond revealing their sexual orientation to friends and family, and make pride in their identity a public statement. That small but significant act of bravery, multiplied by many and strategically placed in the media, helped change America’s idea of what it meant to be gay and uplift the popular banner of “love = love.” (In fact, the tactic was so effective at shifting public sentiment that young Dreamers fighting for immigrant rights replicated it and, in a compelling act of risk and defiance, “came out” by the thousands as undocumented.)

As movement activity increased, cultural shifts began taking place, and marriage equality gained more support across many different constituencies. As my brother and I note in our book on nonviolent revolt, This Is an Uprising, although these shifts eventually affected mainstream opinions, a smaller minority of people drove them and pushed the issue onto the priority list:

In the case of same-sex marriage, the work of dedicated activists was likewise essential. It was helpful to have families in Middle America approvingly watch Ellen or Will & Grace. But the vast majority of these people were not going to force the issue in their workplaces or make it their top electoral concern. The few who actually pushed at the pillars—petitioning their churches to accept their same-sex weddings, calling for their employers to extend health benefits to same-sex partners, attending rallies, filing lawsuits, defending same-sex couples at their schools’ proms, knocking on doors, and demonstrating the electoral muscle of LGBT voters at the polls—were the movement’s active supporters.

Changing the tides of public opinion proved effective. By the time of the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, which legalized same-sex marriage nationally, 37 states and the District of Columbia were already recognizing such unions—a huge shift from 2006, when same-sex marriage was regarded as a third-rail political issue and 26 states had passed amendments explicitly prohibiting it. By the time the court made its decision, polling showed that a significant majority of Americans cheered this stark reversal.

In an interview on the eve of the Supreme Court ruling, Wolfson painted this picture clearly, telling how the movement for marriage equality had been priming the American public for this moment by “creat[ing] the climate to encourage the justices to do the right thing.” To illustrate the core strategic thrust of the movement, he cited a ruling in Utah in which a judge wrote, “It's not the constitution that has changed, it's our knowledge of what it means to be lesbian or gay.”

Wolfson’s experience showed that action of the courts was not only based on legal advocacy, but also a response to public sentiment. Many of us understand instinctively that politicians respond to pressure. But the story of how same-sex marriage was ultimately won shows that public pressure does not just affect legislators wary of re-election. To get legal victories that would stick, the movement needed campaigns that engaged the public.

For their part, legislators began taking action on gay marriage only when public support had reached a critical mass. In 2005, only two Senators—Ron Wyden of Oregon and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts—were openly supportive of same-sex marriage. Then, in 2011, polls showed that public approval of same-sex marriage in the United States surpassed 50 percent for the first time. Soon after, politicians en masse began “evolving” in their positions on the issue. What started as a trickle became a river of conversions: In 2012, after Vice President Joe Biden announced his support for same-sex marriage, the floodgates opened. Suddenly, dozens of politicians at all levels of government rushed to announce their commitment to marriage equality. Officials who, shortly before, would never have been caught dead with the decades-old movement suddenly tried to paint themselves as long-time supporters.

By dramatizing the moral dimension of an issue and asking people to choose a side, movements not only increase the level of the awareness of the issue, but also alter mainstream public opinion. And as public attitudes shift, they change the calculus for politicians about which side of an argument will be “safe” to support.

The drive for marriage equality was grounded in a simple idea: When a social movement wins the battle of public opinion, courts and legislatures will follow.

The missing link: mass protest movements

We have seen this dynamic play out time and time again: in the labor, suffrage, environmental, immigrant rights, and other movements. Major changes often come in punctuated bursts, and these bursts are most likely to occur after outbreaks of highly visible protest activity. As renowned social scientist and activist Frances Fox Piven wrote in her 2006 book, Challenging Authority, the “great moments of equalizing reform in American political history” have followed periods when disruptive power was most widely deployed. Yet many, including philanthropists who want to support efforts for social change, overlook the role of mass protest movements in promoting societal transformation.

As Chloe Cockburn illustrated in the first article of this series, a vibrant ecology of change—with multiple, interplaying strategies and roles—is necessary for large-scale change. We further contend that elevating the importance of mass protest strategies is a critical part of fixing an existing strategic imbalance around many major issues in the United States today. Mass mobilizations, in particular, play an important part by shifting the political common sense, so that new campaigns, laws, and decisions can be won. Yet, the number of philanthropists who are invested in and equipped with the tools to support mass protest organization remained very limited. Four misunderstandings, in particular, have led funders to undervalue mass movement groups:

1. Misunderstanding why we need culture change

To prioritize funding mass protest movements that shift culture, one must first embrace the idea that shifting culture is a necessary part of making social reform possible. Our education system, mainstream media, and popular culture tend to encourage us to see “inside game” strategies—such as lobbying, electing politicians, or litigation—as the most valuable paths to creating change. No doubt, those strategies have an important role to play. But from the standpoint of social movement ecology, insider decisions are merely the endgame of a longer process of creating change. To see them as the whole of the struggle is to miss important elements of how breakthrough reforms actually come to be.

In general, it is rare to have an opening to win wide-scale reforms at the federal level without a mass movement creating space for a new debate and galvanizing the strong backing of the public. By engaging huge swaths of civil society around an issue, mass protest movements provide a critical assist. They enable insiders to then take the ball and score.

When philanthropists orient their work around the idea that change only comes from the top, they set their sights on narrow victories—ones seen as feasible given present political realities. Embracing the critical role of shifting public opinion allows us to look beyond the limitations of current constraints and be watchful for opportunities to change political conditions.

2. Misidentifying what kind of work drives culture change

Even when philanthropists recognize the need for culture shift, some misattribute what forces are actually capable of changing political conditions.

When mass mobilizations shift political conditions, other pieces of the ecology are skilled at reaping the benefits. Electoral outfits can push candidates to align with new issues, and policy advocates can gain advances in legislation. And because these players work to finalize the concrete victories, it is easy for funders to see the direct impact of their dollars. But these pieces of the ecology can only harvest the benefits of mass mobilization; they are not designed to spark mobilizations in the first place.

As we saw in the example of marriage equality, Wolfson realized that legal petitions alone were not sufficient to secure change. These approaches could not create a culture shift, because they were oriented toward insider reform. They needed allies with a different theory of change—ones oriented toward dramatizing issues and galvanizing public opinion—to create conditions in which they could realize lasting victories.

3. Lacking relationships with mass protest groups

Some philanthropists who appreciate the value of mass protest movements may not know where to turn to resource these groups. Often, they lack close relationships with groups and individuals involved in mass movement.

This may be partially due to the fact that the groups that spur mass protest often do not have longstanding structures to maintain themselves organizationally. Consequently, many of their leaders do not have relationships with donors. For reasons we will explore in the next piece in this series, mass protests are mostly driven by upstart organizations, who have less to lose than large institutions from engaging in disruptive activities.

Funders may see an emergent mass protest effort starting up and want to support it. Structurally, however, it is easy to end up giving grants to people or organizations with whom they already have existing relationships. This means that funding may not go to the people in the center of the action, even though these organizers are the ones positioned to generate the most public support.

To address this, funders can look for local fiscal sponsors that are nimble, and they can work to set up new pathways to connect emerging leaders to philanthropic institutions. When the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in 2014, Benedict Consulting and the Movement Strategy Center set up an innovative solution to this problem by creating a pooled fund that redistributed $100 million from both foundations and individual donors to organizers on the ground. Other funder networks, such as Solidaire, are similarly working to convene philanthropists and generate pathways for both rapid-response and long-term infrastructure.

4. Aversion to risk

Finally, some philanthropists may feel that mass protest is risky to fund. Existing funding structures tend to be wary of backing the kind of disruptive activity that is central to mass protest. We have heard many accounts from activists that foundations have resisted allowing their resources to support mass protest, on the grounds that c(3) funds should not be used for such “politically driven” work. Foundations are often more comfortable with traditional messaging campaigns, which peers or board members are less likely to perceive as controversial. Yet the willingness to create public controversy is precisely what produces shifts in culture.

To counter this trend, funders can preemptively cultivate among their board members and directors a willingness to back mobilizations, even if some perceive them as polarizing. This involves efforts to deepen the knowledge of colleagues about the history and impact of mobilizations. In reality, the overwhelming majority of foundations supporting mass protest have never been embroiled in public controversy. By understanding that shifting public support ultimately helps win policies and concrete reform, grantmakers can make the case that mobilization aligns with already existing foundation priorities. There are also many ways that funders can support long-term infrastructure that builds capacity for movements, such as training programs, which involves less perceived risk.

Moving more money to mass protest

Sometimes, to win the game, you have to change the rules—and that is what movements can do when they are valued and supported. Philanthropists committed to wide-scale change have an opportunity to add mass mobilization to their portfolio of transformative strategies. Already, large funding institutions like Ford Foundation are recognizing that mass movements have significant ripple effects on other strategies for change.

There is a robust field of expertise that informs funders on how to invest in strategies like advocacy and service, but less so for mass protest. At the Ayni Institute, we are developing more materials for philanthropists to better understand and resource mass mobilizations. By acknowledging some of the main barriers that have led funders to underestimate mass protest in the past, we can start to create a new sense among philanthropists that culture shift is worth tackling head on.

In the next and final article of this three-part series, Carlos Saavedra will dive deeper into the ways funders can recognize groups that are driving mass protest and supply them with resources to sustain the energy of a movement.