Creatively funding social movements

Written by: Caitlin Duffy

Date: February 24, 2017

How can foundations be more flexible in supporting grassroots groups and leaders? What are some creative approaches to meeting the increasingly urgent need for philanthropy to support frontline advocacy and organizing for justice?

To explore these questions, on Feb. 15, NCRP co-hosted “How to Creatively Fund Social Movements” with Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG). Community groups are operating in a changing environment, and the webinar sought to help foundations think about strategies to respond to this movement moment in new ways.

The discussion, moderated by Molly Schultz Hafid, NCRP board member and assistant director of the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock (@brooklynmolly), featured:

  • Shalini Eddens, director of programs at Urgent Action Fund (@510triloksistah)
  • Día Bùi, co-director of the Washington Peace Center (@dia_verse)
  • Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs (@dalitdiva)
  • Kelli King-Jackson, senior program officer with The Simmons Foundation (@kellitweets)

Molly began the conversation by citing a New York Times op-ed by Charles Blow entitled “The Power of Disruption” and providing recent examples of organized resistance as a strategy of social movements. Introductions then flowed to a moderated discussion, interwoven with questions from attendees, on what it looks like to fund an ecosystem of social change actors and provide resources beyond a grant.


Among the speakers’ suggestions for how to creatively resource activism were:

1. Communication: Name your values and vision for structural change, speak honestly about threats and what’s happening in the current environment, and identify how issues intersect. Align your messaging with the needs, concerns and advocacy of your grant partners.

2. Proactive outreach: Don’t wait for social change groups and grant partners to come to you in times of crisis. Initiate conversations, ask questions and listen intently. Build relationships with organizations led by and organizing in communities that are directly impacted.

3. Risk and flexibility: Fund an ecosystem of social change groups, including those that are small, emerging or rough around the edges. Don’t restrict or hinder how activists choose to disrupt and resist.

4. Collaboration: Partner with other grantmakers or collaboratives to pool and leverage additional funds, and with place-based intermediaries/public charities to provide fiscal sponsorship to non-registered groups. With co-funding, grantmakers can fund different aspects of the same grant partner’s work.

5. Grant applications and reporting: Streamline your application and reporting requirements, and minimize what you require of applicants and grant partners. Offer alternative communication methods, such as phone proposals and interviews.

6. Rapid response: Activists’ work shifts quickly. Be nimble and reactive by offering rapid response grants. Speed up the turnaround on applications and timing of grants distribution.

7. Operations and safety: Provide unrestricted funding and support for digital and physical security. Social change groups are targeted for attack and infiltration, and potential policy changes, such as a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, may bring a rise in costs. Project funding isn’t adequate to respond in a volatile environment and ensure resilience.

The presentation attracted NCRP’s highest number of registrants and attendees for a webinar, with more than 425 registrants and 250 attendees. While the webinar’s target audience was foundations, more than a third of the attendees were nonprofits. The high attendance and nonprofit representation reflect the urgency of the moment.

We encourage social change groups and their funders to share the webinar recording and continue an honest conversation on alternative, creative ways to resource the leaders and communities driving social movements. Tell us at NCRP how it goes!

Thank you again to our co-host, moderator and panelists, and those who listened in. For the rest of the thought-provoking themes raised in the webinar, check out the webinar recording and slides. And let us know below, by email at or on social media using #FundMvmts: How can philanthropy creatively fund social movements?

Caitlin Duffy is senior associate for learning and engagement at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP and @DuffyInDC on Twitter.