What does MLK have to teach us in philanthropy about campaign strategy and tactics?

Written by: Aaron Dorfman

Date: January 15, 2018

Illustrated portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.Are the teachings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great civil rights leader whose birthday we celebrate today, relevant in the current political climate? Absolutely.

Last week, a prominent liberal opinion columnist for The Washington Post, Dana Milbank, criticized United We Dream, the nonprofit group organizing undocumented young people to fight for their rights and for full citizenship. Milbank wrote that he was sympathetic to the group’s demands, but he claimed their attacks on Democrats were “counterproductive” and he suggested they should stop “training their fire on those who support them” and instead go after Republicans. His critique reminded me of the white preachers of Birmingham who were critical of the tactics being used by Dr. King and others in the Civil Rights Movement.

I’m sure that some in philanthropy privately share Milbank’s critique of the dreamers and their campaign, or are similarly critical of other groups that push in ways that make people uncomfortable. I don’t tend to see foundation leaders arguing publicly that activists should be patient and wait, or that they shouldn’t use controversial tactics. But the truth is, foundation leaders speak more with their dollars than they do with their words and their dollars say they aren’t comfortable funding groups that employ aggressive tactics.

NCRP analysis of available Foundation Center data shows that between 2006 and 2016, just 9 percent of total foundation grantmaking intended to benefit communities of color, poor people, immigrants, incarcerated people, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities was for policy change, advocacy and systems reform work. The rest, we can reasonably conclude, was for work more “acceptable” to foundations like direct services.

Photo of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C.In the same decade, just 0.8 percent of all grantmaking for community and economic development was for strategies specifically designed to build power, like organized labor, tenant organizing and community organizing more generally. In the same decade, foundations directed 16 times as much funding to business and industry.

This reticence of philanthropy to fund movements and direct action isn’t new, of course. Just a handful of foundations played any kind of meaningful role funding the Civil Rights Movement, as we documented a few years ago in Freedom Funders.

Milbank’s critique and a clear-headed recognition that philanthropy hasn’t embraced groups that make elites uncomfortable suggest that now would be a good time for everyone in philanthropy to re-read Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In that letter, Dr. King responded to intense criticism from liberal white preachers who claimed they supported the goals of the Civil Rights Movement but not its confrontational tactics. Here are excerpts of what Dr. King wrote in response to those white preachers:

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:

While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. 

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” 

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. 

Am I saying that grantmakers should never question the strategic and tactical choices of grantees? Of course not. But Dr. King’s letter reminds us that we in philanthropy must never write off potential grantees as naïve or politically unsophisticated because of the tactics they have chosen. If we want to win, if we want to be effective, we must stop reflexively and perpetually deciding to fund groups that “know how the system works” instead of choosing to fund grassroots organizations led by people of color that employ tactics that make us uncomfortable – tactics that challenge that system directly and sometimes confrontationally.

What other teachings of Dr. King do you think are relevant for philanthropy today? Please share in the comments.

Aaron Dorfman is president and CEO of NCRP. Follow @NCRP on Twitter.

[Disclosure: Cristina Jiménez, executive director and co-founder of United We Dream, serves on the NCRP board of directors. Full board list here.]