"A Different America." A Movement Funder Tries to Change Who’s Invited to the Table

Nattapol Sritongcom/shutterstock

Nattapol Sritongcom/shutterstock

In the years following the 2008 crash, few people in the liberal philanthropy world were talking about social movement building. And belt tightening by the handful of funders that did operate in this space exacted a heavy toll on activist organizations. Since the 2016 election, support for movement building on the left has grown, largely in reaction to national events. But where was that funding before Trump’s victory solidified the right’s long rise to power?

The recent history of the Third Wave Fund reflects that story. Co-founded in the mid-1990s by Shannon Liss and Rebecca Walker, the writer and activist credited with coining the term “third-wave feminism,” the fund is deeply rooted in social justice organizing. It’s one of a vanguard of funders dedicated to resourcing grassroots movements and critiquing philanthropy’s typical elite-driven model of change.

Despite the latent power of movement funding, Third Wave’s avant-garde nature put it in the crosshairs of supporters looking to downsize as the Great Recession hit. Rye Young, who led Third Wave from 2013 into this year, put it bluntly: “When program officers have less to spend because of dips in the markets, that’s often the first work to be cut. Movement building is treated as interesting, innovative, a learning exercise. Or rather, something that you can take or leave.”

According to Young, the economic downturn caused several major funders to ask whether they needed an intermediary like Third Wave to support activist organizations—even as they lacked the know-how and grassroots connections to make that funding happen on their own. Third Wave hit a rough patch around 2013 that saw it retreat to the Proteus Fund as a fiscally sponsored project with “no grants, no major gifts, and only three monthly sustainers.”

From that low point, Third Wave began to rebuild. From a budget under $100,000 and a staff of one, over the past five years, the fund has grown its budget to over $2 million, assembled a team of five, and sent money toward activist groups through a variety of specialized funds. Young credits this resurgence to Third Wave’s success in “focusing on our mission and values as an organization, finding people who resonated with that, and asking them to give in sustained ways.”

“Excluded from philanthropy”

In Third Wave’s case, focusing on mission and finding the right people meant looking beyond the well-trod territory of wealthy donors to embrace those who, in Young’s words, have been excluded from philanthropy. The emphasis, he says, “is not on one’s wealth, but in how actively and deeply folks want to throw down. We’ve found that sometimes that’s wealthy people, and most often, it’s not.” 

The common thread linking Third Wave’s supporters, rich or not, is a desire to shift decision-making power into the hands of those who’ve been historically locked out of that role. This year, the fund hammered home that commitment as Young handed over the reins to two new co-executive directors, Ana Conner and Kiyomi Fujikawa. The unorthodox arrangement, Young said, reflects Third Wave’s “values to remain led by and for the communities we serve.”

According to Conner and Fujikawa, who only just assumed their joint leadership role at Third Wave, they made the decision to apply for the position together. Fujikawa is one of the first openly transgender women to lead a U.S. philanthropy, and Conner is one of the nation’s youngest philanthropic executives. “The field needs more leaders who are queer and trans people of color, a rarity within philanthropy,” Fujikawa told me. “[Third Wave] is clearly trying to open up space for people to come into leadership in a way that actually shifts power dynamics,” Conner added. 

Given their identities and their movement philanthropy bona fides, Third Wave’s new co-directors certainly fit the bill. Conner’s path to Third Wave began with community organizing through FIERCE and fundraising for the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Fujikawa first encountered philanthropy as a grantee working with movements to end domestic, sexual, and intimate partner violence. The duo connected at Borealis Philanthropy, where Fujikawa worked at the Fund for Trans Generations and Conner worked at both the Transforming Movements Fund and Black-Led Movement Fund.

Conner and Fujikawa both stress that while they’ve had to learn the language of fundraising and philanthropy, the world of big money and major donations is still largely alien to the communities they hail from. That’s true not only in terms of class, race and gender identity, but in terms of age, as well. While it’s not solely a youth funder, a big part of Third Wave’s work these days involves donor organizing that envisions young people as philanthropic leaders and donors in their own right—whether they have privilege or not. 

That may not be a traditional approach, but the Third Wave Fund certainly isn’t alone in that work. As we’ve seen, larger funders like Surdna and organizations like Resource Generation are busy cultivating privileged donors of the next generation, while the members of the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing and similar efforts generate energy among the grassroots. 


Rethinking the table

Third Wave’s funding initiatives embrace strategies that are gaining traction among progressive funders, if not the philanthrosphere at large. They include the Mobilize Power Fund, which awards rapid response grants to youth-led activist groups, the Grow Power Fund, a capacity-building program establishing long-term relationships with movement grantees, and the Own Our Power Fund, aimed at increasing the agency of under-resourced communities within their own movements. Third Wave also maintains a sex worker giving circle to support activist groups led by current or former sex workers.

As Conner and Fujikawa tell it, Third Wave’s overarching goal is not just to bring new people to the table, but to rethink what the table is. That can mean thinking outside the box about what constitutes philanthropy. The pair want to encourage supporters to donate their time and skills if they can’t give money, and to consider giving away decision-making power as a philanthropic act in and of itself. 

That’s an important point. It underscores how participatory forms of grantmaking are challenging a status quo that holds philanthropy as a prerogative of the rich and already powerful. The prospects for bottom-up philanthropy are still uncertain, though, and while big players like Ford and Open Society have shown some interest, scrappier organizations like Third Wave still dominate the conversation. One danger is that larger funders will only ever pay lip service to participatory models, or, as Young said, approach them as disposable “learning exercises” rather than core programming.

In the end, although Third Wave’s leaders are excited about the fund’s recent growth, they acknowledge that “we’re a tiny slice of the pie in philanthropy, and many people would never see us as legitimate,” as Conner put it. Without serious buy-in from the mainstream liberal funding world, local grassroots work is in danger of being forever on a shoestring budget.

For larger funders to recognize that, Young said, means learning from the past decade’s mistakes, and even taking a cue from right-wing funders who focused on advocacy and base-building during the Obama years to great effect. He said, “If progressive funders had doubled down on grassroots philanthropy during the recession and cut some of their mainstream and top-heavy grantmaking, I believe we’d be in a different America.” 

Related: Powerless: How Top Foundations Failed to Defend Their Values—And Now Risk Losing Everything