From Talk to Action: Behind a Call for Funders to Back Social Movements

A decade ago, when the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) published a report called “Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best,” not everyone was thrilled. In a recent op-ed, NCRP president Aaron Dorfman recounts that the paper “had more than a few people aghast.” The gist of the report? That funders should do things like provide general support, fund underserved communities, back advocacy and maintain transparency. Dorfman says, “I'm pretty sure that if we released the report today, few would bat an eyelash. What’s changed?”

A lot, it turns out. There’s been a mainstreaming of progressive discourse across much of the foundation world, pushing the sector to become more diverse, less elitist, and better attuned to the needs of front-line organizations. Moreover, since the 2016 election, many funders have stepped up in new ways to back advocacy groups, including with rapid-response grants and much-coveted general support funding.

But according to the folks at NCRP—who make it their business to study these trends—the money still has a long way to go to catch up with the rhetoric. “Why is it that dollars aren’t following discourse?” said Timi Gerson, vice president and chief content officer at NCRP. “It’s critical that funders understand movements and the role they play in social change.”

Along with colleagues Ryan Schlegel and Stephanie Peng, Gerson is co-author of a new brief from NCRP examining how foundations have supported—and failed to support—the pro-immigrant movement. The brief is the first publication of a new initiative for NCRP, the Movement Investment Project. As the name implies, the aim is to attract more philanthropic resources to social movement organizations, in this case, movements working toward progressive goals. 

"Big questions are being asked about what kind of country we will be,” Gerson said. “History tells us that forward motion on social issues in this country comes about through movements, and funders have urgent opportunities and a role to play.”

At either end of the political spectrum, the country does appear to be in a “movement moment,” as Gerson calls it. However, mainstream liberal foundations have been hesitant to embrace that fact. As a result, as we’ve argued elsewhere, they’ve been unable to prevent the slow erosion of equity gains rooted in 20th-century social movements—a rollback heavily financed by conservative funders who’ve operated with a long-range strategy and built a powerful infrastructure to advance their core values.

Unpacking Funder Support for Immigrants

Even as it’s become more evident that pragmatic and politically agnostic mainstream funders are losing ground, leaving many of their past achievements at risk, it’s been less clear what should replace the philanthropic norms of the last century.

NCRP’s Movement Investment Project offers some ideas for charting a new path. The team at NCRP chose immigration as the project’s first subject because, as Gerson put it, “we think that immigrant and refugee justice is about all of us. The issue touches on a whole range of other big social change questions that funders, nonprofits and all of us care about.”

To assemble the brief, the team at NCRP drew on Foundation Center data through 2016 and spoke to over 30 pro-immigrant movement leaders. Their findings are rather downbeat. For one thing, “barely 1 percent” of funding from the 1,000 largest U.S. foundations directly benefited immigrants and refugees between 2011 and 2015. That means when anti-immigrant rhetoric spiked in 2016, pro-immigrant movement groups had very little to fight back with. 

On top of that, those groups’ recent support came from only a few funders. Between 2014 and 2016, just 11 foundations furnished over half of all pro-immigrant movement support. Topping the list is NEO Philanthropy, an intermediary interested in building progressive funding coalitions. Another top funder, Unbound Philanthropy, has made immigrant and refugee justice the focus of its giving. Also on the list are many of the progressive movement-building stalwarts we cover often, including the Ford Foundation, Open Society and the JPB Foundation. 

Gerson explained that while post-2016 data isn’t available yet, pro-immigrant movement funding in NCRP’s sample grew by about 40 percent in the two years following the election—part of the “Trump bump” in support for progressive causes. But much of that was for rapid response work driven by crises like family separation. Vital funds, to be sure, but not the kind of support that helps movements grow over the long term. Then there’s the disconnect between where most pro-immigrant funding goes—to national policy and litigation groups—and the fact that recent movement victories are concentrated on the state and local levels. NCRP also cites the need to fund across the full spectrum of immigrant diversity and to address organizer burnout.

NCRP’s tips include providing unrestricted, multi-year gifts, coordinating with other funders to fill gaps, and supporting movements by drawing upon philanthropy’s high level of access and social capital. NCRP also recommends that funders continue supporting social services. “In order to build the power of immigrants, we often need to meet some of their immediate needs,” Gerson said. The brief also suggests helping movement organizations access 501(c)(4) funds. As groups like the New Left Accelerator attest, that’s an oft-overlooked way funders can open up reservoirs of support for rising grassroots leaders. 

Related: Fight on All Fronts: A Progressive Group Looks to Build Political Power

Intersectional Aims

The pro-immigrant movement intersects with many of the problems vulnerable communities face right now, but so does other grassroots work. Part of NCRP’s aim with the Movement Investment Project is to encourage foundations to abandon silos—another area where talk can often outweigh action. On the ground, Schlegel said, “many social service and social justice organizations don’t work within silos. If you’re a funder interested in the [vulnerable] populations, it’s likely that your support is already reaching immigrants.” 

NCRP already does a lot of legwork interviewing movement leaders about their needs, but Schlegel and Gerson see further opportunities to expand the scope of research, taking a closer look at local organizations. “From the philanthropic perspective, the vast majority of funding comes from national orgs and goes to national organizations. There’s opportunity for a lot more local funding,” Gerson said. 

To assemble this brief, NCRP worked closely with Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) and learned about movement gains from funding entities like NEO Philanthropy, Unbound Philanthropy, the Healing Trust, the Proteus Fund’s Security and Rights Collaborative, and the Haas Jr. Fund. It’s no surprise that affinity groups and funding intermediaries make a strong showing there: Those groups can be good resources for funders who actually want to bust silos. Now, NCRP wants to segue from its immigration survey to other movement areas like democracy and economic justice, with the understanding that distinctions can blur on the ground.

Whatever the Movement Investment Project ends up tackling next, it’s clear that there’s a growing meta-movement within philanthropy to turn progressive talk into progressive action. NCRP has been an important part of that, with projects like Power Moves—a campaign to get funders to examine their internal politics and priorities—as well as in-depth research like its As the South Grows reports.