funders top-down grassroots community groups

Pay the Piper, Call the Tune
oppressed organizing grants

Why the Environmental Movement Is Not Winning

Money talks. When you think of “green” issues, you think of the issues that foundations fund, which might not be the right openings for reform. This 2012 article is from Alternet, Feb. 24.

by Peter Montague

The environmental movement is not winning due to the failed policies of environmental funders. The movement hasn't won any significant policy changes at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s because funders have favored top-down elite strategies and have neglected to support a robust grassroots infrastructure. Environmental funders spent a $10 billion between 2000 and 2009 but achieved relatively little because they failed to underwrite grassroots groups that are essential for any large-scale change.

Released in late February by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Cultivating the Grassroots was written by Sarah Hansen, who served as executive director of the Environmental Grantmakers Association from 1998 to 2005.

Environmental funders mainly support large, professionalized environmental organizations instead of the scrappy community-based groups that are most heavily impacted by environmental harms. Organizations with annual budgets greater than $5 million make up only 2 percent of all environmental groups, yet receive more than half of all environmental grants and donations. For building a social movement, funding priorities seem upside down.

Instead of funding community-based groups to generate ideas, strategies, and political support for transformative change, environmental donors have thrown their weight behind narrow lobbying campaigns in Washington, D.C. -- for example, the failed inside-the-beltway campaign in 2009-2010 to pass "cap and trade" legislation to curb global warming. For their part, mainstream environmental groups hang pleas for environmental change on the apolitical hook of rational appeals, expecting that decision-makers confronted with powerful evidence will do the right thing. But this strategy has not worked because "a vocal, organized, sustained grassroots base is vital to achieving sustained change," the report asserts.

"In movements throughout history, the core of leadership came from a nucleus of directly impacted or oppressed communities while also engaging a much broader range of justice-seeking supporters." In other words, successful movements for social change -- anti-slavery, women's suffrage, labor rights, and civil rights -- have always been inspired, energized, and led by those most directly affected. Yet these are the very groups within the environmental movement that are starved for funds.

Analysis of environmental grantmaking, 2007-2009, reveals that only 15 percent of environmental grant dollars are classified as benefiting marginalized communities, and only 11 percent are classified as advancing "social justice" strategies, such as community organizing. The report makes a distinction between internet activism or getting your neighbor to sign a petition, and real community organizing. "Community organizing builds power by helping people understand the source of their social or political problems, connect with others facing the same challenges and, together, take action to win concrete change." Community organizing is messy and takes time.

The report also distinguishes between "national organizations that might parachute into local communities for one-time policy campaigns versus authentic, local organizations that not only work on those same short- term campaigns but, just as importantly, build long-term leadership and capacity in the community to amplify change in the future."

"Unlike many of the professional advocates in Washington, D.C., people of color, immigrants, poor people and young people often are living face to face with the devastating impacts of environmental degradation. These growing communities have the self-interest to do something and, increasingly, the collective power to potentially make real change but may lack the support or resources to organize."

The report offers a four-point roadmap for "funding the grassroots to win"

1. Fund work that benefits communities of the future.
"Prioritizing funding for lower-income communities of color is not only strategic given that these communities are becoming the majority and support environmental change, but also because change that targets the most impacted populations has a multiplier effect for society as a whole," Hansen writes.

2. Invest 25 percent of grant dollars in grassroots action
"The way to build a broad movement around environment solutions is to mobilize diverse communities of people around issues that are much closer to their self-interest (such as stopping toxic pollution, creating viable new jobs, and reducing energy bills) and then work intentionally to connect those individuals and campaigns to a larger understanding of communal and global interests. Grassroots groups need resources to be able to engage effectively at all levels (local, state, national and international)."

3. Build Supportive Infrastructure
As the highly-successful right wing in the U.S. can tell you, social movements grow large and powerful only when they are served by a deep infrastructure of organizations offering technical assistance and know-how. Local groups need to be able to find each other, share strategies, develop leadership, communicate their message, identify allies, and gain a wide range of skills. Such an infrastructure requires sustained funding and without it no movement can succeed.

4. Take the Long View, Prepare for Tipping Points
Shed expectations of microscopic, quick deliverables and embrace the slow, patient process of movement building.

Sitting at a "Whites Only" lunch counter at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C., there were four black students from a local college. Although four may not appear to be impressive metrics, consider the scale and scope of the movement they helped launch.

To see the whole article, click here .

JJS: People who promote a new economy might learn from this report. Different issues, but social change is social change. And if one can’t learn, can they change society?


Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics and helped prepare a course for the UN on geonomics. To take the “Land Rights” course, click here .

Also see:

The Global Economy's Corporate Crime Wave

High Reward From Targeting So-called High Risk

The social psychology theory of structural balance

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