Some funders embrace these organizers, their dreams and their tactics. The Solutions Project, for example, won a NCRP Impact Award in 2017 in part for their immediate support of Indigenous communities blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline. Other winners, like the Groundswell Fund and the Four Freedoms Fund, have long supported intersectional, grassroots movements for gender, racial, and migrant justice. They, too, follow and evolve a tradition. In addition to the Black-led mutual aid that sustained the movement’s core, institutional funders like the New World Foundation, Field Foundation, Stern Family Fund, and Taconic Foundation provided flexible support for civil rights organizations in the lead up to the March on Washington, organized other donors to the cause and even helped raise non-c3 dollars. 

But then as now, such funders remain relative outliers. Few of the 12,000 foundations present in the 1960s wanted anything to do with groups undertaking massive protests or litigating in the courts. In addition to the obvious white racism that pervaded the ranks of these foundations, even for those who sympathized with the movement’s cause, protest seemed – and was – risky. Civil rights protesters were routinely targeted and killed. Enforcement of the limited civil rights protections on the books was almost non-existent. And despite his sanitized approval rating today, when Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, only 40% of Americans had a favorable opinion of him. That opinion declined to 30% by 1968, after he more publicly embraced labor protests, called for a massive federal aid program for Black people, and denounced the War in Vietnam. Even the Sterns of the Stern Foundation received anonymous threats of violence for their support, though thankfully, and unlike the Black organizers and their comrades on the frontlines facing lifelong injury, unemployment, and death for their activism, no physical harm befell them.  

Grassroots movements still struggle to find the resources they deserve. For example, despite a wave of statements and black squares after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the many acts of vigilante and state violence against Black, queer and other communities of color since, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity has found a yawning chasm between the amount of money pledged for racial justice and the actual dollars that made it out the door. Moreover, from the data available, “only 1.3 percent of racial equity funding and 9.1 percent of racial justice funding supports grassroots organizing.” NCRP’s own nonprofit members tell us the same: for organizers of color with small budgets in conservative areas, it can be hard to even get a foundation meeting, let alone a meaningful multi-year grant. 

Read the full article about funding grassroots organizations by Ben Barge at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.