By Mary Joyce, Movement Net Lab
In Part 1 of this two-part series I argue why new social movement funding infrastructure is necessary. In Part 2 I’ll suggest how to do it.
Q: Why is new financial infrastructure needed?
There’s a big disconnect between how social change is happening and how resources for change-makers are distributed. Unless changes occur in the activist funding system the most effective activists will be starved of resources and change will not occur.
A: Social movements look different…
In 1920, the NAACP decided to publicize and condemn the epidemic of lynching through a communication campaign. They hung a flag with the words “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY” from the window of their New York office whenever they learned through their network that a person had been lynched the day before. In 1938, they stopped the flag campaign, not because the crisis was over, but because their landlord found the flag disturbing and they risked losing their lease.
Compare this to the hashtag commemorations like #FreddieGray and #SandraBland that have sprung up around the Black Lives Matter movement, its own name taken from a hashtag. Mass broadcast of hashtags on Twitter is free and immediate. Victims of police violence are named, not commemorated in anonymity. Anyone can raise the alarm, so long as they have internet access. And a hashtag – shareable with a click – is very difficult to silence.
…and the changes go deeper than the screen.
These changes are more than switching from flags for tweets. From Iran’s Green Revolution in 2009, to the Arab Spring of 2010, Occupy Wall Street and the indignados in 2011, to Ukraine’s Euromaidan in 2013, to Black Lives Matter, mass movements are increasingly being initiated and sustained outside of the brick-and-mortar infrastructure of nonprofits and legally incorporated civic institutions.
New organizational infrastructure is emerging online…
Scholars such as Lance Bennett, Alexandra Segerberg, and Manuel Castells have observed that there is an “emerging alternative model” for social movements. According to Bennett and Segerberg, “Formal organizations are losing their grip on individuals, and group ties are being replaced by large-scale, fluid social networks.”
Social media isn’t only changing the medium of social movements. It’s also changing how they operate. According to Bennett and Segerberg, “technology platforms and applications
Citizens are using the free organizational infrastructure of social media to create their own infrastructure outside of the complex of 501(c)(3)s and foundations that have defined civil society for the past sixty years.
…but financial infrastructure is still locked in the past.
“[F]unds need to be structured so they can flow to the emerging landscape of self-organized actions rather than just through formal, pre-existing organizations,” write June Holley and Allen Kwabena Frimpong of Movement Net Lab. Foundations, however, are still set up under the assumption that those making change are incorporated as 501(c)(3)s or (c)(4)s. Even for progressive and innovative funding bodies like the Social Justice Fund, which fund non-incorporated organizations, 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) are the defaults. For most other foundations, legal status as a nonprofit is the only option.
So here’s the big question: Why is the infrastructure that finances movements so much better at supporting brick-and-mortar incorporated entities than unincorporated and fluid networks?
Part of these limitations are legal. Foundations must demonstrate for tax reasons that their money is supporting projects with a social mission. But there are also conceptual hurdles. According to one foundation employee I spoke to, “It’s easy to envision how to craft a grant for technocratic organizations. It’s not as easy to think about how to support a group of people.” Practical inconvenience also limits grants, especially when the amount needed is small. “Every grant has same transaction cost,” noted the same employee, who spoke to me anonymously about her work. “Smaller grants tend to be more complicated.”
Bureaucratic hurdles also make it difficult for those working outside of nonprofits to gain the skills necessary to access funds. According to one employee of an international advocacy organization that also makes grants, unregistered organizations may not have any “history of managing funds…managing grants.” As a result, it’s “hard to do due-diligence [on a] loose handful of individuals [or even] one individual.”
The result is the kind of situation I experienced a few days ago, in which an activist emails friends to quickly collect a few hundred dollars through PayPal to support organizing at the frontline of a movement.
So activists are locked out of the funding system.
The result is the kind of situation I experienced just today, in which activists end up emailing friends to quickly collect a few hundred dollars through PayPal to support the expenses of an experienced trainer and organizer going to the newest frontline location of a movement.
This ad hoc system can’t support the massive movements made possible by new digital infrastructure. We need equally innovative and equally scalable financial infrastructure to match. In Part 2 of this series I’ll suggest how to do that.