Funding community organising: lessons from the US

May 17, 2022


minute read
Martha Mackenzie
Executive Director, Civic Power Fund

“ organising is simultaneously one of the best and one of the most under-resourced mechanisms we have to shift power to and secure just outcomes for (and with) communities.”

These words are from Growing the Grassroots, a new report by NEON Chair Vic Langer, which shows that people power is vital to a more just, equitable and democratic future. 

I have included them here because they so well capture why the Civic Power Fund exists. 

We are the UK’s first pooled donor fund dedicated to community organising. By shifting philanthropic resources into grassroots organising, we aim to strengthen democratic engagement and build the power of communities to win change that matters to them. 

Reversing our democratic decline 

Our democracy is in trouble. Communities across the UK feel disconnected from each other and from the decisions that affect their lives. 

Recent research from New Local found that 79% of people agree with the statement “Westminster and Whitehall are making decisions about people and places they know little about.” 

These findings affirm what we’re hearing in conversations across the country. Ordinary people feel unable to make change and that their rights and needs are being ignored. 

Not only does this mean worse outcomes. We know that as people have less to gain from politics, populism and polarisation thrive

To change this, we must ensure citizens can shape the quality of their life, community, and future. 

We can do this by building lasting civic power through organising.

Inspiring, grassroots organising 

The pandemic catalysed a reckoning with deep, systemic injustice, but also showed the ingenuity, resilience and spirit of our communities. 

This same spirit is reflected in the innovative organising happening across the UK. 

For example, Civic Power Fund partners Centre for Progressive Change, who are fighting alongside cleaners for better sick pay. Head teacher Janice Allen, who is organising students, parents, and local groups to resist racism in Rochdale. And pioneering organising charity, Citizens UK, who responded to the generosity and solidarity of our communities to build a powerful network to welcome Ukrainian refugees.

But UK organising lacks a critical ingredient: sustainable funding. 

Lessons on funding community organising 

New research from the Civic Power Fund and Jon Cracknell at The Hour is Late mapped grants from 47 known social justice funders.

This research found that just 0.3% of these grants are going towards community organising or local power building. 

As above, the Civic Power Fund is incredibly proud of the UK’s unique organising traditions. But we also take inspiration from the US, who continue to successfully raise the resources required for a sustainable and diverse organising sector. 

As the graph below shows, investment in US community organising has more than doubled in recent years.

Graph of annual revenue of U.S. organizing networks and intermediaries, showing growth from under $40million in 2007 to over $80million in 2016r
Image from Making a way forward: Community Organising and the Future of Democracy in Europe, Ariadne and European Community Organizers Network, 2018

Collaboration is key to impact 

The Civic Power Fund has spent time exploring what is different. We have collated these findings here and summarised them below.

The top lesson we learnt is that long-term funder collaboration is key to impact. 

By absorbing the risks associated with investing in smaller, unconstituted groups, collaboration allows for more courageous and trusting funding than acting alone.

Martha Mackenzie
Executive Director, Civic Power Fund

1. Learning together is key to success. 

Funding for community organising is a long-term bet. It takes time to see impact and traditional measurement and evaluation approaches often do not apply. It thus requires a high degree of trust in the people and the process. 

We heard from the Four Freedoms Fund that offering a place for organisers and funders to learn from each other and meet as equals is vital to building this trust. This leads to shared risk taking, strategy shifting and trustee engagement.

2. Growing the grassroots is how we transform civic power.

Reaching the groups closest to their communities is vital to transforming power. 

This often means finding groups unseen by funders and unsupported by infrastructure. Intermediaries and funder collaboratives can build the community roots and in-house organising expertise to enable this. 

For example, through their wide network of grassroots groups, People’s Action have built a thriving and authentic organising powerhouse. 

By absorbing the risks associated with investing in smaller, unconstituted groups, collaboration also allows for more courageous and trusting funding than acting alone. 

The result is stronger organisations, working better together, addressing major problems. 

3. Sustainable and strategic resources help organisers flourish.

Effective organising requires people who have the time, energy and financial support to turn up year in and year out. 

To grow, groups need assurances that they can hire, train and support leaders for the long-term. This requires flexible, multi-year investments in core-costs.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has long argued that by pooling and targeting resources, funders can raise and give at the scale required for impact.  

Without this, organisers are often trapped in a competitive cycle of applying for small, short-term grants. Or they are not supported at all. 

4. 'Beyond the grant' support is critical

Lasting civic power, which endures beyond one campaign or election, relies on connections, commitment, and capacity. 

Grassroots groups building the power of their communities are essential to democratic engagement. But this work becomes transformative when these same groups are supported to build and join wider infrastructure and movements. 

Intermediaries and funder collaboratives can help to realise this by pooling back-end support and by creating vital network effects. 

Let’s collaborate!

Community organising is by its nature a collective practice. It is effective because it brings communities together - at once, strengthening our bonds and building civic power.

It is therefore unsurprising that successful funding for organising also requires a collective approach. 

As the wide range of innovative, inspired and thoughtful collaboration opportunities listed on the Funders Collaborative Hub makes clear - this is increasingly true, regardless of our aims as funders.

So the Civic Power Fund would love to hear from you, to trade lessons on collective action and discuss collaboration opportunities to strengthen our communities and our democracy.

Get involved

To find out how you can get involved in the Civic Power Fund, visit its collaboration opportunity page on the Hub.

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