Movement Strategy Center on Forging Authentic Relationships Between Funders and Movement Leaders

Movement Strategy Center (MSC) is values-aligned with the activist organizations we offer infrastructure to and thought partnership with; and dismantling white supremacy in philanthropy and intermediary services is fundamental to our goal and mission. But at the end of the day, we are a cog in the machine of capitalism; and capitalism is core to economic, racial, and environmental inequity we are fighting each and every day. 

It’s with this in mind that we cannot deny the obvious tensions between the philanthropic organizations that fund our works and the on-the-ground movement leaders we partner with.

 

 

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This thinking is by no means new or innovative — it’s ingrained enough within the greater philanthropic and activist ecosystems to warrant parody. There are dozens of social media accounts dedicated to poking holes in the nonprofit industrial complex. Two of our favorites, @nogodsnoprofts on Instagram and @philanthro_tea on Twitter, have amassed more than 4,000 followers thanks to a collection of memes and hot takes that are often humorous, honest, and entirely relatable.  

Dontay Wimberly, rapper and People’s Climate Innovation Center (formerly Climate Innovation) Young Black Climate Leader (YBCL), shared similar frustration in his Instagram stories. He noted that in 2020, $471 billion went to nonprofit organizations — nearly half a trillion dollars. “That’s how much money was given away — so imagine how much the ruling class has in the first place.” He continued, “capitalism is a zero-sum game … for the few to win, everyone else has to lose. That’s why nonprofits are so frustrating. They don’t really talk about capitalism … Then they would have to reconcile with the contradiction that nonprofits are a byproduct of capitalist exploitation.” 

And he’s right — without unfathomable wealth there would be no philanthropy. And without philanthropy, many of the activists behind crucial movement work would be hobbled. Wealth and philanthropy are essential — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do.   

Carla Dartis, MSC’s executive director, wonders: “how many philanthropic organizations and family foundations have direct access to small grassroots organizers? How many have activist organizers on their boards? Their advisory councils?” Without those folks involved in decision making how are funders supposed to fully understand needs? Without a seat on the table, where is the community and partnership? And when the organizers on the ground are honest about their needs, “they are seen as weak — they can never be seen as a true partner.”

Candace Clark, the resource organizing director at HEAL Food Alliance, one of MSC’s fiscally sponsored projects, agrees: “No one can tell you how to fix a problem in the community they aren’t a part of.” 

 

 

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Problems between philanthropic organizations and activists are compounded by what Dartis describes as a “model of scarcity.” These foundations have good intentions but the funding is rarely enough; the timelines too defined; the relationships too “episodic.” It’s nearly impossible for activists to secure enough funding and — crucially — unrestricted funding to support ongoing efforts, growth, or infrastructure. And, she adds: those deadlines and restrictions, that manufactured urgency, is “the white supremacy piece.” All organizations, large and small, need to be able to adapt or shift as circumstances change and hot button issues arise and established funding can rarely be diverted to tackle these issues.

Jose Pienda, executive director for After Incarceration, an MSC fiscally sponsored project, understands this scarcity sentiment. Since his release from prison in 2020, Pienda has worked with the Restorative Center to pursue a personal restorative justice journey and provide restorative outlets for others. Pienda believes “if we replace competition with collaboration, we all have access to everything … At the end of the day, we are all working for each other.” But he doesn’t believe Big Philanthropy always works that way, referring to the status quo as “a competitive rat race mentality of how and where we get our resources.” 

Intermediaries can seem to complicate the situation by standing between one or more foundations and grantees. But MSC avoids this; and part of avoiding roadblocks is acknowledging that we exist in a sort of paradox between capitalism and liberation. We do not try to ignore the inherent capitalist hypocrisy that is the backbone of philanthropy.   

And we make mistakes — all of us do, big philanthropy and otherwise. But the key is accountability. Clark says, “accountability can feel like being reprimanded but that’s not the intention, it’s dialog, it’s sharing, it’s willingness.” Crucially, she adds that “accountability is transparency” and that means being “open to correcting mistakes.”

Terry Marshall, the cofounder of Intelligent Mischief — a member of MSC Movement Strategy Network (MSN), tells us, “anything that is real, started as imagination first.” MSC imagined a leader-full ecosystem of dynamic and strategic leaders, projects, teams, strategic initiatives, collaborations, and organizations working to advance BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and women and GNC-led power building. We started as a group of organizers addressing the overlapping issues of our time collaboratively; who know the climate crisis is connected to the immigration crisis; and that racial justice can not be separated from gender justice. Our purpose is to strengthen projects on the ground and reshape collective futures while working towards equity and community — even with funders, large and small. 

 “Accountability can feel like being reprimanded but that’s not the intention, it’s dialog, it’s sharing, it’s willingness. Accountability is transparency and that means being open to correcting mistakes.”

It all comes down to being in a relationship with one another. Our fiscal sponsorship programs are based on a cohort system that builds on a nested network approach. The idea — which brings in classes of activist organizations — speaks to the concept of Beloved Community and to the need for power-building. Onboarding starts with goal and intention setting; and many goals include relationship building. It’s a crucial, foundational part of the work, and determines our resilience and ability to move forward together. In her book, Emergent Strategy, social movement facilitator adrienne maree brown reminisced about an offering of advice that MSC cofounder Taj James once shared: “don’t thingify, humanify! Shifting our way of being is our tangible outcome. Systems change comes from big groups making big shifts of being.”  

Anya de Marie, who helped develop this approach during her time as MSC’s chief fiscal sponsorship officer, said, “we created as much community as we could inside complicated and contradictory philanthropic and nonprofit cultures and constraints. Rather than an individualized focus on organizational development, we use a network-centered approach that is relational and trauma-responsive.” That rationale reflects MSC’s employee culture — it has been and continues to be a community and political home. And that sense of belonging can take the edge off the very difficult work and very difficult conversations that come with transformative movement building.

Movement building is relational work, and our relationships with our programs and partners allows us to be innovative and agile in our approaches. Mariame Kaba, author of We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, tells us, “being intentionally in relation to one another, a part of a collective, helps to not only imagine new worlds but also to imagine ourselves differently.” While most intermediaries offer a black and white, client-based approach, our services are designed to address a community’s complete need for resources; and our infrastructure is focused on access and transparency. 

This process extends to many of MSC’s partners. Clark, who is new to the HEAL Food Alliance team, notes that when they are working and planning with their member organizations — a diverse group comprised of rural and urban farmers, fisherfolk, farm and food chain workers, rural and urban communities, scientists, public health advocates, environmentalists, and indigenous groups — they strive for safe spaces, open communication, and the encouragement of all voices from all backgrounds and all geographies to speak their minds and “craft their stories.”

“Don’t thingify, Humanify! Shifting our way of being is our tangible outcome. Systems change comes from big groups making big shifts of being.”

Moving forward, MSC envisions sharing our movement building expertise and ultimately expanding our intermediary model to other activist communities and intermediaries. This equitable service toolkit will be offered to other intermediaries as a guide to setting up their projects and their ecosystems up for success while collectively shifting the paradigm of philanthropy. Crucially, this system will actively engage activists and communities around the model — which will strengthen communities all over. 

MSC proudly focuses on projects that are most impacted by inequities; we don’t have minimum budgets; and we work hard to facilitate powerbuilding and education for our fiscally sponsored partners — with financial literacy, business acumen, and operational knowledge. This not only expands their mission’s impact and their role in systemic change but it helps them walk the walk and talk the talk when in conversation with potential funders, partners, and employers.

This strategic investment in professional development is crucial, as staff and leadership within grassroots organizations sometimes lack the operational literacy required to operate in philanthropic circles. Our focus on building skills and expertise is unique in the world of intermediaries — we believe strategic investment in staff and partner education builds capacity for the movement and the movement leaders, at MSC and beyond. MSC’s Movement Infrastructure Innovation Center (MIIC) project advisor Jamillah Renard‘s financial literacy coaching and resources has increased our organizational breadth while granting our activist partners transferable skills that will increase their income capabilities.

All of this requires funding. And sometimes to get the funding communities need, activists need to be open to partnering with foundations and funders that may not be completely aligned in terms of mission and vision. Per Clark, “it’s important to be strategic, and to look at alignment even if it’s indirect. Compromise is nuanced and sometimes there are still benefits.” It’s hard to know who or what else every philanthropist and foundation is involved with; but it’s safe to say that they don’t set out to be extractive. And here is where communication is again key: “you can walk them through and they may be willing to see things differently.” That said, there are differing opinions on this throughout the transformative movement ecosystem and activists will need to do what’s right for themselves and their communities on a case by case basis.