Patrisse Cullors is creating a network of rapid responders, as an alternative to police, to support victims and survivors of state violence and mass criminalization. Raj Jayadev is helping individuals who face incarceration, their families, and their communities play an active role in their defense. Nicole Pittman is taking on the practice of placing children on sex offender registries.
These leaders are finding new ways to break down barriers to opportunity and justice at a time when people of color, immigrants, and other communities face a resurgent wave of hostility and violence, both in the United States and elsewhere. In this moment, we need more leaders who are not satisfied with anything less than obliterating the systems of oppression that harm communities of color and working people, and who are deeply embedded in the communities they serve. But to make headway against these challenges, these leaders need those of us in philanthropy to step up and completely rethink our approach to investing in social change.
What does it take for philanthropy to effectively support emerging leaders and their risky ideas? Our experience with the Leading Edge Fund—a three-year fellowship launched by the Rosenberg Foundation and the Hellman Foundation in 2016 to support cutting-edge, social change ideas—has underlined the importance of four funding practices. While these practices aren’t particularly new, we believe our experiences over the past three years can offer some fresh examples of and new perspectives on how to apply them.
Give Leaders Space and Opportunity to Think—and Act—Big
Nonprofit and movement leaders are chronically overworked. The constant stress related to fundraising, and managing and growing organizations—all while advancing movements and organizing communities to push back against injustice—leaves little time or space for deep thinking about how to fundamentally change the odds for and with disenfranchised people.
The Leading Edge Fund is a state-based fellowship that provides unrestricted support to organizers and activists to help nurture their long-term vision for change. The fund supports fellows to think (and act) big by providing general support funds to use as they wish in their efforts to change our communities. Our hope is that the availability of flexible, unrestricted support will allow fellows the space to reflect and focus their energy and creativity on pursuing their boldest ideas. As one example, building on her strong history of advocacy and activism, including as a founder of #BlackLivesMatter, Cullors has used fellowship funds to support the development of community-based, rapid-response “justice teams” to combat police violence and to write her New York Times best-selling memoir, When They Call You a Terrorist.
Give Leaders Time to Try and Fail
In any endeavor, it can take years to turn promising ideas into reality, and that’s especially true for social movements. Take, for example, the movement to make marriage equality a reality in the land, and the ongoing fight for civil rights. Bold and transformative change is possible only through sustained, long-term, patient, and coordinated advances; there may not be a straight path to change, and the work may occur in fits and starts. But scarce resources often force nonprofits and activists to focus on the short term. The impulse can be to play it safe and stick to tried-and-true approaches that will appeal to philanthropic supporters, even if those approaches are not delivering the systemic change that will unlock real progress.
To get rid of restrictions and requirements that often stifle long-term thinking and groundbreaking ideas, we let go of the need to have measured outcomes. Instead, we decided to invest in the leaders and support their development for the long haul. We also connect fellows with experts and partners that can help them identify areas of growth as well as the type of supports they need. For example, Raja Jorjani, who is working to ensure that immigrants impacted by the criminal justice system have legal representation, was able to meet with Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and learn even more about the transformative power of litigation for social change.
We also let go of funding practices intended to “manage” grantees’ work. For example, the fund does not require detailed proposals or budgets with annual deliverables, quantified outcomes, and frequent reporting. Our expectation is not that fellows will accomplish their goals in one year or three years—or even 10 years. Rather than giving us ongoing grantee reports, fellows share their failures and successes with their cohort and with us during regular retreats, and submit annual updates about their efforts. Since we are focused on the leaders, rather than the success of their idea, accepting the risk that some of their ideas may fall short even as others take hold and flourish is baked into the design.
Support the Leader, Not Just the Organization
Leadership awards are typically tied to the work people are doing within a specific organization, and grants are awarded for project-based goals or for organizational support. Even in leadership development, the trend is to support not only leaders, but also their senior team, the board, or organizational systems.
By contrast, our fund is agnostic when it comes to affiliation. Fellows can be leaders or founders of staffed nonprofit organizations, solo operators with nonprofit status, employees of public systems or legal aid organizations, or individual activists. Instead, we focus on the strength of their potential and their ideas.
For example, Jayadev founded Silicon Valley De-Bug to mobilize communities in Silicon Valley around social justice issues, including workers’ rights and criminal justice reform. Today, the platform is a vehicle for community organizing to impact the outcome of cases and transform the court system. However, Meredith Desautels’ fellowship—and effort to end the incarceration of children—isn’t tied to her work with any one organization, and Jorjani is working within a government institution as a public defender.
Remember That Movements Thrive on Connections
Social justice work can be isolating. Its fierce urgency and the daily grind can be all-encompassing. And fundraising pressures can make organizations feel more like competitors than allies, which puts the success of our collective movements at stake.
Part of our work, therefore, is to help foster a network of activists who can support each other to advance equity and social justice. Toward this end, we convene retreats where fellows share ideas, get hands-on training to build their capacity, and grow and strengthen their personal relationships. Training has included how to make a case of support for funders and wellness for social justice leaders.
Fellows also have had the opportunity to collaborate on issues and projects during retreats. Raha Jorjani and Raj Jayadev, for example, collaborated on a symposium that focused on prosecutor accountability. Patrisse Cullors and Morning Star Gali organized a convening for leaders from Movement for Black Lives and Native organizers. We also make the retreats family friendly; fellows can bring their children to mealtime and retreat activities.
In other efforts to spur cross-fertilization and relationship building, we encourage fellows to use their grant funds to support networking with other fellows, whether through site visits to their communities or shared learning opportunities. As one example, Nicole Pittman visited Silicon Valley DeBug to learn how to integrate participatory defense in her work. From the beginning of this work, participants told us they wanted a “relational vs. transactional” experience—and we’ve tried to deliver.
All too often, nonprofit and community leaders feel bound and beholden to philanthropy, responding to our often-difficult requirements, and tailoring their ideas and proposals to what they think we want to fund. Working with these inspiring fellows has reminded us that the best role philanthropy can play in advancing social justice is to flip the power equation and work in service to those who are making a difference on the frontlines.
Listen to these grassroots leaders, invest in their great ideas, help them grow their networks—and then get out of the way. That’s what we’re trying to do, and we hope it is a promising formula for building and growing stronger social movements. Now more than ever, we need to give movement leaders the resources, flexibility, and connections they need to bring their vision for justice to life.
Timothy Silard and Lateefah Simon
Stanford Social Innovation Review