Movement Capture: A Focus on How Large Funders Can Shift Grassroots Priorities

On the surface, it would seem an organization focused on effecting large-scale social change would—and should—welcome a new major donor with open arms, even if the funding came with some restrictions. After all, how else can the movement gain traction, awareness, and results? Yet a new paper by Megan Ming Francis challenges the idea that a large influx of funding is always a good thing for a social movement. Rather, the funding can result in shifted priorities and momentum—and may be guided by funders who do not necessarily have the full perspective of the movement or the problems it aims to solve. She labels this “movement capture.”

Francis offers as a historical example the interplay between the NAACP and the Garland Fund. The NAACP had been focused in the early 1900s on anti-black violence and anti-lynching laws, believing that change is this area was key to progress in other civil rights areas like education and housing. The organization was having a difficult time attracting funding in this area, however, and the Garland Fund came forward in the mid-1920s with funding to focus on education.

Francis points out that the outcome of this education focus was certainly not detrimental in and of itself—it resulted in the landmark de-segregation case Brown v. Board of Education. And the Garland Fund was no villain—at a time when many foundations were racist, its founder Charles Garland wanted his funding to be “to the benefit of mankind — to the benefit of poor as much as rich, of black as much as white, of foreigners as much as citizens, of so‐called criminals as much as the condemned.”

Yet the core message of Francis’ paper is that, even when movement capture results in important policy wins, it is important to reflect on what may have been lost or sidelined by the priority shift. She notes that “[t]hey achieved this dramatic, important thing…but I do wonder about how different the trajectory of civil rights would have been if we’d listened to black activists at the time.”

Fast-forward to the present and movements like Black Lives Matter, where similar dynamics may be at play. Francis expresses concern that, even if intentions are good, “the priorities of the poorest and marginalized get replaced by the priorities of the rich and powerful.”

“That’s the conundrum of contemporary philanthropy,” she told Vox reporter Kelsey Piper. “It’s not bad that we have these so-called thought leaders. It’s not bad that there’s the work being done by [George] Soros, or by other groups, on work they think is genuinely important. But what was concerning back in the 1920s, and what I think is still concerning today, is the way that exciting localized social justice organizations get co-opted by funders.”

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