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Will the Revolution Be Funded?

Organizers and researchers Zac Chapman and Nairuti Shastry examine how movements can build power by working within, without, and against philanthropy

In April 2022, grassroots organization Mijente unveiled a political framework in which it advocated for a threefold strategy of working within, without, and against the state to achieve its political goals. This framing was inspired by a movement group in Chile, the Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha.

We propose a similar path: building strategic alignment across groups working within, without, and against philanthropy. We aim to share the historical and present-day value of diverse approaches to fundraising that include but are in no way limited to philanthropic investment. Moreover, we seek to show how aligning work within, without, and against philanthropy can catalyze power building on the Left.

New Gilded Age

This April marked twenty years since INCITE!’s landmark conference, “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded,” shifted the conversation about how the Left organizes and funds our movements. The conference and eponymous anthology published in 2007 put forth incisive critiques of how the “nonprofit industrial complex”—largely due to its pernicious relationship with philanthropy—professionalizes, derails, and cools off dissent that would otherwise go toward mass movement building.

INCITE!’s own experience was informed by a 2004 incident in which the Ford Foundation retracted a $100,000 grant after catching wind of a letter the group had written in support of Palestinian liberation. Two decades later, censorship continues, and funders remain largely silent about the escalating genocide and collective punishment wrought on the Palestinian people.

The past two decades have marked the rise of a “new gilded age” of capitalist accumulation. Foundations currently hoard upward of $1.5 trillion. Moreover, movement organizations on both the Left and Right increasingly rely on this capital to advance their work, no matter how frustrating the funding process may be. In March 2024, the New Economy Coalition (an organization with whom we both work) hosted “Will the Revolution Be Funded?,” an event marking the launch of a new Solidarity Economy Funding Library. When asked to share a word or a phrase participants might use to describe what resourcing has looked like for their communities at large, the chat flooded with hundreds of comments: keywords included “gaslighting,” “exploitative,” “scarce,” and “soul theft and spirit murder.”

Foundations gave away an estimated $105.21 billion in 2022—a 2.5 percent increase from the previous year—so why does it still feel like there is not enough?

Thrice-Stolen Wealth

As Justice Funders note in their Just Transition Investment Framework, foundations “[contribute] over 13 times [more] to extractive global stock markets” than to grants through their portfolio assets. Ruth Wilson Gilmore refers to philanthropic wealth as “twice stolen,” but it could really be viewed as thrice stolen: the $1.5 trillion in current US philanthropic assets are not just (1) stolen from wage laborers and (2) warehoused outside of the realm of taxation but are also (3) actively invested every day into ensuring this same extractive cycle continues.

Where do we go from here? While INCITE!’s conference, anthology, and very phrase “nonprofit industrial complex” conjure images of burning one’s problematic nonprofit to the ground, the introduction to the book’s 2009 edition makes it clear that “the more important question [is] not whether one should ever get nonprofit status, but what is the most strategic way to use nonprofits so they support movements rather than being thought of as [the] movement.”

When we live in a world where nonprofits have largely become the movement, we need to explore better ways—beyond philanthropy—of building power.

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Organizing Without

Tiny (lisa) gray-garcia is a lot of things—“that houseless momma, that houseless daughter,” “a poverty scholar…[who rocks her] jailhouse attire”—and unabashedly so. As cofounder of POOR Magazine and PeopleSkool, she is invested in work that uplifts the voices of the poor and unhoused. The Homefulness Project in East Oakland is a manifestation of that work, a co-housing project funded by what tiny calls “the bank of community reparations,” an interracial and interclass community fund.

Self-funding for unmet community and movement needs, although difficult and time-consuming, is at the heart of organizing without philanthropy. The historical record is replete with other examples of how self-funding our movements can itself serve as prefigurative power building. One of the Black Panther Party’s most profitable funding streams funding stream came from its book publications, a point that compelled researcher Andrew Fearnley to write that “the Panthers’ books were not just accounts of their activism, but examples of it.”

Another example comes from the radically simple technology of member dues, which union members have put toward worker power building for decades. Recently, the United Auto Workers (UAW) announced a $40 million investment of dues toward organizing workers in the nonunion auto sector. This mark of renewed labor militancy came just weeks after UAW’s president, Shawn Fain,  plans for a 2028 general strike.

Mutual aid groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project also organize without philanthropy: In 2013, it released a report describing how sliding-scale dues structures build “members’ investment in the work,” limit potential philanthropic co-optation, and nurture leadership. And new outfits like the Resource Organizing Project are building off of this wisdom by training cohorts of movement organizations to build out grassroots donor bases while reconstructing fundraising to be a “form of organizing, power building, and healing.”

All of this draws on the long legacy of community savings pools and other forms of solidarity funding to meet immediate needs across historically colonized and oppressed communities, precluding the need for external monetary support. 

Beyond self-funding, organizing without philanthropy includes fortifying alternative financing efforts—like community lending, community development financial institutions (CDFIs), social movement investing, regulation crowdfunding, and more—so there is no longer a hyper-reliance on philanthropic capital.

The work of both PODER Emma and the Drivers Cooperative is a testament to this effort, serving as powerful prefigurations of what solidarity economies can look like if we truly leverage a plurality of non-extractive financing options. In the words of Seed Commons (a cooperatively governed network of loan funds that moves millions of dollars into worker-owned businesses each year): “Non-extraction is defined simply as the returns to the lender not ever exceeding the wealth created by the borrower.” Non-extractive financing—as opposed to traditional financing—places emphasis on the social impact and community success of the investment alongside (and, at times, over) financial return.

Alan Ramirez is a community organizer who hails from western North Carolina and works as a cooperative developer with PODER Emma. For years, PODER Emma has worked to preserve the homes and livelihoods of Asheville’s increasingly gentrifying immigrant neighborhoods—and it’s done so by relying on non-extractive lending capital for sustainable land and housing projects in the city’s Emma neighborhood. Alan’s care for workers in the South is palpable, even over Zoom. When asked, at the conclusion of our event, what they would want wealth holders (read: hoarders) to know, they looked unflinchingly into the camera and said, “We got us.”

Erik Forman is one of those people who is so gracious and humble that you wouldn’t believe that his Drivers Cooperative, a worker-owned alternative to Uber, made headlines in the New York Times. As Erik explains it, the Drivers Cooperative started in 2019 as 25 drivers in a classroom and grew to 2,500 drivers and 40,000 users by August 2021. Largely funded through non-extractive investments, a membership drive with 2,500 members, and regulation crowdfunding, the cooperative is a hallmark example of building without philanthropy.

As Alan and Erik secure resourcing outside the current paradigm of reliance on philanthropic dollars, they not only demonstrate what fundraising looks like in a post-philanthropic world but also showcase a new form of community-controlled enterprise that is not hoarding the wealth that creates philanthropic surplus in the first place.

Organizing Within

There have been some improvements in the realm of philanthropy in recent years, most notably in the rise of more movement-anchored funders and radical philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs). It’s also important to note recent strides in democratic practices such as participatory grantmakinggiving circles, and worker self-directed governance. Much of these advancements have largely been the result of the burgeoning field of funder organizing, which looks at certain groups of funders as a base that can and should be organized to support redistributive and reparative work.

But it would be a misunderstanding to view funder organizing as merely “moving the money.” “Money is a governance tool. We’re trying to figure out how to govern, and we need to build out our infrastructure,” said Michael Brennan, project coordinator of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, on a recent call. Brennan sees the notion that money is something finite “to be moved” as limiting our organizing horizons. Transactionally viewing funders as ATMs to rage against also absolves them of their wider political responsibility for shifting power.   

Bridget Brehen, director of resource mobilization for Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, recently told us that we must organize alongside the organizers and allies that have strategically deployed into philanthropy, as well as organizing funders to see themselves “as political actors with the potential to become conscious organizers.” In the same breath, she shared that the ecosystem model of transformative organizing presents unique challenges in its application to philanthropy. As Brehen put it, “Poor and working-class people are the base and primary drivers of transformation. Who is the ‘base’ we are organizing in philanthropy, given the class character is vastly different?”

Additionally, there are so many different sectors within philanthropy itself (e.g., foundations, PSOs, and donor advisors). A continuous question remains: How do we further organize the multifarious bases of philanthropy in alignment both with grassroots groups and with each other?

Writing in Dissent last year, Working Families Party organizer Nina Luo made a compelling case for bringing funders “into live campaigns where they can experience what it’s like to struggle together.” Luo calls for a militant comradeship with funders who “practice organizing skills, build deep relationships of trust, see directly how money sustains or kills work, and develop the political discipline that comes from making complex decisions with real consequences.” Such a process outlines one way in which we can organize funders into alignment with grassroots movements.

One limitation of Luo’s piece is what amounts to a dismissal of projects that go beyond seizing and wielding state power. Limiting the funding ecosystem to policy and electoral wins harms the very forms of prefigurative power building that make those wins meaningful. Building housing justice won’t just come from passing TOPA (tenant opportunity to purchase) laws and electing more members of the Squad. It’s also going to derive from resourcing the tenants’ rights groups and community land trusts that make laws like TOPA worth fighting for. It’s going to derive from resourcing communities willing to take risky direct actions that shape a narrative exposing how violent rentier capitalists truly are. And it’s going to derive from resourcing movement-anchored lawyers like those at the Sustainable Economies Law Center, who are developing new legal structures of what housing under community control can look like.

While funder organizing entails philanthropy grappling with the paradoxical role of working to provide capital to those from whom wealth has been intergenerationally stolen, it also entails opening the risky terrain of engaging with (some) funders as solidaristic political actors who can become organizers.

Organizing Against

While organizing with funders is a crucial component of leftist power building, it’s severely limited by one blatant fact: on a structural level, we’re not going to convince the owning class to work against their class interests. And yet there has been a glaring asymmetry between the number of groups organizing within philanthropy (as evidenced by the proliferation of the industry of philanthropic-serving organizations) and the number of those attempting to wield both state and people power to fight back against big philanthropy as a permissible phenomenon in the first place.

This has not always been the case. In 1915, institutional philanthropy, still in its nascent stage, was put on trial in the form of a congressional investigation. The proceedings included testimonies by people across the political spectrum speaking out against institutional philanthropy as a deeply anti-democratic phenomenon. The commission concluded that foundations “are so grave a menace [that] it would be desirable to recommend their abolition.”

Today Congress remains largely silent on philanthropy’s unchecked power. The 1969 Tax Reform Act was the last meaningful federal policy reigning in the power of foundations. Even a milquetoast piece of legislation calling for a mandatory 15-year payout of donor-advised fund assets has stalled in Congress. However, several advocates are still working toward leveraging policy-level interventions to make the landscape untenable for big philanthropy. The Institute for Policy Studies’ 2022 Gilded Giving report, for example, calls for a constellation of non-reformist reforms that would completely overhaul philanthropy as we know it.

Aligning Our Strategies

The current political moment is awash with resourcing strategies, from resurgent dues-based labor organizing, increased mutual aid activity, and funder organizing to frontline groups using financial tools to put community assets under community control. Many initiatives are already oscillating among within, without, and against strategies. It Takes Roots, for example, organizes funders to advocate for policies that curtail the power of philanthropy itself. The organization with whom we work, New Economy Coalition, is funded by institutional philanthropy, grassroots donors, and mandatory member dues.

Mijente’s threefold political framework is powerful precisely because it allows for cross-coalitional experiments in power building that wouldn’t otherwise take place. These experiments are happening at this very moment in the form of solidarity between organized labor and worker cooperatives. As Brennan reflected to us, “One of the reasons unions and cooperatives should work together is that cooperatives can help shape the ceiling of what is possible in an industry, and unions can help raise the floor toward that.”

Despite this proliferation of diverse funding strategies, there continues to be a lack of alignment. To us, after having worked in this field for nearly a decade, one thing is certain: The current economic system operates on one thousand coordinated fronts. In order to supplant it, we must work on ten thousand.

This kind of alignment necessitates going beyond reductionist arguments for moral purity (even Vladimir Lenin avidly courted wealthy donors and was an unlikely champion of professionalized paid organizers, as Chicago-based organizer and researcher Jasson Perez recently unearthed). It requires us to hold philanthropy and funders to account culturally, materially, and legislatively. It compels us to imagine and build out a rigorous federation of anti-capitalist financial tools and tactics. And it demands that we organize together to make this work, in the words of Toni Cade Bambara, irresistible.

Zac Chapman is an organizer and researcher based in western Massachusetts. He is the Resource Mobilization Director at the New Economy Coalition, a steering committee member of Massachusetts Solidarity Economy Network, and board member of LittleSis. tiktok: @applzeed

Nairuti Shastry (she/her) is a movement builder, engaged scholar, and facilitator-strategist working toward racial and economic justice that transcends organizational, cultural, and political borders. Founder and principal of Nuance Research, Strategy, & Consulting, LLC.

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