Movement Building for Structural Change

  • Paula Scher's mural at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta pays homage to the graphics of rights movements.

By Keesha Gaskins-Nathan

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s (RBF) Democratic Practice–U.S. program is committed to advancing a vital and inclusive democracy. Since March 2015, the Fund has made $16.2 million in grants to support democracy reforms in the United States by combating the corrupting influence of money in politics and increasing opportunities for meaningful citizen participation in democratic systems through election and voting reforms.

In light of the evolving political and economic context in United States, developments in the fields of organizing, and institutional learning and engagement, in 2018 the Fund's board of trustees approved a new strategy to support movement building for systemic reform of democratic institutions to advance economic and racial justice.

The new strategy is intended to elevate the need to pursue alternative paths to reform, confirm the Fund’s conviction that collective action and organizing are essential to achieving a vital and inclusive democracy, and more clearly address developments in demographics, economics, and technology that pose deep challenges to the stability of U.S. democracy. By funding movement-building organizations to leverage their engagement in and increase their power through democratic practice, the Fund hopes to advance innovative systemic change.

Effectively reforming U.S. democracy to respond to the needs of residents will depend on how people see and understand the relationship between democratic systems and the well-being of their families and communities. How people earn, learn, and engage with the world will define opportunities for democratic reform for the foreseeable future. Through this new grantmaking strategy, the Fund will support movement-building organizations that work to deepen relationships between elected officials and the communities they represent, advance meaningful political and economic policies, and develop community leaders. It will focus its grantmaking on organizations that:

  • have clear agenda for advancing deep social, cultural, and structural transformation of U.S. democratic and economic systems;
  • employ proactive, forward-looking strategies;
  • coordinate with base-building organizations to develop independent political power and vision to influence decision making at the most meaningful levels of government;
  • give precedence to the leadership and perspectives of frontline communities that are most affected by political and economic policies but frequently occupy the margins of decision making spaces;
  • understand and reflect through their external actions and internal culture their fundamental connection to the civil society ecosystem in time, place, and context; and
  • harness creativity and innovation to re imagine and re-invent our world.

There may be challenges to leveraging philanthropy in support of movement-building strategies. Movements often envision radical societal transformation, while philanthropic goals are sometimes more specific and limited in scope. Further, by their very presence, funders can inadvertently exert undue or inappropriate influence over movement spaces. Only through building relationships and facing these challenges together can we transform democratic systems in the United States.

The Fund's support for movement building will replace the grantmaking strategy established in 2015 to "support select innovations, such as the application of new technologies and advances in organizing methods that strengthen advocacy or expand opportunities for underrepresented populations to influence policy outcomes." Under new grantmaking guidelines, the Fund will integrate support for innovation and the adoption of new technologies across all Democratic Practice–U.S. strategies.

Through Democratic Practice–U.S. grantmaking, the Fund will continue to support advances in election administration and voting rights and efforts to combat the influence of money in politics. Our new support for movement building to change the rules that control democratic systems will both give life and meaning to our existing strategies and benefit from their efforts to transform behavior and re-create democratic culture. Together, these grantmaking strategies aim to achieve the political and economic redesign needed to create and sustain a truly vital and inclusive democracy in the United States.