Why We Must Overhaul the Funding of Social Movements

mónica enríquez-enríquez and Tatiana Cordero Velásquez*

15 January 2021

*This article was published on January 15, 2021. Tatiana Cordero Velásquez, the longtime director of Urgent Action Fund Latin America, has since passed away. We greatly appreciate the profound way in which she influenced our field in how we think about care and protection and we celebrate her life and her contributions to the feminist movements we support. We are sharing her words in honor of her legacy.

To adequately respond to the ongoing crisis of democracy, we must support care and protection strategies for activists.

Last year exposed the structural flaws of the multiple systems that hold our societies together. We witnessed broken health systems, crumbling democracies, increased repression, attacks on human rights defenders, the criminalization of movements and the pervasive violence that continues to proliferate across the globe.

As we enter 2021, we honor the lives of essential workers and health workers – as well as the many activists on the frontlines of movements defending land rights, natural resources, the right to have an abortion, workers’ rights, freedom of expression, sexual rights and gender expression, and many others.

We also honor and grieve the deaths of women activists who have been targeted for their activism and those who we have lost to suicide and chronic illness. We funders must now consider whether we are truly supporting the sustainability of movements and the safety of activists. To do so, we must analyze the context in which activists operate – by listening to those on the ground with first-hand knowledge of their needs and challenges.

When crises arise, funders are invited to be more flexible and willing to learn, adapt and take funding risks – as we have seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Some private foundations led by example, such as the Global Wallace Fund, which pledged to spend 20% of its endowment in 2020 on “organizations doing vital work to solve the social and economic crises sparked by COVID-19 while continuing to advance systemic change for people-centered democracies and fighting for a more just and sustainable economy.”

Changing the conversation on care

In the 1980s, ‘care’ was considered a practice innate to women (the caregivers) and a reflection of the societal sexual division of labor. In the decades since, the concept of care has been expanded upon by activists and practitioners. At the beginning of the 21st century, academics analyzed and reflected on the cost of care and started a conversation about the “economy of care”.

More recently, thanks to feminist activists and practitioners, the debate has moved towards care as linked to the protection of activists and the sustainability of movements. This important shift in the conversation brings us to the feminist phrase “the personal is political”, but this time focusing on the lived experiences of activists.

An important milestone in the conversation between activists and funders about care and protection was the 2007 publication of “What Is the Point of a Revolution if We Can’t Dance”, by Jane Barry and Jelena Djordjevic. More than 100 activists from across the globe contributed to the book, which was developed in partnership between women human rights defenders and Urgent Action Fund. They shared their experiences of burnout, exhaustion, isolation and illness, along with their intimate fears and struggles, and the book challenged the idea that self-care and community care are selfish acts that are disconnected from the work of activists to advance social change.

As funders we continue to grapple with how to best support activists, who often face criminal penalties for their work and who are part of organizations and movements that lack safety and protection strategies. We know that general support, multi-year grants and flexible grants are the best way to increase their safety and protection, as such funding allows organizations to plan ahead and be strategic with resources.

Developing new protection strategies

Many funders are unable to, or choose not to, provide flexible general operating grants. Often they develop capacity-building strategies, which aim to increase organizations’ digital and physical security, but do not include well-being and psycho-social support. Some funders provide emergency support for activists at risk, such as relocation funds, but do not include community-led strategies that aim to protect activists, their families and their communities.

Traditional funding strategies do not acknowledge cultural practices of care and protection, such as guardias Indígenas and rondas campesinas (both cultural practices of peasant and Indigenous communities to protect and take care of their territory and its inhabitants) or community-rooted spiritual expressions of care and protection, such as healing circles.

This is why women’s rights and LGBTQI activists in every continent have been developing and using individual, organizational and movement-level care and protection strategies and frameworks. These expand the notion of traditional physical and digital security to a more holistic idea of safety, focusing on care, well-being and the economic sustainability of activists and movements.

There is not a single strategy or framework being used across regions, movements or contexts. Activists use different strategies, sometimes simultaneously, depending on context. The following examples come from feminist and social justice movements in Latin America and the United States and are inspired by many global and local activists, organizers, human rights defenders, organizations, networks and movements:

Collective protection (protección colectiva)

This concept is based on cultural practices that understand the individual as part of the collective, and protection as a value of the community as a whole – challenging traditional notions of protection, which focus only on the individual. It also emphasizes the idea of community safety, and cultural and conscious everyday practices of care and protection such as community patrol networks or Indigenous community protection guards (guardias Indígenas), rather than using external security forces.

The term, credited to Just Associates and the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras), is widely used by Latin American social justice movements. It conveys the idea of protection as contextual and relational; people across different organizations and movements share cultural knowledge and practices that commit them to protect and care for each other.

Healing justice

This term, credited to the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, is based on the notion that generational trauma is a product of colonization, systemic violence & oppression and it strongly impacts Black, Indigenous, people of color communities, LGBTQI people and people with disabilities.

The movement’s organizers, Black and people of color feminist leaders who were part of US southern movements in the early 2000s, feel healing and care strategies are integral to political liberation. They worked to reclaim traditions that had been stolen from them and built new collective practices rooted in a southern context and ancestral lineage that would support and sustain emotional, physical, psychic, spiritual, and environmental well-being by helping to heal and counter the ways in which oppression affects people’s bodies, hearts, and minds.

At the heart of this approach is decriminalizing practitioners and traditional practices of healing (such as midwifery) and building an awareness and critical analysis of racism, slavery, and colonization and their impact for the collective care of Black people and people of color movements and communities.

Holistic security

This widely used term is credited to US social justice movements inspired by Occupy Wall Street. It was later used by Tactical Tech and adopted by many international human rights organizations, and it refers to a strategy that includes digital security, psycho-social well-being, and organizational security processes, in addition to the traditional focus on physical security.

Integrated feminist protection (protección integral feminista)

This strategy, which originated from the Latin American feminist movement and has been developed and adopted by the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders and Consorcio para el Diálogo Parlamentario y la Equidad Oaxaca A.C., references and addresses the links between gender discrimination and violence against women human rights defenders and focuses on building strong protective community networks to enhance resilience.

Politics of care

This framework, which also stemmed from the feminist movement, looks at the issue of care through a political and feminist lens. This notion, expanded on by Urgent Action Fund Latin America and the Caribbean, encourages the “mainstreaming” of well-being, self-care, collective care and sustainability across an organization’s structure (in policies, decision making processes and community organizing models).

Protecting ‘Territory, body and spirit’

Over the past decade, the women’s rights and human rights philanthropic sector have worked to pay more attention to movement safety and to fund these protection strategies. Funders are also increasingly concerned with the best ways to support care, healing justice, well-being and prevention of burnout.

But good intentions are not enough. To embrace care and protection is not to simply develop a healing program, or hire a consultant to write a well-being manual for the organization, or fund workshops on collective care. These often do not trickle down to the organization’s base or its community – and might not achieve the needed cultural transformations.

To adequately respond to the ongoing global crisis of democracy, we funders need to make a paradigm shift in funding. We must broaden our understanding of care and protection, by listening to activists.

We invite the funder community to join us in questioning our own power and privilege. We must recognize that for human rights defenders, especially Black and Indigenous women human rights defenders, protection is not limited to humans alone. An anthropocentric view leaves unrecognized the fact that care and protection are intrinsically linked to our surroundings and environment. Women defenders of the Amazon have referred to this as “territory, body and spirit”.

The Urgent Action Fund Latin America argues that “there is a need for an intercultural approach to funding”. A dialogue between cultures is needed to understand the deep meaning of care and protection and to learn from one another. In short, we must become aware that care and protection are practices reflected in the way we relate to one another. This also includes grantee-funder relationships.

To start a conversation within our funding community, we have developed a set of recommendations to consider when thinking about expanding funding strategies to increase movement safety, well-being and long-term sustainability.

Implement care and protection funding strategies. Set aside resources to support care and protection practices – including for digital safety, as many activists and organizations continue to be targeted online. Communicate to your grantee partners that such funding exists, encourage its use and make it accessible with limited reporting. 

Remember that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ care and protection model. In order to be effective, care and protection strategies should be local and should be rooted in grantee partners’ cultures, experiences, skills and needs. 

Recognize economic security as integral to the care and protection strategies you support. This means promoting and supporting grantee partners’ fair wages, caring work cultures, and strong labor practices. By funding organizations and collectives to have enough resources to support staff salaries, we also contribute to activists’ livelihoods, well-being, and safety; and their ability to continue to do their work.

Include and fund well-being. Make resources available to address burnout, trauma, grief and psycho-social support for staff and leadership of organizations. Remember that activists are likely supporting themselves, their organizations/collectives, communities and families. Well-being also has to do with addressing different forms of oppression inside of our organizations, such as racism, patriarchy, ableism, classism and LGBTQI phobia, and the impact these have on individuals, organizations, and movements.

Promote and fund collective rather than only individual protection strategies. Promote shared leadership models within organizations and movements, as activists are less likely to be targeted if they are not the only visible leaders in their communities. A single attack is designed to have a ripple effect: when an activist is attacked, the effect is felt by their family, organization, community and movement. After an activist is attacked, it is common that inter-organizational conflicts arise, and trust is diminished.

Consider how your funding practices may be contributing to the stress and urgency that movements are experiencing and inadvertently putting activists at risk. Do not try to respond to an emergency by making rapid-response grants without having strong and necessary grantmaking infrastructure, internal capacity and the knowledge and care of what emergency grantmaking entails. Make sure your foundation’s pace and sense of urgency does not impact grantee partners and that your grants management practices are not unnecessarily burdensome.

Avoid putting those you seek to support at risk. Put in place secure digital platforms to communicate with and about grantees. Do not use the names of countries or grantees at risk in non-digitally secure platforms. Consider not listing the names and grant amounts of grantees in countries where social movements are being targeted. Ensure that resources are disbursed safely, especially in contexts where there is government scrutiny of foreign funding. Do not generate international visibility for organizations without checking with grantee partners first. More visibility in repressive contexts could be counter-effective.

Consider being more flexible and creative when supporting organizations in democratic crises. Be willing to explore different funding strategies and mechanisms, support organizations to do context analysis, and listen to the solutions proposed by the organizations and movements that know their own challenges, risks and contexts best.

Strengthen care and protection initiatives at large. Fund movement infrastructure, such as safety houses and collective care houses for activists and spaces for reflection and knowledge building, such as research and conferences on this issue area, and by directly supporting and strengthening “care and protection” practitioners, advocates, and trainers.

Recognize that resources are needed to support the collective care and protection of multiple bodies and abilities. Consider funding organizations working on disability justice and organizations wanting to learn from and implement a disability justice approach to their work. Since access to care is related to assumptions of what bodies are valued and which are expendable, disability justice does not only apply to individuals with different abilities, but rather can be an approach to supporting more sustainable activism. It is also a way to support the protection and safety of all bodies.

Fund the sustainability of movements by responding to the current emergency with a long-term funding strategy. Funders need to adapt to the needs and contexts of organizations and movements, respond strategically to the emergency, and invest in the long-term financial resilience of organizations and movements.

We must ensure our grantees have the resources to get through the current crisis, and are able to continue to help us build and imagine a better future for all.

These recommendations were developed by Cara Page (Changing Frequencies), Mónica Enríquez-Enríquez (Foundation for a Just Society), Somer Nowak (Foundation for a Just Society), Tatiana Cordero (Urgent Action Fund Latin America) and were inspired by Astraea Foundation’s Healing Justice 2019 Report and a 2019 mapping on Holistic Safety and Collective Care conducted by lead researcher Sandra Ljubinkovic for Foundation for a Just Society.

This article first appeared on OpenDemocracy on January 15, 2021.