Backing Protests: Funders for Justice Answer Activist Movements' Call

Groups that emerged after Ferguson are mobilizing thousands of people for protests that develop with lightning speed and have dramatic impact. Their approach appeals to some grant makers.

(The following is an excerpt from The Chronicle of Philanthropy's article "Police Shootings Since Ferguson Put Foundations to the Test". Published on July 19, 2016 and written by Drew Lindsey.) 

Backing Protests

If helping design police reform represents one philanthropic response to the shootings, activist movements that swelled following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., offer another. Groups that emerged after Ferguson are mobilizing thousands of people for protests that develop with lightning speed and have dramatic impact. Their approach appeals to some grant makers.

"I’ve never seen the level of organizing and activism in Chicago in the 25 years that I’ve lived here," says Alysia Tate, director of programs at the Chicago Foundation for Women, which is funding several activist groups.

Funders for Justice was launched during the Ferguson crisis to support this form of activism. Neighborhood Funders Group and the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock — two organizations backing grass-roots social-justice efforts — joined with the Ford Foundation to start the network, which has grown to 300 members, according to organizers. They provide general and program support to grass-roots activists but also "rapid response" dollars that pay for protest essentials — food, unifying T-shirts, legal support, and bail money when demonstrators are jailed.

Funders for Justice members include the NoVo Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and small alliances of high-wealth individual donors such as Solidaire,whose leaders include Leah Hunt-Hendrix, granddaughter of the oil and gas tycoon H.L. Hunt.

Ford was moved to act by the Ferguson shooting and what it saw as a highly militarized response to legitimate civil protests, says Eric Ward, a program officer at the foundation. Through Funders for Justice, Ford can strengthen smaller, more nimble grant makers and donor networks that can ramp up quickly to support fast-developing protests. "They provide an innovative approach in this moment where philanthropy is having to respond to new forms of organizing," he says.

The 40-year-old MRG Foundation, which is focused on social and racial justice in Portland, Ore., recently began funding Don’t Shoot Portland, which has organized multiple protests over police shootings, at times closing roads and bridges.

"They’re bold, controversial, and political, but racism is controversial," says Sharon Gary-Smith, the foundation’s executive director.