A Movement of Movements: Strategies for Promoting Equity through Grant Making

Reflections on the PCN Delegation at Policy Link's Equity Summit 2015 by Jenna Zhang, Arabella Advisors


From the welcome remarks to the closing plenary, a theme that emerged throughout PolicyLink’s Equity Summit in October was the concept of a “movement of movements.” The conference sessions explored a wide range of issues and featured individuals representing a variety of organizations, movements, and causes. While these leaders were all eager to share the accomplishments of their own efforts, they were also quick to celebrate the successes of their peers who hail from different corners of the social sector and focus their energies on advancing different movements. Despite their varied priorities, they shared the same desire to support one another’s work. These leaders have the wisdom to understand that movements do not exist in a vacuum; equality for one group depends upon equality for all. By uniting to create a movement of movements—that is, a show of support for and collaboration among all who believe in the principle of equity—these organizations can achieve even greater, lasting impact.

Keeping this concept of a movement of movements in mind is particularly important given that we live in an era rife with social and political activism, both domestically and globally. In 2015 alone, we have seen international summits on climate change, nationwide protests calling for police reform, the legalization of gay marriage across the country, and myriad other crusades. Philanthropists have played a key role in providing the much-needed financial support that fuels the organizations working toward these advances. Yet it’s important to avoid falling into the trap of viewing social movements as competing against one another, as doing so can create the perception of a zero-sum game, one in which some causes and communities succeed at the expense of others. Dollars spent on supporting the arts are dollars not spent on the environment, such thinking goes. But in reality, we know many issues are interconnected. Some—like poverty and education—are more obviously related than others, but one would be hard-pressed to find a present-day movement whose success was not in some way affected by the progress—or lack thereof—of another. Efforts to improve the US food system are a good example:  the movement must address health issues, socioeconomic factors, environmental concerns, and more. Success in this arena requires the cooperation of farmers, health care advocates, environmentalists, urban planners, government officials, and many others. Without all of these disparate groups working in concert, the movement cannot achieve its goals.

In my work at Arabella Advisors, a philanthropic consulting firm, my colleagues and I routinely develop giving and investing strategies for clients looking to view their work through an equity lens. For many of these clients, intentionally supporting a movement of movements—that is, supporting more than one particular issue—could prove to be an effective way to achieve the impact they seek. One strategy for promoting holistic and inclusive grant making is a place-based approach. Rather than looking at separate issue areas, many funders opt to take a holistic view of a community. Cities and towns are complex organisms that truly demonstrate the ways in which different social movements can come together. When taken as a whole, communities make clear that the impact all these organizations strive for lies at the intersection of the movements. In order to tackle inequality in one area, this strategy prescribes addressing the other inequalities present in that community, as well. Place-based grant making provides the space for community stakeholders and philanthropists to come together to set goals and priorities for the community and develop the strategies with which to achieve them. In this way, grant making can become a true partnership between social movements, and also between communities and philanthropists. 

But how to cultivate those partnerships in the first place? In a session at the Equity Summit titled “Grantmakers Take the Lead on Advancing Racial Equity,” led by three foundation officers, participants discussed how those working in philanthropy are uniquely positioned to unite organizations, causes, and movements to achieve greater impact. Members of the philanthropic field often have a bird’s-eye view of the work being done on a particular issue, so funders can help facilitate partnerships that may never have existed without their support—not just within issue areas, but also across different sectors. While it is never a good idea to force collaboration when it is not in the best interests of the project, funders are well-positioned to use their vantage point to help create partnerships for greater impact.

As PolicyLink’s Equity Manifesto states, equity is “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.” In order to maximize the potential and reach of social causes, the equity-minded organizations behind them must unite in a movement of movements. And, to do their part toward bringing about a just and fair society, funders can employ grant-making strategies that encourage partnerships, collaboration, and holistic approaches to community organizing. Together, we can do more.  


Jenna Zhang is a program assistant at Arabella Advisors. She provides administrative, financial, and operational support for both internal initiatives and projects hosted by the nonprofits Arabella manages, including the New Venture Fund, a 501(c)(3) public charity. Jenna also has experience working with nonprofits on issues such as the environment, foreign policy, and education.

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