Our Grant Partners Describe Their Boldest Visions and How to Get There
As the dust settled from an intense and extended election cycle at the beginning of this year, we recognized that the field we support was moving out of a particular set of conditions — the election year, the early and uncontrolled part of the pandemic and the racial reckoning of last summer — and into a new period. We face a new political environment at the federal level and in the states, an economic landscape still heavily impacted by the pandemic, and a social landscape changed by all that was unveiled in the pandemic and in the insurrection at the Capitol.
Alongside these broader contexts, we’ve seen an unusually dynamic environment in the philanthropic sector this past year as funders have responded to all of the above. In order to align our grantmaking with evolving and emerging needs, we conducted 20 interviews in February and March 2021 with a cross-section of our grant partners about the opportunities and gaps they see.
The late, great civil rights leader and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs famously urged activists to continually ask, “What time is it on the clock of the world?” In this vein, we began each of our interviews asking grant partners how they articulate what time it is that we are coming into. Different leaders had different perspectives depending on their particular positioning, but several themes emerged.
A time of great exhaustion and also great opportunity. Groups are still holding the exhaustion and grief of the past year, and the past four years, while at the same time naming a sense of hope and urgency.
A window where transformative change is possible. Recent conditions have stripped us all of a sense of normalcy while also creating a dramatic increase in public awareness of inequality and expanding the range of ideas deemed politically possible. Many leaders expressed a deep sense of urgency to push now for big, transformational ideas.
Time to move on policy. The shifts in the political environment since the 2020 election year have created opportunities at the federal level for big wins on a wide range of issues including economic justice, immigration, and climate change. But the political terrain is likely to become less favorable as time goes on, so winning policies now that have tangible impacts on people’s everyday lives will be especially critical for making the case to voters in 2022.
Right-wing backlash is still a major threat. Many of the leaders we spoke with stressed the need to remember the powerful opposition we are up against with the far right, naming in particular the right’s investment in large institutions, narrative, social media, and leadership development toward its cause.
Time to build a multiracial democracy. The past year laid bare the fragility of our democracy. Movement leaders are clear that without a vibrant, multiracial democracy, we will not see progress on any of the pressing issues we face.
In our interviews, we asked field leaders about their greatest hopes for what social movements can achieve over the next ten years and what supports could be put in place now to make those goals possible. We also asked about what it is they need in order for their own organizations to meet their boldest visions. Answers to those questions surfaced some gaps, opportunities, and strategic questions for us at GSF to consider as we plan our grantmaking in the years ahead.
Increased scale and a need for new forms of organizational infrastructure. In our interviews, we found that many organizations have experienced a dramatic increase in the scale of their efforts in recent years. A number of them described doubling their staff and creating new organizational infrastructure with increased resources. Even with increased budgets, however, multiple interviewees pointed out that their organizational scale and the scale of the sector is dwarfed by the capacity and sophisticated infrastructure of the right. Leaders described an urgent need to invest in data and technology to build deeper engagement with members and reach more people online.
A need to help people make meaning and reach beyond the choir. The interviews revealed a set of needs in terms of a stronger narrative infrastructure. Many of the leaders we spoke with raised concern about whether progressives are well positioned to contend with the right in the battle to help people make meaning and understand the times and conditions in which we find ourselves — to understand who are the good guys and bad guys and what feels “true.” There is a shared sense that the right focuses more attention and skill than the left on deep listening, building and spreading mental models through which their proposals become common sense, and leveraging a range of distribution channels from radio to cable news to social media. Grantees were clear that a lack of investment in culture and narrative has slowed down progress on policy change.
Building transformative social justice organizations. In one of the clearest themes in our interviews, we heard from a large number of leaders that internal organizational development issues have risen toward the top of their list of strategic concerns and opportunities — for their own organizations as well as for social movements as a whole. Executive director transitions were a theme, and in fact since 2019, 47% of GSF grantees have gone through an executive director transition. Grantees described a need for stronger leadership pipelines and training infrastructure that builds organizing skills, communications skills and digital training. Organizations also consistently identified a need for trauma-informed resources to address high levels of trauma and burnout amongst their staff.
One of the questions we asked that prompted joyful, deeply reflective responses was, “What is your boldest vision for the future?” Going into the interviews, our team was curious to learn more about whether leaders have the time and space to dream about the future that they hope to see. The responses to this question illuminated the depth to which leaders have been imagining a more just future.
Grantees shared bold visions for the future that include reimagining our economy, dismantling anti-Black racism and achieving profound shifts in how we invest in public safety. Universal income, jobs, health care and housing will be the products of a future in which we have a vibrant civil society and where power has shifted to those most impacted. One grantee noted that before we can be liberated in our visions and capable of truly bold imagination, basic health and safety that don’t exist today must be put in place.
We are deeply appreciative of the gift of the time and reflections that movement leaders shared with us. As we move forward with an increased grants budget, these interviews offer a powerful snapshot of a moment of great transition in the field, as well as a glimpse into the horizon of a more just future and what it will take to get there.