Democracy from the Bottom Up – Lessons from Social Movements

During the 1970s, New World Foundation, embracing the civil rights era as model for what social movements and organizing can accomplish, began funding independent advocacy organizations linking community needs and action to national policy and government programs. We emphasized the need to build institutions—watchdog groups, public advocates, training centers, research and information centers—that could sustain long-term social change efforts. An exemplary accomplishment of that era was the funding of the Children’s Defense Fund with NWF seed money.

A Movement-Building Strategy, From the Bottom Up

civil-rights-pickets

By the 1980s, the politics of government retrenchment and social backlash defined the political and social world.

The Reagan-Bush era deeply intensified polarizations of race and class in our society, restoring a corrosive climate of Social Darwinism and an ethic of intolerance.

In turn, the loss of federal financing for basic anti-poverty programs led NWF to take a leading role in organizing pushback against this assault on equality—both as a grantmaker and a national advocate. As a result, NWF and its grantees helped develop the IOLTA program, which produced and continues to produce hundreds of millions of dollars for legal representation for poor communities.

At the same time, NWF took the lead in resisting President Reagan’s rejection of South African activists calls for an end to Apartheid by galvanizing the philanthropic community to divest its assets invested in South Africa. In pursuing this strategy, the NWF won an IRS judgment that allowed foundations to “lose” money in pursuit of their mission.

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By the end of the 1980’s, NWF departed from the typical pattern of the “family foundation.” Lessons from social movements motivated the Foundation to establish a more diverse Board, including activists in communities who helped guide NWF through their experience and knowledge. The Foundation also intensified its commitment to bottom up base building as the engine of social movements and progressive social change. This led to a shift of grantmaking toward multi-year and general support grants at a time when that was far from typical foundation practice.

The goal here was to build and sustain long-term community-based organizational capacity to represent and fight for the interests of people in poor communities throughout the country.

One of our most important initiatives in the 1980s was to found the Charles Bannerman Fellowship Program, named in honor of the civil rights pioneer and NWF board member. The Bannerman Fellowship Program provides grants to allow veteran organizers of color to take sabbaticals from organizational tasks for reflection and renewal. The Bannerman Program enables new leaders to emerge and use their skills while reinvigorating seasoned organizers away on sabbatical. The Bannerman Fellowship is now housed and operating at the Center for Social Inclusion.

In the early 1990s, NWF launched its environmental justice initiative, seeding the “People of Color Summit on the Environment” to stimulate foundation recognition of the importance of community organizations in the movement for environmental and health justice.

In addition to NWF’s environmental justice work, the Foundation created a series of Funds, each a partnership between NWF and other philanthropies, to strengthen community-based advocacy and action on the economy, immigration, labor, youth development and the shaping of public opinion away from the Right’s nefarious impact on the channels of communication and information.