How Can Funders Support Pro-democracy Movements?

As the United States celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day on 16 January, it is a moment to look back on the ways a broad-based, pro-democracy movement came together to push for civil rights and racial justice. Looking ahead to 2023, the need to galvanize such a large-scale, diverse movement is as crucial as ever.

This article by Julia Roig was first published on Alliance Magazine.

The alarming rates of democratic decline and rising authoritarianism around the world are well documented. Philanthropists can find inspiration from the diversity of entry points for the many actors involved in the US civil rights movement and play their part to help break down the often siloed and fragmented pro-democracy efforts of today.

‘Anyone who starts out with the conviction that the road to racial justice is only one lane wide will inevitably create a traffic jam and make the journey infinitely longer,’ 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Stride Towards Freedom

This quote from Dr King, taken from his book about the Montgomery bus boycott, extols the need for multiple entry points for movement participation with various, complementary approaches and roles. Such systems approach to countering authoritarianism and fighting for democracy requires a systemic view of where funding can have the most leverage within the very complex pro-democracy movement ecologies that continue to evolve around the world. Studies show that movements are most successful when there is a wide diversity of societal participation. While different country contexts vary, funders have several ways they can support the process of broadening and coalescing pro-democracy movements:

  • Fund mapping efforts to help different actors see themselves as a part of the larger movement. Many funders engage in mapping efforts, along geographic or technical lines – but these are often intended for internal use and/or to illuminate who is doing what to ‘pick winners’ for grant-making. Ecosystem mapping is critical, however, for the broader purpose of helping the multitude of activists and organizations to engage in joint planning and to determine complementary efforts, a process of continual updating and reflection. Funders can support gathering different mappers together to avoid redundancies, aggregate complex information, make sense of different analyses and theories of change and ensure this information is open and accessible to all actors as a convening, sense-making, and relationship-building tool.
  • Strengthen collective action muscles. Funders are used to supporting coalitions or networks that come together for specific policy goals, electoral gains, or identity-based human (civil) rights campaigns. This is important work, but these siloed efforts do not necessarily add up to the level of mobilization needed to respond to . Whether it’s across issues, identities, ideologies, or expertise, many groups are not used to working together proactively towards higher-level shared goals because of competition for resources, a lack of a shared analysis, a myopic focus on their ‘lane’ or simply because of lack of awareness of others’ work. Funders can make a big difference in supporting the connective tissue between organizations, coalitions, and networks, bridging those working at multiple levels, with different constituencies and perspectives as a part of a united front to protect democracy. Strengthening the collective action muscles to respond with urgency also includes the slow work of relationship-building, creating spaces to plan together, sharing resources, and collaborating on targeted activities across these lines of difference.
  • Support training, coaching, and facilitation infrastructure. At the time of the civil rights movement, great effort was placed on building up the skills for nonviolent action, civil resistance, and strategic partnering. Recent research shows that of all the kinds of external support for movements, sustainable access to training and learning opportunities is the most impactful. There is an urgent need to scale up training, coaching and facilitation capabilities and offerings within and amongst movement actors. Especially those skills that will support diversifying and broadening participation in democracy movements: conflict resolution skills, working with complexity and systems thinking, nonviolent discipline, and the multitude of civil resistance tactics that will allow movements to go on offence and respond creatively to the ever-evolving authoritarian playbook. Supporting better networking of seasoned trainers and coaches to share and update their resources and frameworks; aggregating and disseminating available training programs throughout the ecosystem, cross-fertilizing participation amongst different network nodes to build relationships with training programs and offering peer mentoring opportunities across regions globally will all make a huge difference.
  • Provide both general operating funds and quick response funds to spur collaboration. One common obstacle to collaboration across different network nodes within the pro-democracy ecosystem is a scarcity mindset, and the fact that participating in these movement spaces is time-consuming and often seen as taking away needed human resources and focus from an organization’s primary mission. General operating support allows groups and movements to have the breathing space to go on the offence together and not always be in reactive mode. Funders can also offer quick access to funding for diverse actors to travel to attend coalition events, to support convenings amongst groups, to bring together researchers with practitioners to share analysis and to fund key devised narrative campaigns and other experiments amongst different network nodes.

In 2023, let us celebrate Dr King and one of the greatest pro-democracy movements in history by having a bold vision for democratic renewal that incorporates the numerous ‘roads’ to justice. The pro-democracy ecosystem needs philanthropy to use its influence and strategic investments to bring together the many actors working on separate but interrelated efforts (such as violence prevention, strategic litigation and legislation, electoral politics, grassroots mobilization of different constituencies, research and analysis, campaigning, and cultural change efforts, etc.) These critical connections will be key to realizing the next greatest pro-democracy movements to come.