Philanthropy and Inequality

Can Social Movements Tackle Inequality with Foundation Funding? The Case of the Farmworker Movement

Editors’ Note: Below, Erica Kohl-Arenas provides the final contribution for the site’s ongoing discussion on philanthropy & inequality

Over the past month HistPhil has published a timely series on philanthropy and inequality. A few commentators, including Pablo Eisenberg and Alice O’Connor, proposed that if foundations are to seriously address inequality they must, among other things, invest in community and labor organizing movements. I made a similar claim in my recent Transformation blog post. Given such promptings, it is worthwhile to consider how foundations have funded community organizing efforts to tackle inequality in the past. In the case of the Black freedom struggle of the 1960s and the #BlackLivesMatter movement of today, Karen Ferguson‘s and Megan Francis’s recent contributions to HistPhil suggest that foundations most commonly co-opt or redirect the agendas of the movements they fund.

While conducting research for my book The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, I uncovered a similarly troubling story about philanthropic investments in the California farmworker movement.

Dolores Huerta, movement co-founder alongside Cesar Chavez, explained to me that in the early years, “There was a strong belief in not taking money from the outside and in insisting that farmworkers pay and volunteer for the movement.” Between 1962-1964 the movement’s National Farm Worker Association (NFWA) would not take money beyond contributions from members and volunteers—everything was to be built and owned by farmworkers.

Huerta, Chavez, and a cadre of volunteer organizers initially conceptualized the movement’s institutional structure not as a union but as a network of mutual aid associations – blend­ing Huerta and Chavez’s Community Service Organization approach to building member-led institutions with the tradition of mutualistas, a self-help model popular in Mexico in the 1930s. According to founding organizers, “the entire approach of the new associ­ation was based on the old mutualista idea of building commu­nity and power through mutual self-help.” The traditional union model was added to the mix of strategies after 1965 when the NFWA joined the Agri­cultural Workers Organizing Committee in a strike against grape growers in Delano, and eventually incorporated as the United Farm Workers (UFW).

Early philanthropic allies were uncom­fortable with the approach of the movement, one of the most multifaceted and bril­liantly strategized organizing efforts of the 1960s. Was it a self-help poverty program? Was it a wing of the Civil Rights Movement? Was it a union? Some funders were attracted to the mutual aid philosophy, which aligned with the self-help orien­tation of the federal War on Poverty. Others were attracted to the social justice spirit, which worked along­side the ideals of civil rights. Yet most funders were wary of the movement’s growing labor organizing capac­ity and affiliations.

Movement leaders were equally wary of public and private donors. Yet Chavez changed his stance against outside funds when he found out that multiple farmworker-serving organizations received grants from the Office of Economic Opportunity’s (OEO) War on Poverty. According to lead organizer Gilbert Padilla in an interview with Marshall Ganz, Chavez feared that if “the NFWA did not get the OEO funds, others would who might not share the NFWA’s organizing agenda . . . [R]eversing itself on rejection of outside money, the NFWA tried to preempt claims of others who might use funds in less produc­tive ways.”

Several funders, including the RosenbergField, and Ford Foundations became interested in supporting the farmworkers as a Chicano wing of the Civil Rights Movement. Chavez was also interested in civil rights, but he believed that addressing the inequities faced by farmworkers required labor strikes, consumer boycotts, union organizing, and popular protest. Through highly charged debates documented in archived correspondence, foundation allies explained to Chavez that grants to the movement could not include union organizing, confrontation with the agricultural industry, or any work in the ‘economic sphere.’

Eventually, following a recommendation from the Field Foundation and with support from the Ford Foundation, Chavez incorporated nonprofit organizations to channel funds to the movement’s service work. Documented in meeting minutes, Chavez took to calling the ‘movement institutions’ incorporated as 501(c)3 organizations “The Hustling Arm of the Union,” referencing their ability to attract private funds.

In the early 1970s, worn down by hunger strikes, death threats, competition with other unions more amendable to compromise, surveillance by the FBI, and unfounded fears of disloyalty among his field organizers, Chavez retreated to the privately-funded non­profits.

Throughout the 1970s, staff could not keep up with the administrative duties that the multiple foundation grants required. Angry letters from foundations were received claiming that there was insufficient financial accounting, and unapproved re-appropriation of funds to undisclosed proj­ects. A 1973 memo titled “Problems with Foundations” lists staff reports and evaluations due, funds not spent, and outstanding decisions to be made about the use of private funds. Had the ‘Hustling Arm of the Union’ become the hustle?

Chavez’s turn away from union organizing was directly aided by the firm political limits, bureaucratic management requirements (and subsequent mismanagement) of private funders. However, a straightforward interpretation of philan­thropic co-optation of a grass-roots union is an insufficient explanation for the limited success of the movement. Instead, the incor­poration of privately-funded nonprofit organizations reveals both a retreat from union organizing, and Chavez’s attempt to return to his original vision. In tune with the liberation movements of his era, Chavez was never sure that unionization was the best strategy to take on the fundamental questions of self-determination that he originally hoped to address. Ini­tially he hoped to inspire dignity in farm labor through mutual-aid institutions and coop­erative work and living. Independent nonprofit organizations appeared to be more suited to this kind of work. As described to me by long-time farm­worker organizer, David Villarino, Chavez once asked an inner cir­cle of UFW leaders, “Are we the oak tree or are we the mistle­toe? Do we want to feed off of a strong and solid industry, like the mistletoe that grows on the oak? Do we want to set our limits around negotiating contracts? Or do we want to build a self-sustaining movement through our own institutions?”

Yet working under a professionalized and privately-funded model, the staff of the new nonprofits became preoccupied with fund development and administration. Originally inspired by the alignment between civil rights and the struggle for farmworker justice but unwilling to address change in the economic sphere, funders set up untenable institutional structures. Con­sumed with developing his new organizations, Chavez ultimately accepted a translation of farmworker institutions that required philanthropic charity—but not a movement in struggle for self-determination and collec­tive ownership among workers.

Over time grassroots movements tackling inequality often risk becoming, as Piven and Cloward have proposed, both constituted by and in resistance against bureau­cratic institutional structures. In the case of organizations tackling inequality through partnerships with private foundations, they also straddle the contradictory logic of attempting to ignite working class organizing through the surplus of capital. As has been argued in other HistPhil posts, philanthropic institutions will truly tackle inequality once they are willing to confront the systems of capital production from which their surplus wealth is created.

-Erica Kohl-Arenas

Erica Kohl-Arenas is an Assistant Professor at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School. Kohl-Arenas’ book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016), analyzes the history of philanthropic investments in addressing farmworker and immigrant poverty across California’s Central Valley. Prior to her graduate studies, Kohl-Arenas worked as a popular educator and community development practitioner in a variety of settings including public schools, with immigrant nonprofit organizations, and in coal mining and crofting towns in Appalachia and Scotland. 

2 thoughts on “Can Social Movements Tackle Inequality with Foundation Funding? The Case of the Farmworker Movement

  1. Thanks for this post. Is the reference to archived correspondence between Chavez and foundations intended to be a link? It is underlined but does not appear to be a hyper link. thanks


    • Thanks, Justin. I am new to blogging so usually add a full archival citational reference instead of a hyperlink. In this case I just directed to the archives at the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin. A particularly lively correspondence between Chavez and Field Foundation staff Leslie Dunbar can be found Field Foundation Archive at the Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin, box 2. Hope this is useful, and thanks for reading.


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