Philanthropy and Democracy / Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and Inequality / Philanthropy in the News

Movement Capture and the Long Arc of the Black Freedom Struggle

Editors’ Note: Responding to Ford Foundation President Darren Walker’s statement on Juneteenth that these are “[un]precedented times– and hopefully a sign of the change that’s to come,” Erica Kohl-Arenas and Megan Ming Francis ask which roles Walker and other philanthropic leaders intend or want to play in the context of the movement for Black lives; where they will allocate funds; for what kind of work; to what end; and accountable to whom. 

On Juneteenth, amidst the current uprising in the long arc of the Black freedom struggles, Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, tweeted a video of himself ringing the bell of the New York Stock Exchange. He captioned the video with the following quote, “It’s been a momentous week at the @FordFoundation, starting with issuing a $1B social bond to strengthen & stabilize nonprofits in the wake of #COVID19 and ending at the @NYSE to ring the bell on #Juneteenth. Unprecedented times—and hopefully a sign of the change that’s to come.”

It is not surprising that philanthropic leaders step into the spotlight during historical moments of crisis. But in the context of the racial justice struggles of our time, what role do Mr. Walker and other philanthropic leaders intend or want to play in ushering in change? This should be a straightforward question but it is not. The response from big philanthropy has been confusing at best and harmful at worst. First, in stark comparison to philanthropy’s rapid response to the COVID-19 crisis—the reaction to the violent police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd was beleaguered and initially tepid. So much so, that Vu Le questioned whether philanthropy had become “the white moderate that Dr. King warned about” and Justice Funders issued a public letter imploring the philanthropic sector to step up and do more to support Black led organizing.

Second, we know from the one billion dollar ‘social bond’ approach that while payout rates will increase (which is good), Walker and other funders are currently not interested in increasing grantmaking above the 5% federal spend out requirements of their multi-billion dollar endowments. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore explained, foundations are repositories of ‘twice stolen wealth.’ – stolen once by industries that create profit on underpaid or unpaid (predominantly Black and brown) labor and/or exploitation of the environment and a second time through charitable tax deductions that place this wealth in privately managed (by mostly white trustees) philanthropic endowments. They seem to prefer to make money on debt than address philanthropy’s reliance on unaccountable, predominantly white board, hedge fund and money managers. This should also not be surprising. As Walker shared under the heading ‘our obligation to capitalism’ in his 2015 blog post, there is a limit to what foundations can do to address inequality, as they are ‘creatures of capitalism,’ “established by a market system and endowed by the money of the past century’s 1 percent,” further enabled by returns on capital.

So, what can creatures of capitalism do to support social movements for racial, economic, and social justice? In 2016, the Movement 4 Black Lives (M4BL) developed a detailed policy platform in which the call to Invest/Divest was very clear: “We demand investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.” And in 2020, the M4BL stated in no uncertain terms: “The Time Has Come to Defund the Police.” What are the opportunities and risks that current philanthropic interventions present to abolitionist organizing that requires divesting from the very foundations of racial capitalism? Will new resources build and catalyze grassroots leadership and further the movement to divest from institutions that produce racial violence and inequality? Or will the funding of watered down, defanged approaches and mainstream institutional partnerships co-opt and redirect the movement towards reformist and marginal change?

If history has any predictive power, now is a good time to revisit the lessons of the twentieth century. In our research, on the NAACP and the California Farmworker Movement, we found that foundations have participated in what Francis coined as ‘movement capture’ – the process by which private funders use their influence to shape the agenda and strategies of vulnerable civil rights organizations. According to this capture framework, funders are self-interested actors that can exploit their elevated financial position by linking provision of funds to the pursuit of new goals or by shifting the salience of existing agenda issues. This moderating role does not come to funders by accident, but is rather a central philanthropic tenet. In his 1999 biography, Conscience and Community, Paul Ylvisaker, a central figure in Ford Foundation’s grantmaking in the 1960s, once advised foundation staff, “Search for consensus in approach and resolution. Consensus is an institutional imperative in our times, simply to minimize the friction generated by institutions moving through a crowding social and political environment.”

The Gray Areas Project is one example of Ylvisaker’s principles in action. In the early 1960s amidst protests against ‘slum clearance’ and calls for community control by Black and Latino self-determination movements, Ylvisaker introduced a new national Ford Foundation urban development demonstration project. In an effort to generate consensus between movement organizations and his board, Ylvisaker framed the Gray Areas Project around behavioral barriers that theoretically prevented Black migrants from the South from assimilating and integrating in the northern city. In the national Gray Aras Project sites, the Foundation required the formation of stakeholder committees and networks of nonprofit organizations to manage ‘migrant’ education and ‘juvenile delinquency’ programs funded by the foundation. Gray Areas and War on Poverty scholars, including Kohl-Arenas, Stuart Schrader, Roy, Schrader, and Shaw Crane in the book Territories of Poverty (2015) and notably Elizabeth Hinton have shown how public and private funders quickly scaled back initial commitments to grassroots action when communities demanded resources and power. They simultaneously channeled resources to mainstream approaches including through Community Development Corporations and new forms of surveillance and policing against the ‘war on crime’ domestically and internationally through global ‘security’ and counter insurgency.

This ‘movement capture’ politics is somewhat akin to the more complicated relationship between the Ford Foundation and the Congress on Racial Equality in the 1960s, documented in Karen Ferguson’s 2013 book Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism. Instead of a story of straightforward cooptation, Ferguson shows how the Ford Foundation and CORE shared a moderate liberal version of Black power that called for “organizing the ghetto” for upward mobility and mainstream leadership development. In many ways Ford and CORE shared similar convictions about racial liberalism. The resulting leadership training initiative funded by Ford specifically excluded radical abolitionist variants of Black power that rejected individualist mobility prescriptions for social reform and called for addressing racial exploitation through the creation and control of self-determined Black social institutions and neighborhoods.

Kohl-Arenas’ research shows how movement capture took place in the broader ecosystem of the 1960s civil rights and freedom struggles. Explored in her book The Self Help Myth (2016), Kohl-Arenas’ research details philanthropic relationships with the historic farmworker movement of the 1960s which initially aimed to radically transform a racially stratified and abusive agricultural industry in California through the creation of self-determined farmworker mutual aid institutions and cooperative agriculture. In 1965, despite an initial commitment against outside funding of an intentionally fieldworker owned movement, leader Cesar Chavez worried that more moderate farmworker support groups, awarded grants through the federal War on Poverty, would water down the movement and applied for funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The OEO announced a grant of $500,000 to Chavez’ National Farm Worker Association; but amidst protest from California growers and mainstream stakeholders including law enforcement, it quickly rescinded the award. As the movement heated up in 1968, with farmworker strikes, protests, and an international grape boycott, the Ford Foundation helped Chavez found the first ‘movement’ nonprofit, the National Farmworker Service Center. But Ford required that the Center for Community Change (CCC), partially founded as an intermediary organization to manage former War on Poverty grantees that Ford continued to fund, monitor and evaluate the grant. From the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, fiercely negotiated funding agreements between movement leader Cesar Chavez and foundation allies, most notably Ford and the Field Foundation, ultimately resulted in a retreat away from farmworker organizing to the non-profit service organizations when the movement faced its most severe challenges with growers and police on the picket lines of farms across California’s Central Valley. Consumed by administrative work and depleted by hunger strikes (and other movement challenges), Chavez ultimately accepted a foundation-approved translation of farmworker organizing that explicitly disallowed any pressure on the ‘economic sphere’—in other words, against big agriculture (divest) or for collective farmworker ownership (invest).

As Francis’ research shows in her article The Price of Civil Rights, this approach to social control was not invented in the 1960s. Francis explores one of the most celebrated examples of liberal philanthropy: the American Fund for Public Service’s (AFPS), also known as the Garland Fund, support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) desegregation campaign—the funding that paved the way for the historic Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. The conventional follows: the interests of the AFPS and the NAACP converged around the issue of segregated schools in the Southern U.S. and the AFPS provided the necessary seed funding for the litigation campaign. This funding story even has a fairytale ending: the collapse of legalized Jim Crow in the area of education. Unfortunately, this well packaged narrative hides a more complicated one: the shifting of the NAACP’s civil rights agenda between 1923-1930. At the time, racial violence—not education—was the priority issue for the NAACP. According to the NAACP, protection of Black lives from state and vigilante white violence was the pinnacle civil rights struggle of the 20th century. However, funds had dwindled and the NAACP could barely keep the lights on. Enter the AFPS, a progressive foundation with a board of directors comprised of white radicals. The NAACP’s leadership attempted to redirect the money to the issue of racial violence but with little success. Given the urgent needs of African Americans in the early 20th century, the NAACP begrudgingly chose to move forward with the AFPS grant. The funding of the education desegregation campaign represents a critical juncture in the NAACP and the larger U.S. civil rights movement away from direct action focused on racial violence to litigation focused on education.

Despite this well-documented history of philanthropy and early and mid-20th century civil rights activism, today’s funders are continuing to act in ways that are undermining radical movements for justice. We are again witnessing a lack of courage from big philanthropy. Caught off guard by the massive protests calling out systemic racism and racial capitalism, many philanthropic leaders have shrunk instead of risen to meet this historic moment. The protests taking place across the country and globe over the past six weeks mark the largest collective protest for social justice in modern times. It is this period of social upheaval where philanthropy should step up as activists could benefit from the resources and institutional privileges that philanthropy has at its disposal. Instead of answering the call of some of the most marginalized citizens in our society, many in philanthropy have cozied up to the extractive corporations that have made life miserable for so many. For example, they have gaslighted us with new social bond initiatives underwritten by Wells Fargo Securities, used valuable political capital to advocate for corporate accountability instead of directly supporting the M4BL’s demand to defund the police, and issued numerous solidarity statements with no actual action behind them. Far from these protests feeling like the crescendo of decades of funding social justice organizations—the protests have exposed a gilded philanthropy wholly out of step with the causes it purports to support and lacking in imagination about how to cede power and support Black-led movements.

Instead of charitable foundations, it is individual small donors who are responsible for providing much of the funding to the current movement. This shift in funding is significant as it moves the accountability away from the funder to citizens and it greatly reduces the influence that donors can have on the movement. However, while movement capture is not operating the same in the present as it did in the past, we should still pay attention to the impact of charitable foundations on the M4BL. Conditioned by at least two decades of critical philanthropy studies, funders are now more cognizant of the influence they wield. Instead of directly interfacing with radical activists and organizations such as Cesar Chavez and the NAACP and shifting their agendas, philanthropic funders have shifted to a more obscured type of soft power.

Specifically, in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, many of the leading criminal justice funders such as Arnold Ventures, Koch, and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have tended to favor “reform” efforts instead of organizations focused on defunding and abolition. This has not resulted in the shifting of strategies or capturing the agenda of any one specific M4BL organization but it did have the effect of legitimizing a system of carceral punishment that M4BL activists have long argued was irredeemable and beyond reform. Furthermore, many of these reform initiatives—whether it was an Audacious Project grant centered on policing reform or the celebrated campaign to #CloseRikers (to then spend over $8 billion to build four new jails)—poured more money into the criminal punishment system, thereby enlarging it even further. In funding a new cadre of reformers, big philanthropy has consistently undermined a central tenant of the M4BL and used up scarce resources as activists have had to expend energy and time in combating not just the criminal punishment system but also well-funded organizations with reformist goals. This tension between reformers and abolitionists most recently played out in Campaign Zero’s reformist #8CantWait campaign and the resulting #8toAbolition campaign that sought to re-center the M4BL’s goal of defunding the police.

On June 18th, as protesters filled the streets across the country, Darren Walker joined by Michael Bloomberg told a group of 140 mayors gathered through Bloomberg Philanthropies “The Leaders this Country Needs Are You. Our Democracy Depends on You.” As big foundations continue to take the public stage to make sweeping proclamations about the future architects of our democracy, we would be wise to ask the question we began this short essay with: What role do philanthropic and city leaders intend or want to play in the context of the movement for Black lives? Where will they allocate funds? For what kind of work? To what end, and accountable to whom? Will a majority of funds and programs support reformist or palliative programs that “minimize the friction generated by institutions moving through a crowding social and political environment” as Paul Ylvisaker had hoped in the 1960s? Or will they answer to the call of this moment to divest from institutions that perpetuate racial violence and invest in community-owned forms of safety, care, and self-determination?

-Erica Kohl-Arenas and Megan Ming Francis

Erica Kohl-Arenas is an Associate Professor in American Studies at the University of California, Davis and the director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. She is a scholar of social movements, freedom struggles, and the politics of institutionalization, professionalization, and private philanthropy. Kohl-Arenas’ research has focused primarily on the radical imaginations and deferred dreams of social movements that become entangled with the politics of institutionalization and funding. This work is captured in her book The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016). Kohl-Arenas is currently working on two major research initiatives: one on the politics of institutional change in higher education in support of public and activist scholarship, and a second about the reclamation of land, agriculture, and community memory in building self-determined futures in rural Black Mississippi, in partnership with Mina Matlon, and Carlton Turner of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production (Sipp Culture). Based on an early mentoring relationship with the late Myles Horton of the Highlander Center in Tennessee, all of Kohl-Arenas’ work is inspired by the principles of movement building, popular education and liberatory pedagogy. 

Megan Ming Francis is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington. Francis specializes in the study of American politics, with broad interests in criminal punishment, Black political activism, philanthropy, and the post-civil war South. She is the author of the award winning book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State (2014). Francis is a proud alumnus of Seattle Public Schools, Rice University in Houston, and Princeton University where she received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Politics. She encourages everyone to listen to the podcast created by students in her course ‘Philanthropy and Social Movements’:



One thought on “Movement Capture and the Long Arc of the Black Freedom Struggle

  1. We need to move toward “community-owned forms of safety, care, and self-determination”. That is to say we need to regain the essence of democracy as self-governance and self-empowerment.

    A great example of that was the Black Panthers. They locally organized not only to assert political power but also to solve problems in their own neighborhoods: ensure safety and protection, feed poor children, educate community members, etc.

    But they realized that they would continue to be threatened and powerless as long as they remained isolated in their separate communities. So, under Fred Hampton’s leadership, they formed the Rainbow coalition with poor Southern whites, feminists, and other minoriity groups.


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