Public funding for community organizing would strengthen our democracy and relegitmize a beleaguered public sector. It’s time to stop writing off the idea.
By Robert Fisher Posted on March 23, 2016
Over its 40 years, Shelterforce has become one of the primary spaces for challenging accepted notions and trends in community organizing and community development. Randy Stoecker argued in these pages that community organizing (CO) was dying due to a lack of conflict in both organizing practice and theory. Josh Ishimatsu argued that community development was dying due to a lack of community organizing. And Stoecker proposed most recently that community organizing was dead due to the turn to models that ignored building powerful grassroots organizations. While I agree with much of what they say, I believe that community organizing is not dying but, like the overall “economic recovery,” suffering due to ignored structural problems.
I just returned from six months in Europe, which forced me to rethink many of my views of both civil society and the state, including why we don’t even consider putting the public sector into the funding mix for community organizing efforts. Public support of community organizing in the United States may seem impossible, especially given attacks on ACORN and Planned Parenthood. But accepting the limits of the current status quo is part of the problem.
Throughout the history of community organizing in the United States, funding has been a serious but neglected issue. Social settlement pioneers such as Jane Addams and Lillian Wald acted above it, figuring their benefactors were already at the table (literally) and asking for money was unseemly. Patrons of Saul Alinsky’s work included the wealthy heir and businessman Marshall Fields III, Gordon Sherman (Midas Muffler founder), and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Current organizing similarly focuses heavily on progressive philanthropy. But it’s not enough. Money issues came to the fore with the economic crisis of 2008. A National Organizers Alliance survey of 203 organizations conducted in late 2009 reported 65 percent of respondents made dramatic funding cuts, 40 percent depleted their financial reserves, and 33 percent survived “month to month.” The Great Recession “crippled the budgets of nonprofits just as demand for their services rose,” according to a 2010 study by the Urban Institute. Funding levels for 2015 still remain below those of 2008. Throughout the nonprofit sector tasks are greater, problems deeper, and dollars fewer, hitting social justice and community organizing efforts the hardest.
There are at least 10 different sources for funding community organizing: campaign victories, canvassing, dues, fees for service, social entrepreneurship, labor unions, political parties, public contracting for service delivery, religious congregations, and secular and religious foundations. But foundations remain by far the primary source, despite common knowledge that narrow sources result in less overall funding and shorter organizational longevity. A 2005 Center for Community Change study of 240 grassroots organizations calculated that this sector received 62 percent of its funding from foundation grants, and only 5 percent from government grants.
All funding comes with strings and pressures, guidelines and expectations, either explicit and upfront or implicit and tied to continued support. All funding influences organizational mission, culture, goals, strategies, tactics, and success. This is one of the reasons why relying heavily on a single type of funding for organizing—almost two-thirds from foundations—is currently being reexamined, especially at a time of mounting need in poor communities and declining financial health of the nonprofit sector. In the hierarchy of nonprofit sector funding, grassroots social action organizations, especially those in impoverished communities of color, are seen as the least stable, which further disadvantages them in the competition for philanthropic funding.
Incite’s The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex sharply criticizes reliance on philanthropic foundations. The current system of tax breaks for foundations enables them to accrue great sums of money and power, spent mostly to reinforce the status quo. They are part of the problem, not the solution. Unfortunately, the book targets the existing civil society sector, especially membership dues and partnerships with other community organizations, as the solution.
Incite is not alone in making these kinds of recommendations. The literature on funding organizing focuses almost exclusively on improving current sources, especially movement philanthropy. The possibility of public sector funding is not even discussed. Reports from NYU’s Wagner School, the National Organizers Alliance, and the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, as well as the work of fundraising guru Kim Klein, for example, while critical of the current overreliance on foundations, largely focus their recommendations on variations of individual giving or more diverse foundation and corporate support, with a nod to earned income.
It Can Be Done
Public funding of progressive social change has precedents in the United States. The Great Society programs of the 1960s included the Community Action Program (CAP), with its public mandate of “maximum feasible participation of the poor.” CAP funding was essential to the origins of the National Welfare Rights Organization. In the 1970s, direct and indirect funding from Volunteers in Service to America, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, and Community Reinvestment Act provided critical funding for organizing and education to ACORN, National People’s Action, and National Training and Information Center.
Things changed in the 1980s with President Reagan’s attack on the welfare state and progressive uses of the public sector. Since then the nearly worldwide neoconservative defunding and delegitimization of the public sector has dominated policy practice and political thought, not to mention our sense of what is a likely and legitimate funding source.
Recently, however, this neoconservative strategy took an unexpected turn in England: The conservative David Cameron administration developed a Community Organiser Programme (COP) as part of its “Big Society” initiative. His 2010 Conservative manifesto proposed to “use Cabinet Office budgets to fund the training of independent community organizers to help people establish and run neighborhood groups and provide neighborhood grants to the UK’s poorest areas to ensure they play a leading role in the rebuilding of civic society.” Cameron’s administration funded the COP to the tune of approximately £20 million ($27.8 million). In less than four years, from 2011 to 2015, the state-funded COP hired and trained 500 organizers, with individual annual salaries of approximately £20,000 ($30,000).
The Cameron administration began the COP to serve as an experimental complement to its austerity, anti–big state policies. This “turn to community,” evident in the United States and globally in the broad proliferation of NGOs during the past 35 years, devolves initiatives to the community level as substitutes for public programs. Accordingly, the COP experiment was designed to function without costly government intervention, bureaucratic load, or extensive evaluation. The only stipulated goals of the COP were to hire and train 500 senior organizers and offer training and experience to 4,500 residents (nine per senior organizer).
What resulted remains ambiguous. While the “Big Society” concept was quickly scrapped, the COP resulted in a good deal of community building and development projects in small towns. In poor communities in larger cities such as Bristol, hit hardest by the austerity cuts and politics of the past 35 years, Alinsky-style groups emerged and continue doing important social justice organizing around housing, jobs, and living wages.
It is a rule of Alinsky organizing to never take public money for organizing. But Citizens UK, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Alinsky umbrella group in the United States, went after the COP funding. Despite a good deal of trepidation, Citizens UK understood that £20 million would support a lot of community organizing, especially in an austerity context.
If a conservative in England with little experience in community organizing could fund something like the COP, couldn’t it happen in the United States, especially when the sitting president has experience with and knows the value of organizing? If related public funding initiatives already occur in other countries, such as Germany and Canada, why not in the United States, the home of community organizing?
Relegitimizing Public Funding
Recent memories of ACORN’s demise underscore the vulnerability of public funding in many minds, but it’s debatable how significant public funding withdrawal was in destroying the nation’s largest and arguably most effective community organizing effort of low-income people of color in the United States. Planned Parenthood, which receives far more public funding, has been able to withstand a comparable right-wing assault and extend the public presidential debate.
One of the major objectives of politics of the past 35 years has been to identify government as the problem. Promoting public funding of community organizing could be part of a much overdue democratizing of the state, that is, a return to demands for a participatory democracy, where government is owned by the people and expected to work on behalf of the public good. This would include the public sector at the state and local as well as national level. For sociologist David Wagner, the stripping of the state of any positive role has meant the abandoning of the public sector by “thousands of potential public servants and perhaps millions of potential political activists.” Expanding and diversifying funding for CO by adding public sources to the mix is a modest step toward hiring the organizers our communities and our democracy so desperately need.
Robert Fisher teaches in and chairs a graduate-level program in community organizing at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work. He is the author of Let The People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America and most recently co-author of Contesting Community: The Limits and Potential of Local Organizing.