Organizing, Power, & Public Policy

Community organizing teaches the poor to organize themselves for power and politics…to restore dignity and integrity, and rebuild community, as well as the civic culture.

It comes as no great shock to community organizers that both the number of funders and the overall percentage of dollars going to support community-organizing efforts remains quite small. The reasons for this are not hard to explain. The values, perspectives and experiences of the vast majority of foundation board members and staff who develop foundation policies and practices are not focused on issues of power in our society. More precisely, they have refused, or been very reluctant, to fund organizations that explicitly seek to build the power base of the poor so they can affect and change the public policies and private market forces that create and sustain social and economic inequality.

Nevertheless, there are signs of some changes in the philanthropic landscape. As more and more funders confront the stark reality of the combined impact of political and economic policies of the past 25 years on low-income communities, they are forced to consider new funding strategies and initiatives.

By now the evidence of that impact is pretty clear:

  • A decline in real wages for 80 percent of the American workforce;
  • The greatest disparity between the income of the top 5 percent and the bottom 80 percent of workers in the past hundred years;
  • A greater percentage of children living in poverty than at any other time in the past 50 years; and,
  • A massive public divestment, particularly at the Federal level, in housing, education and job training programs.

More recent changes, including the radical dismantling of social welfare programs that protected the most vulnerable members of our society, have only exacerbated the pressures on poor families. This is why more and more funders feel compelled to critically examine and evaluate the impact of their grantmaking on the lives of the poor, and to be open to strategies that focus on building power as at least one of their funding priorities.

Taking on the Organizing Challenge

The Hyams Foundation was established in 1927 and has always had a major focus on low-income neighborhoods, especially within Boston. For most of its history the Foundation’s priorities were heavily weighted in support of social service agencies in the City’s neighborhoods. However, beginning in the mid-1980s, the Foundation has been slowly shifting its funding priorities, placing a stronger emphasis on affordable housing and community development. This change coincided with the introduction of new trustees and staff at the Foundation who brought experience in areas such as public policy and public housing management.

In 1997 Hyams undertook a strategic planning process because it wanted to be more focused and strategic in its grantmaking. When it was completed last fall the trustees announced that the foundation’s mission would be “to increase economic and social justice and power within low-income communities.” They also changed the Foundation’s funding priorities to explicitly include, for the first time, community-organizing. This shift in direction could result in up to $500,000 annually going to community organizing groups in the city of Boston by the end of the century.

The changes at the Hyams Foundation were influenced, in part, by the experiences of other foundations that had extensively funded community organizing over many years. Hyams was particularly affected by the Boston Foundation’s Community Organizing Program and the leadership of other local funders who worked with Associated Grantmakers of Massachusetts to hold workshops and forums on community organizing.

In part through its staff involvement with the Neighborhood Funders Group, Hyams also became increasingly aware of the substantial experience among other funders that illustrated the effectiveness of funding community organizing in support of increasing social and economic justice and power in low-income communities. Examples include:

  • The Chicago Affordable Housing and Community Jobs Campaign led to commitments of $750 million in affordable housing assistance by the city.
  • The Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance won nearly $200 million in new affordable mortgages for first-time low-income homebuyers.
  • The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has led a number of successful “Living Wage” campaigns across the country that have resulted in substantial wage increases for thousands of low-wage workers.
  • In Texas, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) affiliates have been transforming public schools through the Alliance Schools project, gaining the power to influence funding and educational policies at the local and district levels that directly benefit poor children.

The Hyams Foundation also learned that, in the course of these organizing campaigns, there emerged grassroots leadership and strong organizations controlled by the community, with the power and political skill to negotiate with government, banks, insurance companies and developers. And beyond the immediate victories won in these campaigns, each illustrates that justice can be achieved only when people gain the political and economic power necessary to make key decisions about their futures, and the future of their communities. The Foundation also learned that community-organizing campaigns can affect public policies and private market forces which result in dramatic improvements in the lives of low-income residents. As important as other funding strategies are, most social service programs lack the transforming capacity of community organizing.

The Hyams trustees did express certain concerns and reservations as the Foundation moved toward fully embracing community organizing as a funding strategy.

The first was the issue of funding public policy and whether this would involve supporting direct lobbying activities. Some trustees voiced apprehension about whether IRS rules governing private foundations allowed this. Through research, including what other funders were doing in this arena, the trustees learned that private foundations could fund organizations that included direct lobbying in their work.

Second, the trustees were somewhat skeptical that community organizing could actually achieve “measurable results” and they were uncertain as to how to evaluate its impact. Again, the Trustees were open to learning about the experiences of other funders in evaluating their community organizing grants. They also were open to making a small number of grants themselves, concentrating on funding organizing in areas where the Foundation already had considerable experience, such as affordable housing. They therefore funded groups like the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance and the Boston Housing Partnership’s leadership development program for tenants.

Third was the issue every funder faces when determining funding priorities: how do you justify a shift in resource allocation that may reduce support to current grantees? A watershed for the foundation in this regard came with its Building Community Initiative, a multi-year project aimed at reducing crime and violence in four Boston neighborhoods. After considerable staff research, the trustees were presented essentially with two options: to deepen the foundation’s commitment and support to existing youth serving agencies in these neighborhoods; or to start something that was not already happening in these neighborhoods by supporting grassroots organizing that would mobilize residents and other stakeholders in an effort to create safe neighborhoods.

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

The Trustees chose the second option and invested some $1.5 million over the past seven years in direct organizing grants, along with technical assistance and training. These resources might otherwise have gone to direct services. Instead, this funding led to grassroots initiatives that built broad-based support and enough political pressure to shut down crackhouses, renovate parks, and invest more public and private money into alternative youth programs. All of this helped to reweave the social fabric of the community. The success of this initiative had a major influence on the trustees, who decided to deepen the foundation’s support for community organizing.

During this period of change for the foundation, one last factor has been part of the equation: the role of community organizers and community leaders in challenging private philanthropy to fund more organizing. Since they believe that their work is central to community transformation, they must continually educate funders about the impact of their work, seeking out every possible forum to do so. This includes conferences, meetings and publications of funders. They also must learn how to use their allies in the funding world to open up more dialogue. In short, the stakes are simply too high to ignore the potential contribution of foundation resources to support social and economic change.

 

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