Activists tend to be people who are committed to their cause regardless of the presence of resources. Many spend years without salaries struggling for change. Others pour their own money into their efforts. So why are self-sacrificing, resilient, relentless individuals who are working so hard for their communities usually incredibly under-funded?
There are several reasons activists don’t have a lot of cash to spend. Here are some of the main reasons I have encountered in my work:
1) Foundations and other potential sources of funding do not make it possible for activist groups to apply for funds.
This challenge is particularly common in the field of human rights. Many foundations and funders require applicants to be registered as legal entities in their own countries. This neglects the challenge that much of the most productive work of activists is illegal. Many governments are highly repressive and will seek to squelch all social change projects before they have the opportunity of being delivered from the womb. Other times, governments are unstructured by design, with plenty of loopholes for corruption at local and national levels. It becomes impossible to register an organization without bribing someone somewhere, and many activists cling so strongly to their ethics and ideals that a bribe simply cannot be paid. This kind of moral character should be rewarded, not neglected.
2) Activists are often politically polarizing.
Gaining public support for anything is difficult. Most human beings will try to work with whatever life throws at them. Few are invested in changing reality. Many people don’t like politics, and however apolitical activists groups might be, they will always be interpreted as political. Activists are notorious for their rigid ethics, which may be an asset. In the realm of funding, however, leaning too strongly in one direction can be seen as a deterrent for attracting potential involvement from the public.
3) Capacity-building organizations, even those working on “grassroots issues,” prefer to support traditional methodologies. Fiscal sponsors don’t want to get their hands dirty.
Many large NGOs and international agencies are, at least in their reports and marketing schemes, deeply engaged in projects relating to good governance, human rights, environmental concerns, etc. On the ground, their employees are often simply happy to be paid for their work. Annoying leaders and prying too much at sensitive social issues may result in instability, so employees individually and collectively resolve not to take risks. When opportunities arise to support activist groups who are doing the real work to transform their communities, employees of larger agencies often feel a type of guilt, shame, or jealousy. Sometimes they merely do not want to stir up trouble. This creates a very timid atmosphere among stakeholders in civil society. NGOs and CSOs passively endorse replications of the same old projects, not wanting to roll the dice with groups aiming to incite change. Others simply fear the revocation of their permits or registrations which allow them to operate. Even when NGOs do support activists, they usually play a backseat role, such as assisting with legal representation.
4) Activists have failed to give their movements the structures needed to utilize and monitor funding.
While activism can be very distinct from other forms of nonprofit and development work, there are also some overlaps. For example, effective communication and articulation of goals and methodologies is necessary. When you are applying for funds, you must prove to the funder that you mean business. Activists prove this with their actions, hence the title “activists.” However, they must also learn to do it better with their words, both in verbal and written form. Being a community organizer requires engaging many demographics and a diverse web of stakeholders. Understanding how each person and entity plays a role and relates to a movement’s potential for success is incredibly important. Activists must be more serious in the effectiveness of their internal structures and transparency systems than corporate employees who are preparing reports for shareholders or board meetings.
5) Many sources of funding come from major corporations and governments whose interests directly oppose those of activists.
How can a foundation linked to an oil company endorse the work of environmental activists in their drilling regions? How can a government that tortures prisoners endorse a movement aiming to document human rights in jails? Companies care about profits. They exist to make money. If there is a threat to this interest, that threat is an enemy, not an ally. You don’t need to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to understand that funding your enemies will undermine your own objectives.
6) Activists do not try to apply for funding.
You will never receive something unless you ask for it. Many potential funders are sensitive to the needs of activists, and are willing to consider funding them if they are educated on the complication with the registration process or the challenges of gaining public support for breaking cultural norms.
7) The potential for nonviolent action is highly under-researched.
People like traditional models for some reason. They like following photogenic trends. Drilling clean water wells and sponsoring children to go to school are not effective systemic solutions to access to clean water or challenges in the education sector, but these models attract tons of funding nonetheless. While nonviolence has proven to be an extremely effective approach to solving systemic problems on minimal budgets, many people are not confident in its ability to cause systemic change. This is largely due to what Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence.” Movies, books, advertisements, stories, etc. subconsciously teach us that change occurs through violence. Therefore, nonviolence is understood as idealistic and unrealistic. When activists are applying for funds or soliciting their communities for support, they should simultaneously educate others on the great successes of nonviolent movements and campaigns, even using statistics and bits of academic research when appropriate.