Some Winning Ingredients in Movement Building Are the Spiciest of All

Monday, December 14, 2015

Some Winning Ingredients in Movement Building Are the Spiciest of All

By Paul Di Donato, Former Director of the Civil Marriage Collaborative, Current Interim President, Proteus Fund

Last month, I joined a panel of grantmakers and advocacy leaders to discuss the role that philanthropy played in advancing the freedom to marry nationally.  Titled “Winning Ingredients: What Philanthropy Can Learn from the Marriage Equality Movement,” the program focused on the evolution of the marriage equality movement over time and the 2004 creation of the Civil Marriage Collaborative at the Proteus Fund as a way to create a laser-like focus on targeted, strategic philanthropic support for public education efforts on the freedom to marry. 

Presentations ranged from early CMC and other philanthropic efforts on marriage equality public education through to the final efforts leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court victory on the issue this past June.  (Highlights of the event included the premier of a short film and release of a publication on the CMC’s work. For downloads of both please visit the CMC homepage:

There was significant discussion of both philanthropic successes as well as miscues in this work with a special emphasis on the significant retooling of marriage equality messaging content and delivery mechanisms spurred by and then brought to scale through CMC and aligned funding  The major thread across the afternoon was the distillation of 11 lessons learned – structural, tactical and strategic - by the CMC in its journey in becoming one of the more effective funder collaboratives in the history of philanthropy.  These lessons are spelled out at the end of the recently released publication.

Two questions that came up during the event seemed to be worth some further exploration here.

When funding a movement, how do you identify your unlikely allies and engage with them? Relatedly, how do you respond as a grantmaker when an unlikely ally derails your carefully planned strategy?

The first step is to appreciate that unlikely allies likely exist, and make sure that both funders and grantees are open to exploring the where, when, how and why of this tactic.  Doing so can liberate advocates and their organizations from the blinders created by preconceived one-dimensional notions of allies and opposition which only serve to arbitrarily limit opportunities.  Grantmakers can a play a key catalytic role here as we are at least one step removed from the work on the ground and can, at times, take advantage of the perspective this positioning provides to partner with grantees on creative ways to identify and then cultivate unlikely allies.  Then our job is to step back and let our grantees do the work. When this approach backfires and an unlikely ally causes more harm than good, grantmakers should not react in a vacuum.  It is the grantees after all who were funded to help build and steward these relationships.  Ideally the funders act in partnership with grantees to assess the scope of the harm and the likelihood of a “repeat performance” before deciding whether work with an unlikely ally in such circumstances should continue as is, shift course, or perhaps end completely.   

When “losing forward,” you say that non-engagement is the true loss when trying to change hearts and minds. How do you strike the balance of broadening mindsets while also staying true to your beliefs?

The key here is being thoughtful and strategic about what equals the underlying beliefs and overarching value system animating the issue versus what amounts to only tactical approaches and choices that can and should be seen as malleable and thus crafted to advance the issue in question.  In the marriage equality context, our belief was in the human dignity of same sex individuals and couples to love and partner with whom they wish, and for the civil rights structure of U.S. law to recognize and protect that.  Short of employing oddly or directly homophobic tactics to win our own battle, almost all possible approaches should be on the table for the activists and advocates.  Grantmakers should then also be open to a range of tactics and strategies grantees suggest (or chose to pursue) with the main criteria being effectiveness – are we moving the ball forward with these resources or not. In the case of CMC’s work, the funder emphasis on efficacy – stemming from the passion to achieve success versus just making a good effort - in the end pushed our grantees and us to stay true to our values and to the underlying cause while advancing to victory.  

The ultimate lesson learned by the Civil Marriage Collaborative is that grantmakers are not simply passive check writers and treating ourselves, or being treated, simply as that underutilizes all of the dimensions of the philanthropic function.  The CMC and its aligned funders partnered in meaningful and comprehensive ways with marriage equality advocates of all stripes and in doing so played a pivotal role in the eventual victory on the freedom to marry.