To Sustain Movements, Grantmakers Must Invest in Leadership

  • By Miguel A. Santana, August 22, 2022

Today’s political environment, racial inequities and the 2020 protests – in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Andrés Guardado and many other Black and Brown people – have intensified activism and mass mobilizations and created a sense of urgency among social justice advocates. The pandemic also exacerbated historical inequities, highlighting the need to dismantle old systems and replace them with more inclusive policies and programs. Adding to this sense of urgency is the roll back of rights like access to abortion care and immigrant rights coming from Supreme Court decisions. This calls on us within philanthropy to ensure that the gains won by a previous generation of movement leaders are not lost, and that we support leaders for an equitable liberatory future.

We recognize that to sustain social change movements, the people leading these movements need to be supported, nurtured and heard. Working with researchers, funders and our nonprofit partners, we launched two initiatives aimed at growing the number of leaders on the frontlines of change and racial equity, including intentionally investing in BIPOC leaders. We’d like to share what we learned through our approach to building the pipeline of movement leaders.

Developing Youth Leaders

Working with community-based researchers to understand community issues is the first step we like to take before embarking on new initiatives. We engaged Dr. Veronica Terriquez from U.C. Santa Cruz, a leading researcher in youth organizing, to assess both needs and opportunities to grow the youth-to-leadership pipeline in Southern California.

We learned that young leaders of color rooted in the communities they serve are among the best agents for lasting change and should lead the way in addressing inequity and transformative change. Organizations shared that in order to train and support more youth leaders to lead grassroots organizing campaigns, they would need support to do the following:

  • Build organizational capacity in key areas;
  • Strengthen and expand comprehensive programming to fully develop leaders;
  • Expand regional and summer programming;
  • Strengthen organizational capacity to continue engaging youth leaders beyond targeted programming; and
  • Support the creation and expansion of youth organizing networks.

Dr. Terriquez’s extensive research on youth organizing shows that it can be a form of healing and self-care for young organizers. Outcomes show that grassroots youth organizers learn to better care for their emotional and physical health when they participate in leadership programs. Dr. Terriquez recommends that funders support existing youth organizing organizations with flexible, multi-year, unrestricted support to allow each organization to prioritize funding to their greatest needs. In response, we pooled funds with funders to create the Youth Organizing Capacity Building Initiative, which provides nonprofits with multi-year unrestricted operating support grants and cultivates a peer learning community.

Next Generation Leaders

Investing in youth is vital for the long haul, but what about the leaders of today? What support do they need? To answer this, we convened a group of seasoned movement building leaders and commissioned a study to explore whether existing programs and supports were sufficient to meet the needs of the region’s movement leadership.

The research concluded that a more robust leadership-training infrastructure should be developed, not only to sustain the generational transfer of leadership and grow inter-generational relationships, but to also deepen leaders’ commitment to the long-term change needed to achieve social justice and racial equity.

We learned that a key inflection point in a movement leader’s career is when they transition from day-to-day campaign work to an executive or senior level leadership position involving added responsibilities for managing resources and supervising staff.

In response, we launched the John W. Mack Movement Building Fellows program in 2019, named after the late civic leader and our dear former Board member – a man who began his lifelong career as a movement leader through student activism during the civil rights movement. Through an exploration of Self, Organization and Movement Networks, John W. Mack Fellows develop tools for leading through complexity and chaos, breaking the habits of white dominant organizational culture, learning through experimentation and reflection, aligning their values through their work and actions, and the importance of self- and collective care.

In addition, Fellows access up to 20 hours of professional coaching and a $25,000 grant is awarded to each Fellow’s organization to help compensate for the Fellow’s time away from the office during program activities, support the Fellow’s ability to fully engage in the program activities and support the organization’s internal leadership development practices.

Unrestricted Funding to Support Internal Leadership Development

Working with researchers and listening to the needs of our nonprofit partners, we recognize that organizations need the flexibility to invest in staff development. Unrestricted operating support grants remain our primary grant strategy to support our nonprofit partners and the majority of our partners leverage that support to invest in staff development and operations.

Looking ahead, we hope to continue to bring together our foundation peers and partners to keep investing in multi-year unrestricted funding and other targeted support to organizations advancing leadership development. The organizations, coalitions and movement leaders on the front lines need continued deep investment to not only protect recent wins and ensure proper implementation of new policies, but to capitalize on historic opportunities and continue the long-term fight for equity and justice.

Miguel A. Santana

President & CEO

Miguel A. Santana is President and C.E.O. of the Weingart Foundation where he engages in numerous civic efforts to create a more equitable Southern California region, including serving as Chair of the Committee for Greater L.A.. He served as President and C.E.O. of Fairplex, a nonprofit community benefit regional organization based in Pomona, CA and was the City Administrative Officer for the City of Los Angeles.