Social Movements and Philanthropy: How Foundations Can Support Movement Building

Published: November 2010

Type: Publication

This Foundation Review article describes how to support and evaluate social movements, including outlining core elements to movement building and proposing an evaluative framework. 


Although there is much discussion about movements and movement building, there is little agreement or even a clear understanding of what movements are and what foundations can do to support them. As foundations seek to catalyze broad-based social change, there is a need for greater understanding of what social movements are, how they evolve, and how foundations can support them.

Movement building presents unique challenges for foundations. Because movements, by definition, must be driven by the people who are most affected, foundations cannot pre-determine their goals and timetables.

Movement building requires investments in infrastructure, including capacity building and leadership development, often without the kind of tangible successes that can be clearly identified and credited in other types of grantmaking efforts. Moreover, the timeline of most foundation grants–one to three years–is short by movement standards.

Building on research for The California Endowment, this article identifies five core elements to movement building:

  1. Organizing an authentic base
  2. Leadership
  3. Vision and ideas
  4. Alliances
  5. Advocacy infrastructure.

A framework for evaluating movement building also is proposed to help foundations identify measurable outcomes and track progress throughout a movement’s developmental stages.