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Social Movements and NGOs: Can They Get Along?
A well-established youth collective in the Global South is planning its next action, and its members are in conversation with a nongovernmental organization (NGO, or, in the United States, nonprofit) eager to support. As the conversation between the two continues and form after form is filled out for funding support for the action, the NGO asks the group to provide documentation of its HR hiring, financial, and safeguarding policies for careful vetting. The youth collective decidedly does not have such policies. There is a disconnect. Deadlines are missed; the funding never materializes.
This is not a hypothetical scenario. It is one of several real examples from conversations we’ve had recently that illustrate how NGOs seeking to support frontline movements, often in the Global South, sometimes trip over themselves.
Here is another example. An NGO warehouse full of radios, banner-making equipment, and costumes for direct action protests remains mostly unused, simply because the protocol for accessing the equipment is long and tedious, not designed for easy community use.
Yet another example: An NGO finally hires a community organizer to build local relationships, but that person is only paid for work done during 9-to-5 business hours. This means they either miss most community meetings and events that take place at night or on weekends, or work an unsustainable weekly schedule.
Many of us have seen such dynamics play out as NGOs try to support social movements—and fail. Acknowledging and diagnosing these failures is a necessary first step in bringing change to a sector with good intentions but mixed outcomes.
Change requires NGOs and external funders to adopt what we call a “movement mindset,” a set of beliefs, attitudes, and actions that seek to support and expand the power of civil society—grassroots movements, informal activist groups, and people-powered organizations—to create transformative change.
Our team at Beautiful Trouble, a collaboration of artists and activists focused on supporting social movements to become more creative and effective, recently teamed up with Amnesty International to spend almost a year researching the question of how to make such a major NGO more movement-minded. Through written surveys, short- and long-form interviews, and small group discussions, we heard from Amnesty staff and leadership, as well as dozens of grassroots activists involved in a broad range of issues.
The findings, summarized below, are timely—critical, even. In response to rising authoritarianism and deepening inequality, NGOs are increasingly coming to the understanding that they need to break out of “old power” command-and-control conventions so they can build enough people power to win progressive change. This requires NGOs to embrace non-hierarchical, shared leadership structures, shared or collective decision making, and healthy support programs.
We found, in other words, that organizations like Amnesty International benefit when they harness a new dynamic of inclusive power, based on co-created campaigns and participatory organizing methods. Essentially, adopting a movement mindset means making a commitment to what has been called “transformative solidarity,” which Amnesty International’s Sarah Jackson defines as “standing in solidarity with people taking their agency as a starting point, rather than acting for people.”
While there is no universal formula for NGOs and philanthropic foundations to adopt a movement mindset overnight, our research shows that there are five basic practices that can help guide movement-aligned NGOs toward a direction that is truly helpful for the people whose work they aim to support.
1. Invest in infrastructure.
Often, it is assumed that the answer to being a better partner to people-powered groups is to simply give them money. While this is indeed useful, there are other, perhaps more foundational, things for an NGO to consider, starting with building its own comfort level and capacity for collective, nonhierarchical decision making—the foundation of grassroots work.
NGO staff members also need clarity on how their organization’s strategic plan prioritizes support for movements, through both structures and policies. For example, how does this prioritization affect who can access NGO trainings, use NGO office space, and so forth? Simply having the strategic direction put into writing is not enough; staff clearly benefit from having a dedicated resource person to integrate strategic directions with action plans; onboard other staff members to adopt a movement mindset; and navigate communication, decision making, and buy-in between central and local field offices.
2. Shift organizational culture toward organizing and activism.
Changing a mindset often comes down to individuals and their experiences, understanding, and motivation. Sure, the hierarchical structures of NGOs can be hurdles to working effectively with outsiders, but staff attitudes can present an even bigger challenge. NGO workers often have little awareness of how their employers may unintentionally entrench a culture of corporate globalization, contribute to shrinking democratic spaces, and reduce social movements to reformist, short-term initiatives. Individuals involved in development and social justice work can be more effective organizers when they recognize the power dynamics at play and their role in rebalancing them.
An NGO that supports its staff in reflecting on their own practice of power and their willingness and limits to redistributing that power will help develop a staff culture of activism that flows from the group’s mission. It is dangerous to assume that all new staff can instantly embody the values, attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed to follow any specific set of principles. Many Amnesty International staff shared with us how they would have benefited from training on the guiding principles of a Human Rights-Based Approach. Incorporating time for staff to engage with social movements as part of the work plan, not in addition to the core work, is one way to expand comprehension of, and commitment to, an activist culture.
As Global North and Global South dynamics are often at play when international NGOs seek to support grassroots organizing, it was notable that staff from Global South countries within Amnesty International told us they were more comfortable with a movement mindset compared with their Global North compatriots. Their comfort level seemed to flow from the fact that they were already connected to activist communities beyond their singular NGO staff position. This suggests powerful South-to-North learning opportunities, opening a path to follow the leadership of those on the front lines of struggle, a key practice of a transformative movement mindset.
3. Embrace risk.
NGOs often think they have “too much to lose” when working with grassroots groups whose positions on issues may be more radical than theirs. This fear of risk is not unfounded. Yet for NGOs to provide bold, timely, and relevant support to grassroots groups often requires them to assume a greater appetite for risk. There are very real safety, financial, and legal risks for NGOs that do not usually engage in direct action and may need to create policies and guidelines for supporting local groups engaging in arrestable or disruptive nonviolent resistance actions. Beyond those obvious risks, there are also reputational challenges for lending one’s name, political connections, or resources to a local group that has not been sufficiently vetted.
Building out a movement mindset often translates into addressing an NGO or funder’s antipathy toward risk. NGOs can benefit in the long run by spending time identifying risk and coming up with a plan to mitigate it. Advance planning, including safety plans, legal recourses, and media rapid responses, can go a long way in raising an NGO’s comfort level with risk.
On the flip side, social movements also do well to assess the potential costs of working with any particular NGO; it’s one way for grassroots groups to evaluate a prospective NGO partnership to ensure a strategically beneficial and empowering partnership. In this vein, Palestinian social movements have implemented bottom-up vetting of NGO-run projects, establishing democratically elected councils in several communities that determine how NGO funds are received and used.
4. Get trained on mass-movement-building practices and principles.
The most successful people-powered movements are ones that mobilize and organize the disempowered majority, which necessarily includes a diversity of groups and constituencies. Successfully doing that requires serious investment in cultural competency, power analysis, and anti-oppression work by all involved. NGOs can promote this work by investing in the training and coaching that prepares participants in their own organizations and the broader community for working across, and with, differences of race, gender, and class effectively. Centering the voices of marginalized communities and focusing on racial, gender, and economic justice in NGOs and local groups builds transformative solidarity and supports a holistic approach to well-being that is needed to effectively advance a movement mindset.
New research by human rights scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan finds that training support—for example, “leadership training, organizational capacity-building, labor organizing, nonviolent action or movement training, legal training, and medical training”—is positively correlated with more effective and resilient movements. Activists who received training prior to peak mobilization were much more likely to mobilize strategic nonviolent campaigns with high participation, low fatalities, and greater likelihood of defections from opponents. This is due not only to greater skill, but also to stronger relationships within and between groups who train together, which can help them respond with a united front to repression if it occurs.
5. Integrate community resilience practices.
NGOs hoping to support social movements must grapple with high rates of exhaustion, personal trauma, and burnout in social movements. They can learn approaches to activism from the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements, which have emphasized healing, justice, and joy amid the long and difficult arc of working for change.
Well-resourced NGOs can not only build this work into their own organizations, but can also consider meaningful ways of demonstrating care, building relationships with local communities, and encouraging development of intersectional and culturally appropriate spaces. A recent article by Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party, has sparked important questions, such as “What can we learn from our errors and our attempts to correct these errors in service of sustainable solutions?”
The Limits of NGO and Movement Relations
Movements move (in somewhat predictable patterns). They morph and evolve, bifurcate and coalesce. In crafting the above recommended practices, we kept in mind the inherent tensions that can exist within large global campaigning organizations and their stated interests in prioritizing collaboration with people-powered movements.
One word of caution: a movement mindset may not be an appropriate evolution for every NGO. In their 2018 book New Power, NGO leaders Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms recommend sticking with old power if the answer to any of the following questions is “no”: Do you need the involvement of social movements to achieve your goals, and do the social movements you’re considering working with need you to achieve theirs? Are you willing to cede some control to social movements, and accept outcomes that are unexpected or suboptimal? Are you prepared and able to sustain engagement by social movements and feed their agency over the longer term?
So, can social movements and NGOs, working together, seed more successful campaigns? In sum, yes! We have outlined what we feel are the best basic practices that can foster a movement mindset in NGOs and enable them to play a role in aligning institutional power behind grassroots movements. With the added resources that well-funded NGOs can provide poorly funded movements, the fight for social justice can be much more effective than it currently is.
The Beautiful Trouble team is available for questions, feedback, and follow up. Write to us at [email protected].
Beautiful Trouble is an international network of artist-activist-trainers helping grassroots movements and the organizations that support them become more creative and more powerful. We are also a book, a strategy card game, an online toolbox, and a creative campaign incubator. Beautiful Trouble contributors who worked on this article are Rae Abileah, Darya Alikhani, Nadine Bloch, Dave Oswald Mitchell, and Phil Wilmot. They can be reached at https://beautifultrouble.org/