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How do Social Movements Raise Money?

A movement’s most basic resource is the time and energy of its activists. Movements also typically need additional resources, such as physical spaces to hold meetings, vehicles to transport members, and money to hire professional staff or buy equipment. Movements can mobilize these resources in multiple ways, depending on the opportunities available to them, as well as their leaders’ inclinations, experiences, and skills.

Mobilizing Support from Beneficiary Constituents

One obvious method for mobilizing resources is by soliciting contributions of time or money from the people who stand to benefit most directly from movement activities. Sociologists call these “beneficiary constituents.” Examples of movements that mobilize resources directly from beneficiaries include (1) unions who solicit donations of labor, time and money from the workers will benefit from union negotiating efforts; (2) campesino movements who ask for money from farmers who will benefit from the movement’s advocacy, negotiations or protests; and (3) religious movements that solicit donations from adherents expecting to receive spiritual compensation for their prayers and participation.

In these cases, the resources are given freely by those who stand to benefit most obviously and directly from the movement’s efforts. This type of resource mobilization is simple, as the people contributing scarce time and money will receive specific rewards soon after, making the cost/benefit calculations simple and clear.

Why Some Beneficiary Constituents Don’t Support Movements

Many movements, however, do not raise funds from the people they are seeking to help. In some cases, the beneficiary constituents in question may not have either the time or the money. Consider prisoners; although incarcerated individuals might derive immediate benefits from the work of prisoners’ rights movements, they rarely have spare funds to donate. Consider also movements providing humanitarian assistance to civilians displaced by war. Here, the direct beneficiaries are refugees and internally displaced persons, and these are also likely to be so financially hard-pressed that no movement acting on their behalf could reasonably expect them to contribute. Fund raising from the movement’s direct beneficiaries, in these instances, is simply not feasible.

There are other instances in which resource mobilization from direct beneficiaries doesn’t work. Consider, for example, isolated rural communities that know little about the high-level advocacy work done on their behalf by Amnesty International in global and national capitals. It is unreasonable for Amnesty to expect those hypothetical beneficiaries to donate money, as gap between them and the work of their advocates is just too large.

In other cases, the benefits may be too indirect, unclear, or abstract to stimulate giving by beneficiaries. Palestinians living in Gaza, for example, may be unpersuaded that the legal reports of international lawyers working in Geneva will result in any meaningful improvements to their lives. In this case, asking a Palestinian resident of Gaza to donate money for the work of foreign lawyers, whom they will never meet with or speak to, would also be unreasonable.

Finally, beneficiaries may not trust the movements purporting to work on their behalf. In countries with high levels of corruption, for example, beneficiaries may fear that movements led by people they do not know personally may steal or otherwise misuse donated funds.

A few years ago, I explored the importance of trust in donations through a field experiment conducted in Latin America. My team and I gave citizens in Mexico City and Bogota small sums of cash in return for their participation in a survey, at the end of which researchers told the participants about a fictional non-profit agency advocating on their behalf. The, we asked researchers asked whether the participants might want to donate some of the financial compensation the

y had just received to that advocacy organization.

To determine which organizational attributes were most important to potential beneficiaries, the researchers randomly allocated each survey participant into one of four groups, each of which heard a slightly different narrative about the non-profit agency’s work and characteristics. The narrative emphasizing the agency’s financial integrity and rigorous auditing procedures received the most donations. This, the researchers hypothesized, suggested that donations by movement beneficiaries were shaped by concerns over the social movement’s integrity. When researchers were able to ally those concerns, beneficiaries were more willing to donate money. Trust, in this case, was the crucial mechanism through which movements could transform beneficiaries into donors.

Mobilizing Resources from Conscience Constituents

Movements can also raise contributions from “conscience constituents,” third parties who support the issues at stake, but who do not benefit materially and directly from the efforts of the movement itself. Consider again the case of Amnesty International advocating in Geneva, or in the capital of a low-income country, on behalf of rural residents situated in a remote area. In this case, Amnesty may well have raised funds to do this work from sympathetic individuals and philanthropies living far away, in much wealthier countries. These donors will never themselves directly benefit from Amnesty’s activities, but still, they give money. They do so because of their personal values, and their “reward,” in this case, is the knowledge that they contributed to efforts to help vulnerable people whom they will never meet or know. They are conscience constituents, people who give to help others for reasons of personal conscience, rather than because of any direct material benefit to themselves or their loved ones.

Mobilizing Resources from Public Agencies

Some governments and international organizations donate money to movements for reasons of conscience, politics, or law. Within the US, for example, public agencies such as the US Department for Housing and Urban Development may be obliged by law, or for reasons of politics or conscience, to give money to social movements working on behalf of the homeless in this country. Outside the US, moreover, public agencies such as the US Agency for International Development, another government body, give money to movements for economic development, poverty relief, disaster relief, or political change. Once again, the motives are a mixture of conscience, politics, and public relations management. Movements can also apply for funds from multilateral organizations such as the European Union or United Nations.

When public agencies provide movements with funding, their support can be structured either as a grant, which provides movement actors with some autonomy, or as a contract, which requires movements to carry out specific tasks on a pre-defined schedule, occasionally distorting the movement’s work by making it accountable to donors, rather than to beneficiary constituents.

Mobilizing Resources from Private Economic Actors

Many movements seek to build their own resource base by running, or allying with, profit-seeking entities. Consider BRAC, a large Bangladeshi anti-poverty organization that funds many of its activities through revenues earned in the kind of “social enterprises” that organize farmers to sell agricultural products on the open market. Or consider the Islamist Hezbollah movement, whose construction company, Jihad al-Binah, uses Lebanese government contract money to rebuild homes destroyed in the fighting with Israel. Or consider the Mexican Diabetes Federation, which receives grants and contracts from local and international pharmaceutical companies in aid of their efforts to educate and support children with Type 1 diabetes in that country.

Where does the Money go?

Most donated funds flow to specific organizations, rather than to movements overall. This is because donors and clients need some reassurance that the money will be used in a responsible and transparent manner. Individual legal entities with defined legal and organizational structures are better suited to these accountability measures than the more amorphous movements, composed as they are by multiple players without clear relations of authority, leadership, and oversight.

As a result, most scholars of social movements tend to engage in a two-level analysis. They collect data on specific organizations, which they are looking to compile information on finances, human resources, tactics, and strategies. As noted in a previous paper, these social movement organizations are the building blocks of broader social movements. At the same time, scholars also want to know about the characteristics of the movement as a whole, as well as movement-wide resources, strategies, successes and failures.

To do this, some scholarly sample from individual organizations within the broader movement, and then seek to generalize from those samples to the bigger whole. In other cases, movements are small enough that all significant organizational actors can be studied, allowing researchers to conduct a census, rather than a sample, of this specific movement sector. In still other cases, qualitative researchers strategically choose a small number of organizations within the same movement to focus on. Although these organizations cannot “represent” the movement in any kind of statistically accurate manner, they can give readers a sense of what specific organizations do, and how their activities connect to others working in the same arena.

To provide an accurate portrait of a given movement’s resources, however, the basic research must often focus on organizations, because it is they - and not movements as a whole - that generate, mobilize, and expend resources.

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