Introducing the Research

minute read

An organiser’s reflections 

Sotez Chowdhury, October 2023 

Organising is what I do. I have been a grassroots community organiser. I have set up new organising units within campaigning organisations and political parties. I have taught community organising. I govern organisations that invest in community organising. 

I have dedicated my life to this practice because I know it works. 

In Bangladesh, my father rejected imperialism and organised across class divides to build a better country for those most in need. In Britain, both my parents built a powerful community of love, joy and solidarity in Tower Hamlets, where I grew up. This same community - including my Grandad - lived with, worked with and organised shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community to resist fascists. 

Because of this past and my present, I know that organising is the only way to build the community, society and country I want my daughter to grow up in. It is how we build the power to make change. It is how we build the bonds that root us and resist division. It is how we transform our politics so that it supports thriving, democratic communities that put people first. 

I have also seen over and over again the amazing organising taking place all across the UK. Whether it is working class communities in Spitalfields winning housing repairs. Human rights activists fighting for poverty to be taken seriously. Or young people mobilising their friends and family behind local and national action towards climate justice. 

Yet one thing that consistently confounds me is the lack of funding for this vital practice. 

We find it easy to fund long documents, but difficult to fund lasting relationships. We want to be near power and are comfortable with speaking on behalf of others. But allowing the unusual suspects to lead and build their own power seems to be the challenge.

The UK has an incredibly vibrant civil society. Charity is part of our DNA. Social action is taught in schools. Volunteering rates are the highest in Europe. And we have a funding sector that talks confidently about systemic change. 

In spite of this, as I’ve progressed throughout my career, I increasingly meet barrier after barrier standing in the way of turning this community energy into community power. 

I see funders slow to shift power and money to the communities who have the potential to win so much change. I see large charities distracted by centralising their own power and control. I see competition tearing chunks out of the relationships and solidarity community organising needs to thrive. And I miss the stories of the incredible people of this country who have organised to build the society we all now benefit from. 

That is why I am excited by Funding Justice 2, this new analysis of where social justice funding goes in the UK. For the first time, we are seeing clearly just how little resource is reaching communities organising on the frontlines. When this lack of action is laid so bare, we can no longer hide behind our words. 

It is also why I am excited about the Civic Power Fund, who commissioned this research. I joined their advisory network back in January 2022 because we need more and better funding for organising. From what I have seen over the past eighteen months, I’m confident that the community they are building can get this done. 

Photo credit: Nijjor Manush, 2022

But alongside this data and this solidaristic funding, we also need to tell the stories of UK organising. They are *so* rich and so many. And it is only through showing what is possible that we will get the ‘step change’ in funding and investment our communities need. 

So before we dig into the hard numbers that Funding Justice 2 provides, I hope you’ll allow me to share some of my favourite stories here.

The Bristol Bus Boycotts

The Bristol Bus Boycotts of 1963 led to the Race Relations Acts of 1965 and 1968, which made racial discrimination in public housing and employment illegal in the UK. In response to racist employment practices by bus companies, the newly created West Indian Development Council mobilised leaders from within their community and built a base of people power. They learnt from organisers in the U.S. and successfully identified both their community’s purchasing power and the potential to win wider public sympathy. By deploying these power sources and refusing to back down, they eventually won city-wide change. This laid the foundations for nation-wide legislation.

The Dagenham Factory Strikes of 1968

The Dagenham Factory Strikes of 1968 contributed directly to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Again, self-determination was critical in this organising effort. As was a deep connection to politics and a diffuse network of feminist organisations campaigning for change. By successfully hitting the profits of Ford and using the prolonged strike to garner media and political momentum, the striking workers made structural change possible. Crucially, it took decades until they actually won equal pay. But because it was their pay on the line, they kept agitating throughout.

The Living Wage Campaign

The Living Wage Campaign began in 2001 following a listening campaign in East London. Citizens UK partners could not escape the issue of low pay and its crushing impact on communities. This gradually evolved into the London Living Wage Campaign and eventually the Living Wage Foundation – a national body that works alongside community groups, trade unions, employers and faith leaders and has secured over 300,000 workers a pay rise. The Living Wage Campaign emerged from community organising, but success has depended on a “Directed Networks” approach – bringing together grassroots action under a compelling ask and a focused and strategic campaign. To learn more about the “Directed Networks” approach to social change, take a look at NetChange’s report Networked Change: How progressive campaigns are won in the 21st Century

The Yes Campaign

The Yes Campaign in the Irish Equal Marriage Referendum of 2015 successfully deployed grassroots organising to build a winning movement. Community organisers believe that relationships precede action. It is relationships that enable us to find the common ground necessary for self-sustaining people-power. The Yes Campaign developed a hyperlocal strategy focused on building relationships within communities. In this way the rights of lesbian and gay Irish people became about the rights of people’s friends, families, colleagues and neighbours. This turned-out the diverse voting coalition the Campaign had already identified as necessary for victory.

We Belong

We Belong secured a major campaign win in the fight for fair asylum through community organising. In 2022 the Home Office announced that they will be removing the ten-year route to settlement for young people who came here as children and are fully integrated. This route will be replaced by a shorter and more affordable five-year route. This is what We Belong had been organising towards for years and will “impact not only our lives as staff with lived experience, but the lives of potentially over 300,000 young people living in the UK today with precarious status.” Pragmatic, grassroots organising led by the affected young people drove this victory.

The funder perspective 

Husna Mortuza, Joseph Rowntree Foundation; Matthew Smerdon, Legal Education Foundation; Will Somerville, Unbound Philanthropy; Holly Donagh, Paul Hamlyn Foundation 

In recent years, social justice has become an increasingly urgent issue in philanthropy. Funders are coalescing around this theme. We are recognising both the need to invest in the communities fighting the systems that entrench injustice, as well as our own role in upholding them.

Given growing consensus that systemic change is needed, what is our role in achieving it? In other words, what does it mean to be a social justice funder? 

This is of course a question for individual organisations to answer. But to achieve the scale of change we seek, both insight and collaboration are non-negotiable.  

The first edition of Funding Justice, which the Civic Power Fund published last year, expanded our shared understanding of what social justice funding in the UK looked like. 

Based on data from 2018-19, it revealed that less than 2.3% of total UK foundation giving went to organisations working to address the root causes of injustice and affect systemic change.[8] This seemed incongruous to many of us, not least due to the growing verbal emphasis on systems-level change. 

As a result, we knew further exploration was needed to help us better understand: are we getting the balance right? And if not, how can we work together to change this?

This is why we have come together to dig further into this data and support Funding Justice 2. 

If we are to rise to the scale of current challenges, we need to understand where social justice funding is being spent and where it must be more strategic; more about genuinely strengthening community and collective power to address system causes; and to hold ourselves accountable for the shifts that are necessary. 

Since the publication of Funding Justice 1, the case for supporting civil society organisations to achieve systemic change has only got stronger. At a time of multiple and compounding crises, it is ordinary people working on the frontline who hold the key to solving them. 

But in spite of this, it continues to be the case that these groups and communities are bearing the brunt of today’s crises. 

This July, the ONS reported that nearly half of households receiving support from charities had run out of food and couldn't afford more.[9] At the same time, as charities and community organisations continue to work hard to fill gaps left by increasingly overstretched local authorities and frontline services; inflationary pressures; and years of entrenched injustice, they themselves face increased costs and reduced incomes.[10]

While many funders have been supporting their grantees through these uncertain times, the hardships endured by so many beg the defining question of social justice philanthropy.[11]

How can we do better to support communities, organisations, and social movements to challenge and change the norms, institutions, and systems that perpetuate these hardships and are felt so unequally across society? 

We increasingly understand that while our funding needs to support the wide range of strategies vital to achieving transformative justice, we *must* collectively shift more power to communities. 

As Vic Langer summarised in Growing the Grassroots, a report published alongside Funding Justice 1: “community organising and local power building is simultaneously one of the best and one of the most under-resourced mechanisms we have to shift power to and secure just outcomes for (and with) communities”. 

In building the power of communities to advance their shared interests, community organising is one of the few tried and tested ways of holding formal power to account, whilst building solidarity with and between people who are excluded because of who they are or where they are from.[12] The civic power it cultivates is essential to a flourishing democracy, and the pursuit of economic, environmental, and social justice. 

But as with Funding Justice 1, we see with Funding Justice 2 that very little social justice funding supports this vital practice. 

Funding Justice 2 is a crucial piece of research in ensuring that we stay focused on these questions, and on delivering the right answers. It holds up a mirror to the sector, allowing funders to measure their progress in supporting the transition to a just and equitable society. In providing a picture of our collective impact as funders on the social justice ecosystem, it reminds us that no single foundation can effectively repair systemic injustices. 

Gaining a better understanding of how resources reach the communities that need them most is essential to doing this better. This is why we have come together to support this piece of work, and what will follow.

  • [9] This figure is taken from the ONS’s latest report on the impact of the cost of living crisis on adults in Great Britain, published in July 2023.

  • [10] At the beginning of 2023, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation asked their grantees about the impact the rising cost of living was having on their work. A significant majority (82%) reported that their organisations were being affected by rising costs. In its annual lookahead report, for the third sector for 2023, the NCVO forecasted a continued increase in the costs of running voluntary organisations and the demand for their services, as well as a decrease in income.

  • [11] More than 350 funders from across UK philanthropy pledged to provide additional support to civil society organisations who were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. London Funders has since published research highlighting the different approaches taken by funders to support their grantees through the cost of living crisis that followed.

  • [12] In a write-up of the conference on Funding for Grassroot Community Organising, hosted by the Civic Power Fund in collaboration with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and #BAMEOnline, Martha Mackenzie discusses the power of community organising as a route to social change, and its lack of resourcing by funders.

Chapter icon