Donor Engagement with Social Movements


Please provide case studies, examples, and analytical work on how donors have engaged with social movements.


There is very limited literature on donor engagement with social movements. Of the literature that exists, the majority have been critical of such engagement. It is argued that donor funding of social movements, often through the funding of civil society organisations (CSOs) and NGOs, has co-opted and diluted these movements and led to the defection of its members. This has occurred primarily through donor pressures to institutionalise movements in the form of professionalised NGOs and CSOs. This has resulted in:

  • increasing time and energy dedicated to writing proposals to secure funding and reports instead of to developing a coherent strategy for the movement or engaging with constituent communities
  • a shift away from movement leader accountability to constituent communities to accountability to donors
  • focus on “safe” projects, such as service delivery, and a shift away from more political goals and radical messages and tactics that donors are unlikely to support
  • attention to time-limited projects to satisfy donor funding cycles instead of long-term outcomes desired by many members of movements.

It is thus recommended that development agencies do not engage directly with social movements, but rather seek to strengthen the enabling environment for movements. This can be achieved for example by supporting mobilisation processes within civil society, protecting the right to form independent associations and the right to protest, and supporting social movements to communicate in public debates and be visible in the media. Where donors do still engage with social movements, it is recommended that:

  • efforts should be made to understand the specific nature and aspirations of social movements and to support the realisation of these aspirations
  • pressures to conform to donor funding processes should be minimised and funding requirements should not be so daunting and time consuming as to take movement leaders away from their original strategies, activities and goals
  • it should be openly acknowledged by donors that the influx of funding may result in opportunistic behaviour on the part of civil society leaders that is unrelated to the objectives of the social movement.