Do Capitalists Fund Revolutions?

Part one of this article reviewed some of the ways by which liberal philanthropists work to co-opt the activities of progressive groups all over the world. This second part of the article will continue to review the recent literature pertaining to the insidious anti-radicalising activities of liberal philanthropists and their foundation, and conclude by offering suggestions for how progressive activists might begin to move beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.

Defanging the Threat of Civil Rights

The 1960s civil rights movement was the first documented social movement that received substantial financial backing from philanthropic foundations.[28] As might be expected, liberal foundation support went almost entirely to moderate professional movement organizations like, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and their Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Urban League, and foundations also helped launch President Kennedy’s Voter Education Project.[29] In the last case, foundation support for the Voter Education Project was arranged by the Kennedy administration, who wanted to dissipate black support of sit-in protests while simultaneously obtaining the votes of more African-Americans, a constituency that helped Kennedy win the 1960 election.[30]

One example of the type of indirect pressure facing social movements reliant on foundation support can be seen by examining Martin Luther King, Jr.’s activities as his campaigning became more controversial in the years just prior to his assassination. On 18 February 1967, King held a strategy meeting where he said he wanted to take a more active stance in opposing the Vietnam War: noting that he was willing to break with the Johnson administration even if the Southern Christian Leadership Conference lost some financial support (despite it already being in a weak financial position, with contributions some 40 percent less than the previous year). In this case, it seems, King was referring to the potential loss of foundation support as, after his first speech against the war a week later (on 25 February), he again voiced his concerns that his new position would jeopardize an important Ford Foundation grant.[31]

Thus, by providing selective support of activist groups during the 1960s, liberal foundations promoted such groups’ independence from their unpaid constituents working in the grassroots, facilitating movement professionalization and institutionalization. This allowed foundations “to direct dissent into legitimate channels and limit goals to ameliorative rather than radical change”[32] , in the process promoting a “narrowing and taming of the potential for broad dissent”.[33] Herbert Haines (1988) supports this point and argues that the increasing militancy of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Congress for Racial Equality meant most foundation funding was directed to groups who expressed themselves through more moderate actions.[34] He referred to this as the “radical flank effect” – a process which described the way in which funding increased for nonmilitant or moderate groups (reliant on institutional tactics) as confrontational direct action protests increased.[35] As Jack Walker (1983) concludes, in his study of the influence of foundations on interest groups, the reasoning behind such an interventionist strategy is simple. He argues that “[f]oundation officials believed that the long run stability of the representative policy making system could be assured only if legitimate organizational channels could be provided for the frustration and anger being expressed in protests and outbreaks of political violence.”[36]

From Apartheid to ‘Democracy’ and Onwards

Moving to South Africa‘s transition to ‘democracy’, Roelofs (2007) observes that:

“In the case of South Africa, the challenge for Western elites was to disconnect the socialist and anti-apartheid goals of the African National Congress. Foundations aided in this process, by framing the debate in the United States and by creating civil-rights type NGOs in South Africa. In 1978 the Rockefeller Foundation convened an 11-person Study Commission on US Policy Toward Southern Africa, chaired by Franklin Thomas, President of the Ford Foundation; it also included Alan Pifer, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. In Eastern Europe, the 1975 East-West European Security agreement, known as the “Helsinki Accords” prompted the foundations to create Helsinki Watch (now Human Rights Watch), an international NGO for monitoring the agreements; Rockefeller, Ford, and Soros Foundations are prominent supporters.”[37]

Roelofs (2003) also point out that in addition to coopting social movements, foundations have played an important role in promoting “iden­tity politics” which has served to promote fragmentation between similarly minded radical social movements.[38] Madonna Thunder Hawk (2007) also critiques the narrow scope of most activists work:

Previously, organizers would lay down their issue when necessary and support another issue. Now, most organizers are very specialized, and cannot do anything unless they have a budget first. More, foundations will often expect organizations to be very specialized and won’t fund work that is outside their funding priorities. This reality can limit an organization’s ability to be creative and flexible as things change in our society.”[39]

Stephanie Guilloud and William Cordery (2007) support such ideas, and suggest that activist:

“… work becomes compartmentalized products, desired or undesired by the foundation market, rated by trends or political relationships rather than depth of work. How often do we hear that ‘youth work is hot right now’? Funders determine funding trends, and non-profits develop programs to bend to these requests rather than assess real needs and realistic goals. If we change our ‘product’ to meet foundation mandates, our organizations might receive additional funding and fiscal security. But more often than not, we have also compromised our vision and betrayed the communities that built us to address specific needs, concerns, and perspectives.” [40]

Likewise, Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo (2007) launches a similar broadside against multiculturalism, arguing that:

“The existence of ‘special’ and ‘non-white’ programs emerges from the logic of the liberalist project of multiculturalism. While there are clear racial hierarchies structured into organizations, these programs are developed under a multiculturalist model that renders race marginal by heralding the primacy of culture… While culturally specific services and programs might appear to address the injuries of racism, this organizational strategy actually displaces race from the broader analysis effectively ignoring the power structure of white supremacy and the structured subjugation of people of color, which effects countless forms of violence against women. By adding a program ostensibly designed to serve the needs of a given community of color, the larger organization avoids direct accountability to that community. In other words, the organization’s own white supremacy remains intact and fundamentally unchallenged, as are the countless forms of violence against women perpetuated by racism.”[41]

Thus, ‘culturally competent’ and/or multicultural organizational structures collude with white supremacy and vio­lence against women of color, namely because this logic enables organizations to dismiss the centrality of racism in all institutions and organizations in the United States.”[42]


World Social Forum: Funders’ Call the Tune

As a result of the lack of critical inquiry in to the influence of liberal philanthropy on progressive organizations, liberal foundations have quietly insinuated their way into the heart of the global social justice movement, having played a key role in founding the World Social Forum (WSF). Furthermore, it is not surprising that, when critiques of the WSF are made, they tend to be met with a resounding silence by progressive activists and their media (most of which have been founded and funded by liberal foundations, see later).[43]

The Research Unit for Political Economy (2007) astutely observes, the WSF “constitutes an important intervention by foundations in social movements internationally” because (1) many of the NGO’s attending the WSF obtain state and/or foundation funding, and (2) “the WSF’s material base – the funding for its activity – is heavily dependent on foundations.”[44] It is perhaps stating the obvious to note that more attention should be paid to such important critiques; however, if further critical investigations then determined that such claims were unsubstantiated then the WSF could only be strengthened. On the other hand, if activists collectively decided that the receipt of liberal foundation funding is problematic – as happened at the 2004 WSF in Mumbai – then further steps must be immediately taken to address the issue. Yet, as the Research Unit for Political Economy point out, although:

“… the WSF India committee’s decision to disavow funds from certain institutions marked a victory for the critics of the WSF, it did not really resolve the issue. If the organizers disavowed funds from these sources on principle (rather than merely because uncomfortable questions were raised), it is difficult to understand why the prohibition did not extend as well to organizations funded by them. This left scope for the WSF to accept funds from organizations funded in turn by Ford. Moreover, …the bulk of the WSF’s expenses are borne by participating organizations, many of which are in turn funded by Ford and other such “barred” sources.”[45]

Clearly important (and concerning) questions have been raised about the democratic legitimacy of the WSF, but most activists still remain unaware of the existence of such well founded critiques. This is problematic and, as Stephanie Guilloud and William Cordery (2007) argue, although fundraising is “an important component of most organizing efforts in the United States” it:

is usually perceived by activists as our nasty compromise within an evil capitalist structure. As long as we relegate fundraising to a dirty chore better handled by grant writers and development directors than organizers, we miss an opportunity to create stepping stones toward community-based economies.”[46]

However, as Dylan Rodriguez (2007) observes:

“… when one attempts to engage [in] a critical discussion regard­ing the political problems of working with these and other foundations, and especially when one is interested in naming them as the gently repressive ‘evil’ cousins of the more prototypically evil right-wing foundations, the establishment Left becomes profoundly defensive of its financial patrons. I would argue that this is a liberal-progressive vision that marginalizes the radical, revolutionary, and proto-revolutionary forms of activism, insurrection, and resistance that refuse to participate in the [George] Soros charade of ‘shared values,’ and are uninterested in trying to ‘improve the imperfect.’ The social truth of the existing society is that it is based on the production of massive, unequal, and hierarchically organized disenfranchisement, suffering, and death of those populations who are targeted for containment and political/social liquidation-a violent social order produced under the dictates of ‘democracy,’ ‘peace,’ ‘security,’ and ‘justice’ that form the historical and political foundations of the very same white civil society on which the NPIC [Non-Profit Industrial Complex] Left is based.” [47]

Guilloud and Cordery (2007) “believe it is better to be dissolved by the community than floated by foundations.” Indeed, they go on to correctly state the obvious, by noting that community supported organizations will, by necessity, have to serve the needs of democracy because “[m]embers who contribute to an organization will stop contributing when the work is no longer valuable.”[48]

Moving Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

“People in non-profits are not necessarily consciously thinking that they are ‘selling out.’ But just by trying to keep funding and pay everyone’s salaries, they start to unconsciously limit their imagination of what they could do. In addition, the non-profit struc­ture supports a paternalistic relationship in which non-profits from outside our Communities fund their own hand-picked organizers, rather than funding us to do the work ourselves.” (Madonna Thunder Hawk, 2007) [49]

Given the historical overview of liberal foundations presented in this article it is uncontroversial to suggest that liberal philanthropists – who also support elite planning groups – will not facilitate the massive radical social changes that will encourage the global adoption of participatory democracy.[50]  Taking a global view, James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer (2004) argue that most funding “for poverty alleviation through NGOs also has had little positive effect” and:

“On the contrary, foreign aid directed toward NGOs has undermined national decision-making, given that most projects and priorities are set out by the European or US-based NGOs. In addition, NGO projects tend to co-opt local leaders and turn them into functionaries administering local projects that fail to deal with the structural problems and crises of the recipient countries. Worse yet, NGO funding has led to a proliferation of competing groups, which set communities and groups against each other, undermining existing social movements. Rather than compensating for the social damage inflicted by free market policies and conditions of debt bondage, the NGO­ channelled foreign aid complements the IFIs’ [international financial institutions'] neo-liberal agenda.”[51]

Referring to the detrimental influence of the liberal philanthropy in the US, Andrea Smith (2007) also observes that:

[T]he NPIC [Non-Profit Industrial Complex] contributes to a mode of organizing that is ultimately unsustainable. To radically change society, we must build mass movements that can topple systems of domination, such as capitalism. However, the NPIC encourages us to think of social justice organizing as a career; that is, you do the work if you can get paid for it. However, a mass movement requires the involvement of millions of people, most of whom cannot get paid. By trying to do grassroots organizing through this careerist model, we are essentially asking a few people to work more than full-time to make up for the work that needs to be done by millions.

“In addition, the NPIC promotes a social movement culture that is non-collab­orative, narrowly focused, and competitive. To retain the support of benefactors, groups must compete with each other for funding by promoting only their own work, whether or not their organizing strategies are successful. This culture pre­vents activists from having collaborative dialogues where we can honestly share our failures as well as our successes. In addition, after being forced to frame everything we do as a ‘success,’ we become stuck in having to repeat the same strategies because we insisted to funders they were successful, even if they were not. Consequently, we become inflexible rather than fluid and ever changing in our strategies, which is what a movement for social transformation really requires. And as we become more concerned with attracting funders than with organizing mass-based movements, we start niche marketing the work of our organizations.” [52]

Amara H. Perez and Sisters in Action for Power (2007) also add that:

In addition to the power and influence of foundation funding, the non-profit model itself has contributed to the co-optation of our work and institutionalized a structure that has normalized a corporate culture for the way our work is ulti­mately carried out.”[53]

Fortunately, the answers to the funding problems raised in this article are rather simple. However, given the lack of critical inquiry into the anti-democratic influence of liberal foundations on progressive social change, first and foremost progressive activists need to publicly acknowledge that a problem exists before appropriate solutions can be devised and implemented. Therefore, the first step that I propose needs to be taken by progressive activists is to launch a vibrant public discussion of the broader role of liberal foundations in funding social change – an action that will rely for the most part upon the interest and support of grassroots activists all over the world.

Given the insidious activities of liberal foundations’, the “very existence of many social justice organizations has often come to rest more on the effectiveness of professional (and amateur) grant writers than on skilled-much less ‘radical’ – political educators and organizers” (Rodriguez, 2007). So now more than ever, it is vital that progressive citizens committed to a participatory democracy work to develop alternate funding mechanisms for sustaining grassroots activism so they can break the “insidious cycle of competition and co-optation” set up by liberal foundations and their cohorts.[54] Indeed as Guilloud and Cordery (2007) point out, “[d]eveloping a real community-based economic system that redistributes wealth and allows all people to gain access to what they need is essential to complete our vision of a liberated world. Grassroots fundraising strategies are a step in that direction.” [55]

Unfortunately, raising awareness of the vexing issues raised in this article may be harder than one might first expect. This is because in some instances the progressive media themselves may be preventing an open discussion of the influence of liberal philanthropy on social change – due to their reliance (or at least good relations) with liberal foundations. So sadly as Bob Feldman (2007) observes, “[w]hen the rare report calls attention to the possibility of foundation influence over the left-wing media or think tanks, a typical attitude is unqualified denial.”[56] Feldman concludes:

“… that organizations and media generally considered left-wing have in recent years received substantial funding from liberal foundations. This information alone is significant, as left activists and scholars are either unaware of or uninterested in examining the nature and consequences of such financing. Furthermore, although a definitive evaluation would require a massive content analysis project, there is much evidence that the funded left has moved towards the mainstream as it has increased its dependence on foundations. This is shown by the ‘progressive,’ reformist tone of formerly radical organizations; the gradual disappearance of challenges to the economic and political power of corporations or United States militarism and imperialism; and silence on the relationship of liberal foundations to either politics and culture in general, or to their own organizations. Critiquing right wing foundations, media, and think tanks may be fair game, but to explain our current situation, or to discover what has happened to the left, a more inclusive investigation is needed.” [57]

It is clear that the barriers to spreading the word about liberal philanthropy’s overt colonization of progressive social change are large but they are certainly not insurmountable to dedicated activists. There are still plenty of alternative media outlets that should be willing to distribute trenchant critiques of liberal philanthropy given persistent pressure from the activist community, while internet blogs can also supplement individual communicative efforts to widen the debate. If activists fail to address the crucial issue of liberal philanthropy now this will no doubt have dire consequences for the future of progressive activism – and democracy more generally – and it is important to recognise that liberal foundations are not all powerful and that the future, as always, lies in our hands and not theirs.

Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia. He can be reached at Michael.J.Barker [at]



[28] Foundation funding for social movements was for the most part nonexistent before the 1960s, with foundation grants tending to focus on more general issues like education. By 1970 this had changed and 65 foundations distributed 311 grants to social activists worth around $11 million.

[29] Craig J. Jenkins and Craig M. Eckert, ‘Channeling Black Insurgency: Elite Patronage and Professional Social Movement Organizations in the Development of the Black Movement’, American Sociological Review, 51, 1986.

[30] Craig J. Jenkins, ‘Channeling Social Protest: Foundation Patronage of Contemporary Social Movements’, p.212.

[31] David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Random House, 1988), pp.545-6.

[32] Frances B. McCrea and Gerald E. Markle, Minutes to Midnight: Nuclear Weapons Protest in America (Newbury Park, Calif.: SAGE, 1989), p.37.

[33] John D. McCarthy, David W. Britt, and Mark Wolfson, ‘The Institutional Channeling of Social Movements by the State in the United States’, In: L. Kriesberg and M. Spencer (eds.) Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change (Greenwich, CT.: JAI Press, 1991), pp.69-70.

[34] Herbert H. Haines, Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954-1970 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988), pp.82-99.

[35] Herbert Haines, ‘Black Radicalization and the Funding of Civil Rights’, Social Problems, 32, 1984, pp.31-43.

[36] Jack L. Walker, ‘The Origins and Maintenance of Interest Groups in America‘, American Political Science Review, 77, 1983, p.401.

[37] Joan Roelofs, ‘Foundations and Collaboration’, Critical Sociology, Volume 33, Number 3, 2007, p.497.

[38] Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy, p.44.

For more on this subject see David Rieff, ‘Multiculturalism’s Silent Partner’,Harper’s, August 1993, pp.62-72.

Alisa Bierria (2007) points out that: “All too often, inclusively has come to mean that we start with an organizing model developed with white, middle-class people in mind, and then simply add a multicultural component to it. We should include as many voices as possible, without asking what exactly are we being included in? However, as Kimberle Crenshaw has noted, ‘it is not enough to be sensitive to difference, we must ask what difference the difference makes. That is, instead of saying, how can we include women of color, women with disabilities, etc., we must ask, what would our analysis and organizing practice look like if we centered them in it? By following a politics of re-centering rather than inclusion, we often find that we see the issue differently, not just for the group in question, but everyone.’”  Alisa Bierria, ‘Communities against rape and abuse (CARA)’, In: INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds.) The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007), pp.153-4.

[39] Madonna Thunder Hawk, ‘Native Organizing Before the Non-Profit Industrial Complex’, In: INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds.) The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007), p.106.

[40] Stephanie Guilloud and William Cordery, ‘Fundraising is Not a Dirty Word’, In: INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds.) The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007), p.108.

[41] Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo, ‘”we were never meant to survive” Fighting Violence Against Women and the Forth World War’, In: INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds.) The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007), pp.115-6.

[42] Ana Clarissa Rojas Durazo, ‘”we were never meant to survive” Fighting Violence Against Women and the Forth World War’,  p.116.

[43] Michael Barker, ‘The Liberal Foundations of Media Reform? Creating Sustainable Funding Opportunities for Radical Media Reform’, Global Media (Submitted); Bob Feldman, ‘Report from the Field: Left Media and Left Think Tanks – Foundation-Managed Protest?’, Critical Sociology, 33 (2007).

[44] Research Unit for Political Economy, ‘Foundations and Mass Movements: The Case of the World Social Forum’, Critical Sociology, 33 (3), 2007, p.506.

[45] Research Unit for Political Economy, ‘Foundations and Mass Movements’, pp.529-30.

[46] Stephanie Guilloud and William Cordery, ‘Fundraising is Not a Dirty Word’, p.107.

[47] Dylan Rodriguez, ‘The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex’, In: INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds.) The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007), p.35-6.

[48] Stephanie Guilloud and William Cordery, ‘Fundraising is Not a Dirty Word’, p.110.

[49] Madonna Thunder Hawk, ‘Native Organizing Before the Non-Profit Industrial Complex’, pp.105-6.

[50] Two of the most influential liberal foundations, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, created and continue to provide substantial financial aid to elite planning groups like the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. For example, the Ford Foundation’s 2006 Annual Report (p.62) notes that they gave the Council on Foreign Relations a $200,000 grant “For research, seminars and publications on the role of women in conflict prevention, post-conflict reconstruction and state building.”  Furthermore, as Roelofs (2003, p.98-9) notes:


During the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) debate, the EPI [Economic Policy Institute] (funded by Ford and others) made technical objections to the models sup­porting the trade agreement. At the same time, a much greater effect was pro­duced by Ford funding to the other side, which included grants to the Institute for International Economics, a think tank that emphasizes the benefits of NAFTA. In addition, ‘the Ford Foundation also awarded grants to environmental groups and the Southwest Voters Research Institute to convene forums on NAFTA. These resulted in an alliance of 100 Latino organizations and elected officials, called the Latino Consensus on NAFTA, which pro­vided conditional support for the agreement.’”


Also see Laurence H. Shoup, and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977); Holly Sklar, Trilateralism: The Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning For World Management (Boston: South End Press, 1980).

[51 James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, 'Age of Reverse Aid: Neo-liberalism as Catalyst of Regression', In: Jan P. Pronk (ed.) Catalysing Development (Blackwell Publishers,

2004), pp.70-1.

[52] Andrea Smith, ‘Introduction: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded’, p.10.

[53] Amara H. Perez, and Sisters in Action for Power, ‘Between Radical Theory and Community Praxis: Reflections on Organizing and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex’, In: INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds.) The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007), p.93.

[54] Brian Tokar, Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1997), p.214.

[55] Stephanie Guilloud and William Cordery, ‘Fundraising is Not a Dirty Word’, p.111.

Making this transition may be easier than expected, because Rodriguez (2007) suggest that the ongoing work to maintain and prospect foundation money, combined with administrative obligations and developing infrastruc­ture, was more taxing and exhausting than confronting any institution to fight for a policy change. Dylan Rodriguez, ‘The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex’, p.27.

[56] Bob Feldman, ‘Report from the Field: Left Media and Left Think Tanks – Foundation-Managed Protest?’, p.428.

[57] Bob Feldman, ‘Report from the Field: Left Media and Left Think Tanks – Foundation-Managed Protest?’, p. 445.


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