Brief Philanthropy and US Student Movements: Four Cases
Maoz Brown
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Philanthropy has a long history of supporting college student groups and influencing worldview-shaping movements through them. This literature review surveys research on several major college student groups in modern U.S. history to provide funders with actionable insights from historical case studies. Special attention is paid to:

  • Evidence of the impact of these groups in shaping worldviews
  • The role of philanthropy in enabling impact
  • Lessons for funders interested in student movements

This review focuses on cases of direct philanthropic contributions to student groups, defined as formal and lasting organizations in which students participate significantly in decision-making roles. Each group profiled has attracted a sizeable amount of historical scholarship on philanthropic influence. This research provides actionable lessons for funders interested in fostering worldview-shaping student movements.

Lessons for philanthropic funders interested in funding college student groups

The National Student Association (NSA)

This confederation of student governments from various American college and university campuses shows how philanthropy energized and constrained student groups.

Philanthropic funding helped to advance some of the organization’s most impactful programming, but it also led to considerable dependency on time-limited and program-contingent funding, a dependency that ultimately compromised the organization’s financial stability. This overemphasis on program-related funding at the expense of overhead support remains a significant problem in the nonprofit sector today.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)

This civil rights group that emerged from the sit-in movement offers three important lessons for funders.

  • It illustrates the potentially co-opting influence of philanthropy. Philanthropists approached the organization with the intention of channeling student energy into more moderate worldviews and activities. While this strategy won supporters among SNCC members, the organization ultimately drifted toward more radical strategies.
  • Under appropriate circumstances, foundations can amplify the results of their grantmaking by encouraging teamwork and checking duplicative efforts among grantees. While SNCC’s relations with other civil rights groups were often strained, the organization achieved significant impact through coalitions forged by foundations.
  • Philanthropists should take note of SNCC’s extensive off-campus activities. Campus efforts typically draw students who are already primed for movement activities and goals, and real-world engagement and struggle are often the crucible in which worldviews are tempered and reinforced.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)

This nonprofit educational organization founded in 1953 by libertarian teacher and journalist Frank Chodorov illustrates the importance of antagonism to mobilizing activists and supporters.

From its inception, ISI has defined itself largely in opposition to left-leaning, progressive viewpoints and policies that it assumes to be dominant on college and university campuses. The sense of embattlement and ostracization has enabled the organization to emphasize its negative orientation to progressivism rather than build the type of specific ideological identity that would make ISI vulnerable to political fragmentation.

Conservative students have relished their underdog status, and ISI has been able to persuade numerous supporters that they are a crucial bulwark against progressive domination on college campuses. This messaging is what persuaded “at least some businessmen, normally concerned only with quarterly statements, to take a longer view and support ISI.”

The Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC)

This network of campus-based student environmental organizations offers three lessons for funders.

  • Student movements may require more than monetary resources to promote their causes and grow their organizations. Administrative assistance (including the avoidance of extensive paperwork associated with IRS registration), donor sourcing, and fundraising may provide student movements the extra time and capacity needed to focus on planning training sessions, advocacy, and campus recruitment.
  • Grassroots student movements may channel multiple passions and priorities as students develop personally, learn about political issues, and contend for the first time with the frictions of democratic decision-making. Traditional environmentalist philanthropy has generally eschewed these types of movements, favoring the safer bet of more conventional forms of action. However, such organizations may lack the formative potential of grassroots movements.
  • Philanthropists should recognize the importance of fostering a vibrant civil society, which requires social movement organizations with active memberships and regular interaction between leadership and street-level volunteers. This form of environmentalism may be messy, and investments will not always materialize in well-run and cohesive organizations, but grassroots movements can be integral to building lasting awareness and change.
Research Areas Education Nonprofits and philanthropy
Tags Higher education Foundations and philanthropy
Policy Centers Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy