As smoke from the Canadian wildfires recently hung over much of the United States, local groups quickly identified needs and organized to distribute masks and other necessities. Groups like these are examples of mutual aid—a “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually stemming from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them,” as an article in Truthout defines it. Meanwhile, the climate justice movement—a type of social movement, or a group engaged in collective action to create social and/or political change—continued to address the root causes of wildfire-inducing climate change.
When our Urban Institute and George Mason University team defined the social sector and determined what types of infrastructure it needs to thrive, we included these lesser-known, informal groups that unite around a common social purpose without nonprofit, for-profit, or hybrid business status—but fill critical gaps, often during crises.
To understand the infrastructure supports mutual aid groups and social movements require to operate and some barriers they face, I interviewed three leaders in the space: Deepa Iyer, senior director of strategic initiatives at Building Movement Project, which “ignites nonprofits’ potential to have an impact in advancing movements for progressive social change and focuses that potential into tangible action;” Farrah Lafontant, senior director of action and success at ioby, a crowdfunding platform that serves mutual aid groups; and Trevor Smith, director of narrative change at Liberation Ventures, which “accelerates the Black-led movement for racial repair.”
Interviewees identified the following infrastructure needs of mutual aid groups and social movements:
- Support for their sustainability. Lafontant explains that mutual aid groups need financial resources so they can, for example, “pay for the roofer when the roof caves in at their storage site.” She says they also need operational support, such as spaces to store items, transportation coordination, and assistance obtaining permits and insurance, which “can be a lot more expensive, if not impossible” for unincorporated groups. Additionally, Lafontant and Iyer urge the importance of mission and talent support—especially support for well-being. Lafontant explains, “Mutual aid leaders are dealing with very difficult things, so there needs to be greater awareness of mental health for mutual aid leaders as trauma responders.” Iyer says, “We hear from a lot of movement leaders about how they face a lot of burnout and fatigue and exhaustion.” She says movement leaders need retreats and other opportunities to reflect.
- Opportunities for learning. Iyer posits movement leaders need opportunities to learn and build skills. She says they especially desire skill-building opportunities around conflict resolution, external partnership building, and digital messaging. Smith adds that research and analysis are important parts of the infrastructure that social movements need.
- Strong relationships. Lafontant says mutual aid groups need spaces to convene, and Iyer explains that movement leaders need “spaces to strategize and build relationships with other movement leaders.” Iyer also says movement leaders need an “external squad,” or “a cohort of other executive leaders.” Smith shares that a key piece of the infrastructure social movements need is relationship mapping so organizations can work “in deep partnership with one another.”
Influence. Lafontant says that mutual aid groups need “a means to get the word out.” She says, “Letting individuals know that there’s a resource or support or just creating awareness is a huge thing that mutual aid groups are trying to juggle amongst just doing the work.” For social movements, Smith describes the importance of narrative infrastructure, which he defines as “the network of relationships and organizational systems needed to create dominant narratives and build narrative power.”
These are the same four categories of support that the social sector more broadly needs to thrive. The interviews made clear that mutual aid groups and social movements have the same basic infrastructure needs as the rest of the social sector. However, they face particular barriers when seeking one type of infrastructure support: financial resources.
Interviewees identified two funding barriers that mutual aid groups and social movements face with larger-scale institutional funders:
- Funders view them as “risky.” Lafontant says funders expect mutual aid groups to have the same “static, hierarchical structure that you find is common in 501(c)(3)s,” but “leaders might not even exist in the mutual aid group; they’re fluid.” She says funders “rely heavily on hierarchy because they want to be able to manage the risk of the funds they’re stewarding.” Iyer says funders sometimes view social movements as risky because “social movements are not linear. They’re not necessarily going to lead to deliverables and outcomes that are measurable within a certain period of time.”
- Funders do not understand their strategies. Iyer explains that funders often do not understand social movements’ strategies because “social movement tends to be a bit chaotic. It may be perceived as not having a coherent narrative, but a movement is not one campaign; it’s much bigger than that, and it’s vital to understand the diversity of tactics.” Smith also describes funders’ desire to know exactly how narrative change will happen, saying, “Philanthropy really likes to be surgical, and they want a clear roadmap, with clearly demarcated metrically based landmarks. While there's a benefit to having a long-term strategy, we cannot let the obsession with metrics stand in the way of our most potent social movements, such as the one committed to shifting narratives rooted in anti-Blackness.”
To ensure social movements receive the financial resources they need, Iyer urges funders, “Instead of making the social movement fit a box, readjust and recalibrate to account for how social movements are forming and evolving.” The same message applies for funding mutual aid groups as well.
Toward a stronger social sector
Lafontant reports that fundraising from individuals and foundations for mutual aid groups has declined recently. Iyer notes that Building Movement Project is hearing concerns from movement leaders that funders are decreasing their support for social movements.
Mutual aid groups and social movements fill critical gaps in community needs. Just like the rest of the social sector, they need all forms of infrastructure support, including funding, to fulfill their potential.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.