The Occupy Wall Street protesters who staked out spots this fall in New York’s Zuccotti Park and Washington’s McPherson Square have succeeded in drawing attention to income inequality—a gap that many foundation and nonprofit leaders have sought to close for decades.
Now philanthropy is starting to grapple with whether, and how, it might strengthen the Occupy movement.
Foundation officials have organized an informal effort, Occupy Philanthropy, to share ideas on how philanthropy might support the protests and other advocacy for economic justice.
On Monday, organizers of the effort began circulating a statement, “Why We Must Support the Occupy Efforts.” “We in the philanthropic community cannot let this moment pass,” says the statement, which had 45 signatures as of Thursday morning. “We have for so long wanted this kind of mass mobilization for justice.”
One of the organizers of Occupy Philanthropy, Mark Randazzo, the coordinator of the Funders Network on Transforming the Global Economy, says the Occupy movement offers a big opportunity for grant makers who want to fight poverty and heighten awareness of economic inequality. But it also presents risks.
Much of Occupy’s success stemmed from the fact that it was spontaneous and decentralized. Foundations must respect that from-the-bottom-up approach as they seek to help turn the protests into a long-lasting movement, Mr. Randazzo says.
Normally one to jump into such work with both feet, Mr. Randazzo says his approach this time around is “slow, slow, slow, think, think, think” rather than “go, go, go, fund, fund, fund.”
“Occupy has been wary of traditional philanthropy,” he says. “Some say they don’t want traditional donor-client relationships.”
Causa Justa: Just Cause, a community group that works with low-income residents of San Francisco and Oakland, offers one model of collaboration.
When staff members from the charity showed up at the Occupy San Francisco and Oakland protests this fall seeking ways to collaborate, they initially faced skepticism. Protesters worried that nonprofits were arriving to try to take over, recalls Maria Poblet, Causa Justa’s executive director.
But Causa Justa employees allayed the protesters’ concerns and found ways to work together. Charity employees now participate in several committees organized by Occupy protesters that work on tenants’ rights and other issues.
And on Tuesday, Valentine’s Day, Causa Justa and Occupy participants organized a “Dump the Banks” rally protesting Wells Fargo’s practices on home foreclosures.
Meanwhile, Mr. Randazzo says the Occupy Philanthropy effort isn’t just about supporting Occupy Wall Street. It’s also about foundations looking critically at their own strategies to promote economic equality.
“Philanthropy has to examine itself,” he says.