In the Blog
Trickle Down Community Engagement and Grassroots Activism
Illustration by Chelsea Watt
A January 2015 article by Vu [(https://twitter.com/nonprofitwballs)]) of the blog website, ‘Nonprofit with Balls’ defined the term Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE) as, ‘when we (not-for-profit organizations) bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.’
That is to say, TDCE is a system that many funders of not-for-profit organizations adopt into their funding policies. The phrase, ‘trickle-down’ is drawn from a 1980 speech made by former US President, Ronald Reagan, when he assured the American public that gains in wealth for high-income classes would eventually trickle down to lower-income classes. In the context of community engagement, the trickle-down principle suggests that the success of large, well-staffed, well-funded and well-connected not-for-profit organizations will trickle down to the smaller grassroots organizations, eventually.
This belief is problematic for two reasons. The first being that this kind of thinking perpetuates the notion of celebrity activism and the idea that only a celebrity activist or a popular blogger can do the work of motivating the public. In an earlier post about Tumblr Cultures, I described something similar to the trend of celebrity activism called, ‘messiah complex’. Messiah complex refers to the uncritical, goddess-like pedestal-ing of internet personalities by admirers to the point where one person’s voice becomes stronger than other voices and takes up a lot of space. Some effects of messiah complex include the lack of safe spaces, prevalence of shaming culture, hypervisibility of certain causes over others and a lack of accountability as folks become more concerned with maintaining their public image over genuinely addressing an issue.
The second issue is that TDCE also contributes to the dynamic where only a few organizations, usually those that are large, well-staffed, already well-funded and well-connected, end up monopolizing the few funding opportunities that exist.
For example, recently, a small grassroots group that I am a part of lost a funding opportunity, with the money going instead to a larger organization addressing similar issues. Despite our group’s application being just as relevant, the funder ultimately decided to support the larger group because their proposal touched on a more emotional issue and they had a bigger social media presence and staff whose full-time job it is to manage their online communities.
Furthermore, members of our smaller group learned that the larger organization had been awarded the same funding every year for the past 5 years, despite the fact that their proposal ideas remained almost the same year after year. It revealed to us that grant funding can be very competitive and it really depends upon who is reviewing the application and what their politics are. Moments like these can be very disheartening for many fledgling grassroots not-for-profits. This system has the effect of invisibilizing groups that are culturally and socially equipped to work on a problem by visibilizing the work of the big groups. In this sense, TDCE also has the effect of discouraging small groups from trying to apply for more funding. To invoke a clichéd metaphor, it is like watching all the popular kids get picked for the team while you, the smaller kid, get picked last, if at all.
At the same time, funding organizations are also constrained within a particular system of operation. To clarify, many funding organizations do not have an endowment. An endowment refers to a principal amount of funds that works like a savings account and constitutes the principal income for an organization. It usually remains untouched by the organization unless it is set up to fund specific causes. Practically speaking, an endowment can provide a sense of stability for an organization, because members can work on acquiring funds without the constant threat of being defunded by a granter.
Nevertheless, even with an endowment all funding organizations encounter the issue that they can only fund those causes that their source of funding has a direct interest in. For example, if a research firm specializing in blindness funds an organization, they probably won’t select the proposal researching heart disease. Taken together, the effect of these constraints can give the idea that not-for-profit organizations are working in similar ways to for-profit corporations.
Rather than advocate for a wholesale shift in the structure of not-for-profit funding, which is a long, hard and stressful process for any stakeholder, ‘crowdfunding’ has been lauded as a solution to the issues of TDCE. Crowdfunding or crowdsourcing, refers to the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people, typically via the internet. Today, some of the most common crowdfunding tools include GoFundMe, Kickstarter, IndieGoGo.
According to the website traffic ranking website, Alexa, in 2014 GoFundMe raised $470 million of crowdfunding money for causes, with Kickstarter following behind it with $444 million raised in crowdfunding money. Despite their financial success stories, another reason why so many people are attracted to these tools is that it feels like individual people can help fund a cause that would have otherwise have been overlooked by a major funding body. It feels empowering and democratic that by donating to a cause, you helped them get closer to their goal. Crowdfunding could be likened to a different way of soliciting charitable donations; perhaps a way where organizations can have more agency.
While that feeling of empowerment is legitimate, there are some issues that arise when funding certain campaigns using crowdfunding tools. The first issue is similar to the TDCE tendencies that are perpetuated by conventional funding organizations, in that popular campaign can eclipse the visibility of other important organizations that might not have the same level of success or proficiency with effective social media marketing. Whereas in conventional funding proposals, it is more about how well one is connected in-person to other organizations, with crowdfunding it is about how well a mass public connects to you. Therefore, if one organization, irrespective of size does not have a social media manager who can work on their crowdfunding initiative, it is like being the last kid picked in gym class all over again. Another issue with crowdfunding that has been spoken about in detail in other places is that crowdfunding unfairly puts the burden on individuals to build an organization’s capacity. For example, if, for whatever reason, a campaign does not reach its fundraising goal, it feels like people did not relate, appreciate or make enough time to support the initiative. When really, the issue is that it crowdfunding is often a last resort.
Given these points, there is still a positive aspect to crowdfunding. For the first time in a long time, small organizations who aren’t as successful as large groups are able to take back some degree of control in making their issues heard. Crowdfunding also prompts groups to create more creative funding proposals that go outside the boundaries of conventional proposal making. For example, some production teams behind small internet shows have been known to take to Twitter in an effort to get fans of the show talking about wanting more episodes. Recently in Toronto a young woman walked around downtown holding a sign that indicated she was looking for a marketing position. Her image was retweeted 1000 times on Twitter and she eventually was hired by a marketing firm.
Like any other organizational issue, TDCE is complex, and of course is connected to a larger economic system brimming with problems and constraints. There is no wholesale solution to prevent it or stop it altogether, but there are some ways that it can be meaningfully addressed. Something that bigger not-for-profits and funding agencies can do is take a well-informed look at how they are contributing to problematic dynamics that prevent smaller, grassroots groups from realizing their capacity and flourishing.
Large not-for-profits and funding agencies have the potential to reach out to smaller organizations and address how they can work together without the smaller organization being absorbed into the bigger organization. For example, the larger organization could help connect the small organization to a contact that could help the smaller organization establish its capacity. Finally, something very practical that bigger organizations can do is be observant of how much space they take up, both in real life and on social media, and work to share space with smaller organizations. While the specific logistics of these actions are confusing, what is clear is that the only thing that should be trickling down is teamwork.