Movement Building as a Philanthropic Strategy

Movement Building as a Philanthropic Strategy

A Foundation to Support a Movement

What the foundation does is always about the families – building the capacity of people in their communities.

In 2001, Marguerite Casey Foundation was created as a grantmaking foundation to address the root causes of child and family poverty. In concept, the foundation would strategically make grants to effect social change from outside existing public and support systems. According to founding President and CEO Luz Vega-Marquis:

We started with typical things foundations do when they are starting out: We did a lot of data collection, public opinion, research into the trends, opinion leader interviews. But we also did two things that were really different. One was commissioning 40 papers from practitioners and consumers to get their ideas about what to do. And then we took that information back to the community to hear their reactions, by holding listening circles in six sites across the nation with more than 600 community members.

The idea that came out of that was that we should do movement building and focus on empowering families and not direct service. Their notion was that you cannot service people out of poverty. We are guided by a philosophy that believes the family has solutions to their problems. That to me is the most important distinction – that internalized belief that we need to listen to the voices of the families, to hear the solutions that they have, and then help them realize them.

In practice, that has meant a collaborative approach to building a movement of low-income families to bring about change – change in public policy, attitudes and practices – to ensure the well-being of all of America’s families.

“We don’t care so much about what it is. We care about how it is done – [whether an organization is] building the capacity of people to act on their own.”

– Luz Vega-Marquis


Strategically, the foundation works to:

  • Engage its consumers. Families have the capacity and understanding of their issues to find solutions to their problems.
  • Help grantees ground action in research. Research lends credibility to the work of groups directly engaged in movement building by amplifying the authentic needs and realities of families – rather than relying on guesswork or anecdote.
  • Invest for the long term. Meaningful social change takes time. The foundation provides mainly multiyear grants for general operating support, which allows organizations to build capacity in real time, without having to worry about factors outside their control.
  • Reinvent communications to highlight issues affecting low-income people in a money-oriented culture.
  • Foster collective leadership so that those in whose name a campaign or movement is waged can lead and speak for themselves, without intermediaries.
  • Re-envision the role of the program officer as a partner and collaborator with the grantees.
  • Leverage outside resources because the changes envisioned by families will require much more than the resources of the philanthropic sector in its entirety.
  • Convene stakeholders. Because of its resources and grantmaking power, the foundation is uniquely positioned to bring together a burgeoning movement without necessarily making decisions about its course.
  • Build the road by walking because the most important work of movement is done collectively and, sometimes, spontaneously.


Marguerite Casey Foundation has come to embrace a framework for movement building in which the foundation’s role in supporting a movement of low-income families is to invest in infrastructure and ideas; provide multiyear general support to cornerstone community organizations; encourage collaboration across regions, issues and race; convene networks; fund issue education, activism and advocacy; and deploy strategic communications to advance issues and a unifying message.

The role of grantees, in turn, is to build a base of families; promote intergenerational grassroots leadership; develop their own organizational capacity; collaborate and partner as networks; engage in issue education, activism and advocacy; and conduct research and analysis.

Within this framework, families are an engaged and informed constituency who advocate in their own behalf for policy changes to improve the economic and social well-being of all families.

In the 10 years since Marguerite Casey Foundation’s creation, its grantees have engaged more than 1.5 million adult and youth community members. They have conducted policy campaigns to bring about change – at the neighborhood and community levels to state, regional and national levels – achieving wins and building their capacity to improve the well-being of all of America’s families.

Movement Building as a 21st Century Philanthropic Strategy

Lift Every Voice looks at movement building and the role of community based organizations and leaders in advancing a national movement. Life Every Voice details the foundation’s efforts and that of its grantees to shift national attributes and policies affecting poor and working families by supporting the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign.