Wednesday Jul 26

Funding Community or Funding Organizing for Power– Questions and Issues from Quebec


This article raises the question of government funding of community organizations. A distinction can be made between those organizations that are primarily concerned with service provision, and those that are involved in community organizing. There is some convergence on the question of advocacy for policy change, when both service and organizing groups participate in coalitions and make demands for change, but for the purposes of this discussion, the primary vocations of the groups will be considered. The article will look at funding from two vantage points. First, a more general introduction of current experience in the US, where funding is heavily dependent on philanthropic sources, and in the United Kingdom with reference to the Community Organisers Programme, a public-funded alternative. Second, a more detailed case study of funding of community organizations in Quebec, whose government for many years has provided ongoing and recurrent funding for community organizations. We will explore these programs and some lessons from them and see if some of these lessons are generalizable to broader contexts in the US and UK.

Funding Community Organizing in the United States

Throughout the history of the many varieties of community organizing in the United States funding has been a serious and until recently a neglected issue. Heavy reliance on progressive philanthropic sources has never worked very well, resulting in the underfunding of community organizing, contributing to the depoliticization of civil society, and divorcing the state from social change. Since the Recession in 2007, funding for organizing has become more difficult to secure. A 2009 National Organizers Alliance[ survey of 203 community organizations reported that 65% of respondents made dramatic funding cuts, 40% had depleted their financial reserves, and 33% survived month-to-month. (Waheed et al, 2010). According to a 2010 Urban Institute study community organizing efforts were hit the hardest (Boris et al, 2010). While there has been increasing interest in the existence and value of community organizing since the 2008 Obama campaign and election, ‘one of the most important questions facing organizers [remains] can we translate this growing public awareness into serious funding that will propel growth and strengthen the field?’ (Dorfman and Fine, 2009: 2). Another more recent study in Dodge et al (2013: 2) put it more urgently, ‘We are in a moment when it is critical to make investments in learning and experimentation to better understand what support can increase long-term sustainability for social justice organizations.’ (cited in Fisher, 2016)

Almost all commentators in the literature on funding community organizing agree that there is a funding crisis, that community problems are worsening, and that funding sources need to be diversified. While there are numerous ways, sources, and methods of resourcing community organizing--from tithing religious congregations to membership dues, campaign wins, canvassing, etc. – approximately two-thirds, around 60%, of all funding for community organizing comes from foundations.

Current literature argues that overall greater funding diversity would improve both the quality and quantity of resources (Beckett et al, 2006; Dodge et al, 2013; Center for Popular Democracy, 2015). While critical of the over dependence on philanthropic foundations and the increasingly obvious limits of foundation supports, yet, the possibility of public sector funding of community organizing is rarely mentioned. It seems ostracized from organizing practices since 1980.

Critical to our discussion regarding the need to expand funding for organizing in a neoliberal/austerity context, there are contemporary examples outside the United States, however, to draw upon which illustrate the contradictions and potential of one source, pretty much ostracized in the United States since 1980, publicfunded community organizing. In 2011, the British Conservative government under David Cameron initiated the Community Organisers Programme (COP) in England to hire and train 500 ‘senior organisers’ and educate 4500 volunteers in the basics of community organizing. The COP is to our knowledge the largest publicly funded, community organizing program in the past 40 years, with funding of approximately £20 million. Its explicit focus on community organizing is certainly unprecedented (Balazard and Fisher, 20165). But it is not the only publicly funded organizing occurring globally. Another publicly funded organizing program is also occurring in Quebec, Canada where, as the Quebec ministers described, a ‘community action recognition and support policy …. draws upon the expertise and vision of the community sector in matters of social justice, solidarity, full participation in society, and most importantly the quality of life and well-being of our society as a whole’ (Busque, 2001). There are related European Union projects, as well as political education funding for political parties ‘to form the political will of the people’ as in countries such as Germany (CountryStudies. US Germany Political Parties, Article 21). But unlike the overall goals of the Canadian and German programs, started in 1999 and 1967 respectively, and Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) initiatives in the US in the 1960s, the COP, part of David Cameron’s so-called ‘Big Society’ policy, was intended primarily to undercut the public sector rather than use it to build strong grassroots organizations or redistribute income to address growing wealth inequality (Fisher and Shragge, 2017).

Government Funding Canada and Quebec

The tradition of state funding of community organizations in Canada through federal programs and at the provincial level in Quebec dates back to at least the 1960s. The federal government’s programs in the earlier
period were short-term grants – 6 to 8 months, designed to respond to winter unemployment (Local Initiative Program). In addition, in the1960s, in a period of youth rebellion and some radical organizing, projects such as The Company of Young Canadians and Opportunities for Youth (were introduced). These funding programs provided the means through which nascent community groups were able to fund jobs. The content of the projects came from the community groups themselves. The grants supported some of the early attempts at organizing welfare recipients, women, and tenants and the development of the precursors to the daycare system in Quebec. The results were often contradictory, with the funds sometimes leading to the demise of organizations because they were required to manage funds that were beyond their capacities and, perhaps more important, due to internal conflicts over who was paid and who was not. The role of the federal government has been limited, however, to specific short-term priorities.

The programs and policies developed by the government of Quebec with the participation of community organizations is an example of how government can be an active funder of these organizations, but with mixed outcomes. In March 1999, the provincial government created the Sécretariat d’Action Communautaire Autonome (the secretariat of autonomous community organizations) and marked the formal recognition of the contribution of the community and voluntary sector to social and economic development. The government created a fund dedicated to the support of community and volunteer organizations. The fund is derived from 5% of the proceeds of state casinos (SACAIS, 2016).

There are several elements that are necessary to understand this arrangement. First, in Canada, the provincial government is responsible for health, social services and education, as well as playing a large role in housing, and aspects of legal services. Consequently, the provincial government is the primary source of support for community groups that work in these areas. At the federal level, community organizations can apply to programs in areas such as multiculturalism, women’s issues, and applied research in health. However, these tend to be one-off, specific awards, and do not provide core funding. Provincial funding in Quebec, however, is broader and a key element in the community sector in Quebec.

Second, because of the strong nationalist movement in Quebec, the government pursued a strategy of integration of the leading actors in society into governing structures. From the 1990s onwards, community groups organized two types of structures – Community Development Corporations (CDCs-not to be confused with US based community economic development organizations), and coalitions of organizations working in similar areas of activity – for example, women’s shelters, and literacy groups. The CDCs are geographically based in districts or towns, made up of representatives of local organizations and most have representatives of government health agencies. The representation is by employees of the organizations. Similarly, sectoral organizations are made up of representatives of organizations undertaking similar activities. Both of these created structures to represent themselves at the provincial level. Initially, these coalitions were put in place to defend and extend innovative services that also had a social change vision, such as women shelters, or literacy groups. The structure of representation of both starts at the local level and with regional and provincial coalitions representing both sectoral and geographically based organizations. Thus, the community sector as a highly-structured body was able to enter into negotiations with the provincial government and, at times, to take a seat at the table along with business and unions. The structures of representation are highly formalized and are a reflection of the professionalization of community organizations. However, as a consequence, most organizations are service providers which at best act to represent client needs in the lobbying process.

A recent document summarizes the scope and orientation of government funding (Gouvernement du Québec 2016). In 2013-2014, the Quebec government through all of its ministries provided $958,681,628 (Canadian) to 5037 community organizations. 60.4% went to the global missions of the organizations, 33.4% to service contracts and 6.2% to specific short-term projects. The average amount per group was $135,067. More than half of the total went to those providing health and social services. Most are service providers, and aligned with the global priorities of the various Ministries. To receive funding, organizations must define themselves within the boundaries of what each Ministry defines as public needs, linked to the mandate of that Ministry. The Sécretariatd‘Action Communautaire Autonome et Innovation Social, with a global budget of $24,498,917, funds the wide range of activities of 321 organizations, including the promotion of volunteerism defined as those supporting ‘government orientations’- $17,356,880. The fund most closely associated with organizing as we have defined it, is the promotion of rights-or defense des droits. Fourteen organizations receive a total of $711,437 or approximately $50,000 each a year.

Although this funding development is impressive and shows a high degree of recognition and support for the community sector, at the same time, the provincial government has been cutting public programs to reduce
its deficit. Furthermore, the public sector in Quebec is highly unionized and militant. Exchanging unionized for non-unionized jobs gives the government a much higher degree of flexibility in providing cheaper services. As the funding and program evolved, local organizations that provided services received recurrent funding and had to develop partnerships with the respective Ministry. But it is critical to recognize that this relationship was not imposed, but negotiated. Although the funding is for service delivery, many of the organizations continue to engage in protest activities and the ‘regroupements’ of community organizations mobilize coalition members in campaigns against government cutbacks and austerity, indirectly using their state-supported staff in this process.

The category of funding for promotion of social rights is the one that affects groups involved in organizing. It is clear that this is one of the smaller categories and only 14 groups receive support across the province, compared to the more than 5000 groups in total receiving support. Some of the 14 do not organize but are involved in research, education and advocacy on behalf of those affected by the category of rights they defend. In fact too little money is allocated to organizing. Eric Shragge, one of the co-authors of this paper, is a co-founder of the Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) in 2001, in Montreal, Quebec. Since his retirement in 2012 from an academic career, he has been more intensely with it. The IWC is an example of an organization that would be under the category of “Promotion of Social Rights” as it does education on labor rights, organizing of immigrant workers in precarious situations, and it has been campaigning for social and economic justice since its inception. The IWC is financially unstable and raises funds through a combination of donations and partnerships with unions, individual donations, an irregular foundation and small government grants. The IWC has applied to SACAIS in the category of “promotion of social rights” six times, the application form is complex and demands extensive documentation. Each year, including 2017, it has received the same answer- the IWC is eligible but there are no funds for it This attenuated process excludes newer less developed organizations. Second and more important, the program has not expanded in recent years to include emerging forms of practice, including organizations that work with more recent immigrant populations. Although organizations may be formally eligible, no funds are made available.

Democratizing State and Civil Society

One element in responding to the question of expanding state funding for community organizations, particularly oppositional ones, is how one understands the state. Given the complexity of this and the expansive
literature on it, we will briefly sketch our position. We reject the pluralist theory of the state as a neutral body that mediates conflicting interests. This leads to a facile understanding of conflict in which building pressure groups leads to social change. We also reject a left functionalism that argues that everything the state does is in the interest of capital. We need a more nuanced understanding of the role of the state, acknowledging that, although it supports and maintains the processes of capital accumulation, profitability and growth, and it is the main agent of coercion and repression, it is also theoretically owned by its citizens and therefore potentially a space for promoting and supporting egalitarian and democratic gains for oppressed groups in specific moments.

To help democratize the state, progressive social movements, unions and community organizations have targeted government at all levels for reform. For example, there has been success in campaigns for a living wage in the US since the 1990s and more recently for $15/hour minimum wage. History is filled with successful struggles against oppression and exploitation, some of which have been significant in shaping the social democratic state. In our neoliberal context, gains won by social movements have to be defended against counter–attacks. There are many examples of how political parties of both the center and the right take up popular causes for their own ends. However, while there is a bottom line for the state in capitalist societies, which is the maintenance of the long-term interests of capital, there is also some degree of political space, especially in the civil society sector, to define its influence and what limits are imposed on market-driven societies.

Given this position, and the reluctance of some groups to ask for state support because of a legitimate concern about engaging in complex bureaucratic relations and the co-optive powers of the state, it is important to bear in mind that state revenues are disproportionately paid by middle- and working-class income earners. To cede government and the state to constricted conceptions can actually play into neoliberal theory, delegitimizing and undermining the ‘public’ sector while lauding the ‘independence’ of the private and voluntary sectors. Making demands on the state at all levels as to how people want their taxes spent is consistent with progressive organizing traditions. At the same time, organizations have to analyze the funding available and not become dependent on single government programs that can use community services as a way to offload services. The relationship is obviously complex. Overall, rather than limit themselves to existing state programs, an offensive strategy of demanding funding and recognition can at least raise the possibility of greater redistribution of resources to organizations that defend social rights. The question is how much autonomy will the groups that defend them be accorded by state funders, what are the consequences of this relationship, and how much support will the public sector provide?

The other side to democratizing the state is challenging the neoliberal reconceptualization of civil society. As we have argued, civil society is heavily funded by government but primarily in the name of service delivery, and not for social change purposes in general nor for organizing efforts in particular. The conception of civil society has been twisted and redefined as an expression of non-organizing, non-social movement efforts.

The program in Quebec despite it rhetorical claims to ‘break with the paradigm of the third sector as a single homogeneous unit and with certain approaches used elsewhere in the world’ (Jean and Busque, 2001, 14),. Community-based organizations in Quebec have become depoliticized, characterized as the voluntary, non-profit, ‘independent’ sector. The independence is limited, with the state and civil society as interdependent, with formal recognition for and support of diverse practices mainly of service-delivery often tied to specific ministries. It claims that every funded community organization is ‘free to define its orientations, policies, and approaches’ While these were the ideals of the programs, however, since their implementation they have in fact been shaped more by neoliberal rationalities and are closer to what has been described as Third Way politics i.e. tying community to the market through the social economy and to service provision in times of austerity. Accordingly, even the exceptional promotion of funding social rights program described earlier are delimited, remaining a small, marginal component of much larger state funding of community.


Clearly, the role of the state funding of community organizations is complex. For those doing on the ground organizing to build power and a force for opposition, even more so. From the experiences in Quebec, we draw the following conclusions.

1) Be careful of your wishes.

The idea that government can or should support community organizing is something many community groups and organizers desire, as a way to stabilize their organizations and, reduce time allocated to fund-raising. The argument can be made that taxes are paid by all and should support a range of viewpoints and democratize society through the participation of people in the policy debates etc. But how much support for organizing happens? What kinds of organizations receive support? What illusions are created? What are the consequences? It is clear that in Quebec, state funding of community organizations originated both from a bottom-up demand for recognition and support, primarily for innovation in ways services were provides; for example, shelters for women run by and for women facing violent relationships. Recognition, and support now is extended to almost all sectors of practice, with the consequence of service provision becoming the main function of organizations, reducing or eliminating both advocacy for social change and organizing service recipients, leading to a highly-organized community sector with an emphasis on professional provision.

2) Where is the organizing/mobilizing?

The wider consequence has been the de-politicization of community and the loss of an organizing tradition. The historical development of community organizations in Quebec – from political and social movement to
professionalized bureaucratized and institutionalized has consequences for their relevance as a force for progressive social change and through collective action of the disenfranchised groups. Regular funding and
institutionalization is a process of de-politicization; professional service –delivery, even innovative work, displaces organizing and constituency or members, becomes defined as clientele.

3) Whose autonomy?

Perhaps one of underlying ironies that resulted from the process of negotiation between the various community coalitions and the government was on the question of autonomy of community organizations. A definition was worked out that included elements such as the presence of an elected board of directors, non-profit status, and registration with the government. As the process of funding developed, the name of the funding body SACAIS included reference to this concept of autonomy, but at the same time the process of funding in practice itself, has shaped the direction of the community sector toward a highly-professionalized service
delivery. Even if organizations are internally democratic, the focus on a narrow range of activities limits the benefits of this belief in organizational autonomy. It is clear that the community sector has become a junior partner in service delivery, many with formal sub-contracting relations with government ministries. In this context, it is important to add that the public sector in Quebec is unionized with a militant tradition. The community organizations are not unionized and as such acts as relatively cheap and flexible labor in the provision of a variety of public services.

4) Playing the contradictions.

The analysis to this point has been critical of state funding of the community sector in Quebec. At the same time, and even with these limits and direction, those community organizations benefiting from state support do play a role within a wider counter-force against neo-liberalism and global capitalism. This happens in several ways. First, even though their number is small, the groups receiving government support under the title of promotion of social rights play a role in coalition-building and mobilization. The most important area is in housing, particularly in the demand for more social housing. Second, the wider coalitions of community organizations have been active in the fight against austerity, calling on government to increase social spending improve access to programs. Large–scale coalitions with trade unions have mobilized for demonstrations against austerity measures and other aspects of neo-liberalization of government policy. These continue. In addition, some local coalitions of community groups do play a key role in campaigns whether it be for increased social housing or $15 an hour minimum wage. One limit has been that the mobilization is often the employees of community organizations. Finally, despite government defined official mandates, local groups provide a space for people to gather and engage in a critical social analysis and participate in local campaigns and at time wider mobilization. Thus, although government funding has given a service direction and encouraged a highly professionalized approach, many organizations have found ways to continue the older tradition of fighting for economic and social justice. This was true as well in the publicly-funded COP in England, where most results were more reflective of traditional community development initiatives, but some, such as radical organizing efforts in London and Bristol, following a U.S-linked ACORN model, engaged in economic justice struggles around housing, jobs, and wages.

Eric Shragge is a volunteer staff member at the Immigrant Workers Centre. He retired from the School of Community and Public Affairs, Concordia University 5 years ago to devote more time to the IWC and jazz guitar. Bob Fisher teaches community organizing at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work. His history of neighborhood organizing in the United States, Let The People Decide, was recently translated into a Chinese edition.

References Cited

Balazard, H., & Fisher, R. (2016) Community organizing, pansement aux politiques neoliberales ou revolution lente? Mouvements, 85, 106-113. Translated into English as Community Organizing in the UK: Band-aid or Revolutionary Strategy Social Policy, 45/4: 14-20.

Fisher, R. (2016) Government-Funded Community Organizing. Shelterforce 182. Spring, 46-47.

Fisher, R. and Shragge, E. (2017). Resourcing Community Organizing: Examples from England and Quebec. Forthcoming.

Gouvernement du Québec (2016) État de situation du soutien financier gouvernemental en action communautaire, Travail, Emploi, et Solidarité Quebec, accessed at: (26 July 2016).

Jean, D. and Busque, G. D. (2001) Community Action: A Crucial Combination to the exercise of citizenship and the social development of Quebec, Quebec Government Document, Quebec, Canada.

SACAIS (2016) Secrétariat à l’action communautaire autonome et aux initiatives sociales, Réseau de l’Action Bénévole Du Québec, accessed at: (26 July 2016).

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