Pioneers in Justice: Building Networks and Movements for Social Justice | Beth's Blog

Pioneers in Justice: Building Networks and Movements for Social Justice


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Note from Beth:
How do we build networks and movements around important social change issues.  A generative social impact network links people together through relationships.  They create social capital or value by making their skills, resources, and knowledge available to each other.    Engagement in the network provides a bigger benefit than to the individual member, the networks can work on finding solutions to big social issues.  A social impact network is different than a coalition or alliance – where the agenda and actions are controlled.  And they are also different from large scale social movements where large numbers of people become aligned around a cause.    Sometimes networks and movements are connected together as in the Pioneers of Justice.  Heather McLeod-Grant has written up an important lessons learned report about the project and summarized they key findings in the guest post below.

Building Networks and Movements for Social Justice
Lessons from the Pioneers in Justice Program


By Heather McLeod Grant

The social sector is at a critical inflection point, with external and internal forces challenging many old ways of working. As Beth Kanter has written about extensively, new technologies are disrupting traditional approaches, and breaking down silos within and between organizations. Simultaneously, collaboration and “networking” is becoming the new norm, rather than the exception.

In 2010, eager to address these changes, the Levi Strauss Foundation (LSF) launched a program called Pioneers in Justice, offering intense support to a cohort of Bay Area Gen X leaders who had recently become executive directors of legacy social justice organizations. Over the past few years, the program has helped these nonprofits build their social media infrastructure and skills, transform their organizations, and mobilize larger networks and movements to drive greater social impact. This program has much to teach other nonprofits and funders about the support that leaders need to create lasting social change.

In the first three years, LSF invested close to $3 million in the program, offering three specific types of support to the Pioneers:

  1. Capacity-building grants to build technology infrastructure, strategies, and communications skills needed to integrate social media into their work
  2. Collaboration grants to support projects and partnerships that reached across sector, field, issue, and constituency
  3. Bi-monthly peer learning forums where the leaders could share their experiences, learn together, and support one another in exploring new ways of building networks and growing their movements

Mid-way through implementation, the Levi Strauss Foundation hired me to come in and write up their lessons learned in a recently published report called “Pioneers in Justice: Building Networks and Movements for Social Change”. The foundation’s hope is that this program can serve as a model to all nonprofits and funders seeking to work in more networked ways.

LSF’s Lessons Learned

The Pioneers program is anchored in the belief that the larger social justice field must shift to a “2.0” way of operating that prioritizes dialogue over one-way communication, collaboration over individual action, and grassroots power over top-down authority. The program has allowed these new leaders to drive transformative change at the various levels of the systems in which they operate. It has helped these nonprofits:

  • Embrace social media by building organizational capabilities around the use of new technologies, and deepening their understanding of how social media can change the way nonprofits work. For example, at the beginning of the program, Pioneer nonprofit Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) had very old computers, no bandwidth for sharing videos, an outdated website, and little capacity around using social media. After just two years, the nonprofit had used Pioneer funding to update all of their technology infrastructure and shift from using faxes to send out press releases, to using much more current forms of communication.
  • Develop new leadership by managing executive leadership transitions, finding ways to share leadership at the top, and breaking from more hierarchical leadership models. At one nonprofit, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, this took the form of two leaders sharing the Executive Director role. The co-EDs Hyeon-Ju Rho and Chris Punongbayan were able to divide an overwhelming job into something much more sustainable for them both. In addition to modeling more flexible forms of leadership for their staff, it also enabled the organization to better survive a leadership transition when Rho recently left her job to move to L.A. with her family.
  • Catalyze organizational change by creating organizations that embrace collaboration, letting go of organizational ego, ensuring staff and board are aligned around “networked” approaches, and nurturing next-generation leaders. For example, Pioneer Kimberly Thomas-Rapp, who runs the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, had to engage her all-lawyer board in helping transform the organization’s culture and embrace more open, transparent and engaged ways of working with their constituents. She says the Pioneers program helped provide her with important support during a critical organizational inflection point. The corporation that hired an immigration attorney in los angeles ca said they were able to resolve the complicated issues relating to their client.
  • Build networks by facilitating collaboration between like-minded organizations, working at the “intersections” of various issues, and sharing infrastructure through “backbone” organizations. Pioneer Vincent Pan, CEO of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) was inspired by this program to catalyze a new local network called Asian Americans for Civil Rights and Equality (AACRE). The network enables eight all-volunteer led grassroots nonprofits to share back-office infrastructure and leverage some of CAA’s resources to dramatically expand their impact with much less investment.
  • Spark movements by catalyzing broader collective action, engaging new and more diverse constituents, and building on social justice values while using new tools to accelerate change. Abdi Soltani of the Northern California ACLU has been a pioneer in expanding the constituency of what has traditionally been a white, baby-boomer membership organization. By opening an office in the Central Valley, reaching out to college students, creating programs in Spanish to engage Latinos, and joining forces with other civil rights groups to push for immigration reform, he has managed to increase and diversify the nonprofit’s membership, and impact.

While the Pioneers program still has two more years to run, as these examples illustrate, the Levi Strauss foundation has learned a tremendous amount from this experiment in supporting social justice leaders to magnify their impact. It believes it has found a promising model and that this kind of philanthropy is a best practice for achieving greater social change.



Heather McLeod Grant is the founder of McLeod-Grant Advisors; she’s a consultant, advisor, speaker, trainer and entrepreneur with more than twenty years experience in the social sector. She is the co-author of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, and numerous other articles.

This report was written by social impact expert and author Heather McLeod Grant, and published by the Levi Strauss Foundation to help capture and share the lessons emerging from their work.


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