Engine Room column


Foundations supporting activism

Kalle Korhonen, Director of Funding and Ulla Tuomarla, Kone Foundation's CEO.

Activism is action taken to address societal issues. The support granted by Kone Foundation to a group of Finnish environmental activists in Elokapina (Extinction Rebellion Finland) in August has sparked discussion in the media about what grant foundations can support and why Kone Foundation supports activism.

Kone Foundation is primarily a funder of research and artistic work. In our funding decisions, we emphasize academic and artistic freedom. The world needs research and artistic work, even the kind that may not offer immediate societal benefits or direct applications.

On the other hand, research aimed at addressing societal challenges and activism are not that distant from one another. We have found that critical global issues such as the environmental crisis cannot be addressed without activism connected to research and the arts.

Foundations can operate in areas where state or other public funding has not yet reached and can support citizen activism in especially crucial matters. In our new “Metsän puolella” initiative, the goal is to enhance understanding of the various meanings of forests and bring new perspectives and approaches to discourse about forests. In this initiative, we fund research, artistic work, journalism, and activism. The work we support must have a connection to research or art. The project by Elokapina working group mentioned above is one of the 20 first to receive funding.

Foundations also have goals for societal impact based on their mission, strategy, and values. With the ”Metsän puolella” initiative, Kone Foundation aims to diversify the perspectives and voices involved in the forest discourse. We also think that freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are democratic rights that must be defended. Therefore, one can consider our support for the Elokapina environmental activists an act in strengthening democracy.

Support for activism is not entirely new for us. The Foundation has been supporting activism since the 2010s, when we noticed during the Foundation’s Language Programme that activists working on revitalizing and supporting minority languages benefited from collaboration with linguists.

Supported projects included the development of language teaching practices in schools in the Helsinki metropolitan area and the revival of the Ludic language through discussion groups. Activists (or “civil society representatives”) were also mentioned in the Foundation’s funding call that explored how various people, groups, states, and cultures can live together, communicate, and unite in action, despite different backgrounds, languages, and worldviews. Several projects promoting dialogue between different groups of people were supported in the Neighbour Dialogues funding call.

The scope of activism is broad, as seen in these examples, but a common denominator in the projects supported by Kone Foundation is that they not only investigate but also seek to make an impact, such as in the language revival projects.

In the project involving Elokapina, there too lies a connection between research and activism — in the sense that the project aims to amplify voices involved in environmental research. Art and activism are often interconnected. Art in our time increasingly takes a stance, sometimes even disobeys authority. Art also creates space for new ways of thinking and alternative perspectives. Collaboration between research and the arts has been a focus area for Kone Foundation for several years. Out of the funding awarded in 2022, every sixth project combined research and art.

In the international foundation field, supporting civil society, including activism, has a long tradition. In Europe and the United States, foundations more commonly support organizations striving for social change. Some foundations also specialized in activism support, such as the German “Bewegungsstiftung” (“Movement Foundation”). The importance of citizen activism in addressing societal injustices, such as women’s suffrage, segregation in the USA, or resistance to Russian oppression in early 20th century Finland, has been significant.

When Kone Foundation supports research, artistic work, activism, or journalism, the funding is given to a specific project and the actors involved in it, not for general operations. Funding decisions are based on the Foundation’s careful review of project plans. The project plan describes the activities for which funding is sought. Projects receiving funding are selected through fierce competition; there are always more outstanding applications than available funding.

The Foundation’s funding activities rely heavily on trust. We trust the creators of the projects we fund while requiring them to report on the use of the granted funding and the results of the project. If significant changes in the project plans are proposed, they must be negotiated with the Foundation’s representatives. The Foundation also maintains a dialogue with the projects it supports: we are often in contact with the project team throughout the project’s duration, not just during reporting. Ongoing dialogue provides valuable information to the Foundation, such as how projects are conducted, what new practices might be considered in the projects, or what support is needed from the Foundation. This information is used to develop the Foundation’s operations as well.