Inside Philanthropy: How Boom and Bust Funding is Holding Back Democracy Reform
Inside Philanthropy – February 17, 2021
If we’re being honest, American democracy is only 55 years old. The universal suffrage that is our country’s bedrock was not truly protected until passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965. Even so, roughly seven years ago, the Supreme Court gutted core components of the VRA, allowing states, primarily in the South, return to employing voter suppression tactics without consequence.
Our system of governing is young and fragile. The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 showed just how vulnerable a multiracial democracy really is. But we cannot dismiss it as a one-time event born out of the Trump era. White nationalism and right-wing extremism have been festering in this country for far too long. Victories like Georgia, however, provide a roadmap for strengthening our democratic institutions and facing the threats of hate and misinformation head-on.
Tireless, state-based organizing achieved what many thought to be impossible: Georgia turned blue and welcomed the first Black and Jewish Senators in the state’s history. Groups like the New Georgia Project, Mijente, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), Asian American Advocacy Fund and the visionary leadership of Black women like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, Jessica Byrd, Rep. Nikema Williams, Nse Ufot, and on and on, made it possible by turning out the new, rising majority of voters of color, young people, and women. These organizers made millions of phone calls and knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors; in an historic achievement, organizers contacted every Latino voter in the state of Georgia during the runoff campaign. This was not a fluke. Georgia showed us the theory of change for progressive organizing in action.
Georgia was flooded with donations following the general election, but to attribute those victories to a last-minute investment boom is to fundamentally misunderstand what truly happened this past cycle. Typically, philanthropy and donors create a boom-and-bust cycle of funding that communities across the country feel. The stark contrast between bursts of funding and sustained support was crystal-clear in Georgia, where success was years, not months or weeks, in the making. The past election cycle proved that state-based organizers know the formula for success: Invest in the groups who know their turf best, build up their power and capacity, and let them guide the dollars.
Now it is our charge to safeguard these gains, hold elected leaders accountable to the progressive governance they campaigned on, and protect our multiracial democracy for future elections. How do we do that? Through continuous investment in frontline organizers year-round. Non-partisan 501(c)(3) organizations like Way to Rise, for whom I am senior advisor, have been working for years to create the conditions of power-building and co-governance that delivered key wins in Arizona and Georgia. Groups like ours were there long before the beltway pundits and Democratic establishment paid them any attention.
What funders need to realize is that the organizing doesn’t stop on Election Day, nor should it be limited to political donors. There’s an even bigger success story, like the one we saw in Georgia, waiting to happen, but it will only come to fruition if we invest in a vision of democracy reform now. The majority of the work organizers do to strengthen our democratic institutions and hold officials accountable is done off-cycle—work that is especially critical given our current moment. The same should be true of our funding practices.
Whatever your passion as a funder—climate change, reproductive freedom, arts, education, etc.—the reality is that without sweeping reforms that address voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other fundamental threats to our system of government, we will not achieve progress. These are not partisan issues; they are entirely within the scope of 501(c)(3) organizations. The good news is, if charitable funders and donors act quickly and coordinate their efforts, they can create something like an economy of scale in this sector. Just as Way to Rise was joined by multiple funding partners in its 2020 efforts, no funder has to go it alone. The more c3 groups recognize the vision of state-level organizers and join together to fund them, the greater return on investment they will receive.
Funders must take a look in the mirror and ask themselves this: Is enough money from your organization going to democracy reform and frontline organizing this upcoming grant cycle? This means resourcing the nonpartisan organizations across the country working tirelessly to register voters and get out the vote, and protect voters in the process. If not, it’s critical you partner with an intermediary like Way to Rise or others with the bona fides to help you make informed funding decisions.
The multiracial majority that showed up this cycle represents people power—the only power that can compel elected leaders to take action on meaningful reforms. That should not be taken for granted. Given the small portion of the funding in a nearly $14-billion election cycle that went to state-based groups in Arizona, Georgia and other swing states, what these brilliant organizers pulled off was nothing short of a miracle. If donors expect them to repeat this feat in future cycles without putting skin in the game right now, our democracy might not pull through the next attack.