Part I - Progressive Philanthropy in the Trump Era: A Call for New Donors

A three-part series to help guide new, major donors to thoughtfully move resources from the sidelines to the frontlines.

By Nicholas Salter

Eight months into the Trump Administration we have a clear sense of the political, social, economic, and policy implications of this current era. We know that vulnerable and marginalized populations are facing serious attacks and important institutions are being systematically dismantled. Much of the aggression is originating from the administration directly (look at DOJ, HHS, and EPA for examples), but also from state legislatures under conservative control and well resourced right-wing organizations flourishing in this climate. At the same time, we are also learning what tactics individuals, communities, and organizations can successfully utilize to counter and mitigate the fallout (see efforts to stop the repeal of the ACA four times).

This series introduces three strategic approaches for emerging and established progressive donors in the Trump era, especially for individual philanthropists with the capacity to give big. Part I, below, makes the case for bolstering frontline organizations with proven tactics while also supporting upstart organizations and building enduring capabilities and infrastructure for the progressive movement. Parts II and III discuss deeper social change work at the state level, and opportunities to bet big on transformative ideas outside of the contentious political arena.

Why give now?

True, more money from more funders is not the only solution, but there are clear strategic and pragmatic reasons for progressive donors to contribute significantly today.  This is especially true for well-intentioned donors who have tucked away charitable resources in Donor Advised Funds receiving upfront tax benefits without making decisions about their giving goals. Now is a great time for new funders to move from the sidelines to the frontlines.

Individual philanthropists are more nimble than larger, mainstream institutional donors. Donors with flexible and quickly deployable capital can help smaller, upstart organizations achieve an outsized impact. Many institutional donors have cumbersome grant-making processes, comparatively restrictive procedures, a higher aversion to risk, and may take months or years to deploy similar resources. One early lesson from the Trump era is that several foundations, like the Open Society Foundations, the San Francisco Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation have rightly acknowledged the need for quick capital and, as a result, created rapid response funds to support frontline organizations. Donors with progressive values will also arguably have a greater impact on the core issues they care about if they invest today instead of waiting years (or decades!) to give generously. Just consider the attacks in such a short time on these issues and constituencies: racial and economic justice, voting and labor rights, the social safety net, healthcare, environmental protection, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and refugees, and the disability community.

Strategies for Progressive Donors – Fund the Frontline

With marginalized populations threatened, progressive donors should thoughtfully invest in effective, frontline organizations fighting to preserve and defend rights. Giving strategically can also pay dividends in the future by strengthening important institutions, cultivating and developing new leaders, and expanding and deepening participation in the progressive movement.

Funders can begin by prioritizing investments in frontline groups with  proven and effective tactical responses. Litigation, community organizing, and digital organizing campaigns have all had some good successes. Focus on pragmatic theories of change and consider both incumbent organizations and smaller, well positioned startups. Incumbent groups with proven strategies – like the ACLU and other legal groups  – have continued to demonstrate the success of courts to defend specific rights and protect vulnerable populations.

Energized and emerging leaders are also building totally new organizations (formal and informal). New is not always better, and donors should be aware of bias towards flashy startups without a thoughtful approach to winning under our current political reality. That said, individual donors should vet and consider opportunities for catalytic support for stellar startups that are skillfully channeling grassroots energy across the country. Digital organizing has proven that some new and scrappy organizations can mobilize citizens (in the millions!) and produce real results, often more effectively than large, established organizations. Black Lives Matter is one important example of decentralized organizing that is shaping a national conversation on racial bias and systemic racism and helping to amplify and active new leaders. Indivisible, which is less than a year old, has repeatedly and successfully worked to protect Medicaid and healthcare for millions of Americans, among other critical issues. Their budget is a fraction of the major players in health policy arena. The group started with a Google Doc that went viral before they had an official website, a budget, or formal staff. Early, flexible capital for a group like Indivisible can produce outsized impact. Furthermore, groups raising advocacy oriented 501(c)4 funds are more dependent on individual donors rather than charitable grants from mainstream foundations.

Donors supporting frontline efforts should also consider how to leverage opportunities for building capacity for progressive organizations over the long-term. While rapid response work is clearly necessary, thoughtful organizations are also seizing this moment to build important infrastructure for long-term success. Externally, organizations are are expanding their donor base, recruiting and training new leaders, and widening the progressive audience. These organizations are also internally building new technology, hiring and cultivating talent, and investing in upgraded operational systems. Again, the ACLU, after receiving record donations following the 2016 election, has now poured millions into new local community organizing efforts and is adding senior-level talent and new technology and internal systems to improve the their operations. These investments, while less visible, are essential, and donors providing unrestricted, general support, especially to rapidly scaling organizations, will help expand and advance the progressive movement in the long-term.

Funders have no shortage of valuable opportunities to support progressive organizations today. Thoughtful donors focused on near- and long-term impact should can leverage their resources by 1) bolstering frontline organizations with proven tactics, 2) veting and supporting upstart organizations with the potential for outsized impact, and 3) helping organizations build the operational infrastructure required for the progressive movement to be successful in the years and decades to come.

Nicholas Salter is the founder of the Progressive Philanthropy Group where he advises progressive donors.  Follow Nick on Twitter or Medium.