A three-part series to guide new, major donors to thoughtfully move resources from the sidelines to the frontlines.
By Nicholas Salter | Progressive Philanthropy Group
This series outlines three strategic social change approaches for progressive donors in the Trump era, especially for new philanthropists with the capacity to give big.
Why Should Progressive Donors Focus on the States?
Effective state level investments are necessary for long-term progressive social change and resonate beyond any single state’s boundary or population. State institutions and policies directly impact the lives of vulnerable communities, and it matters deeply who leads these institutions and what voices influence their priorities, policies, and funding. For years, conservative donors, like the Koch brothers, have poured significant resources into building state level institutions and organizing. As a result, conservatives now have a deep hold on state level power: the GOP controls 69 out of 99 state legislative chambers (a record high), 34 governorships, and are in full control of 26 states.
Widespread conservative influence has led to destructive policies across the country: the rapid closing of women’s health clinics in Texas and Louisiana (among others); legalized discrimination against LGBTQ people enacted last week in Mississippi, and voter suppression laws across the country. By design, these policies unravel important institutions and disenfranchise millions of people – especially poor people and people of color who are disproportionately impacted. Many of these policies are systematically advanced by well-resourced conservative think tanks, like ALEC, and right-wing donor networks that have long realized the power of state level influence.
There are also serious national repercussions from unchecked conservative dominance in states. Two hugely consequential examples: the future composition of Congress will be determined by state governments’ redistricting and conservative donor networks have rapidly capitalized on their historical control within states to seriously push for a Constitutional Convention that would reshape the fundamental foundation of the U.S.
How Can Progressive Donors Strategically Invest Today?
Established progressive funders are already playing catch-up and investing significantly in state level organizations. New, major donors should join and deepen this effort and stick with it.
Understandably, individual donors may find it challenging to identify, vet, and prioritize the most strategic and consequential state level opportunities. This list offers some practical ideas for both political advocacy and traditional 501(c)(3) efforts, and highlights effective networks, donor collaboratives, and organizations working in many key states. It showcases important opportunities for donors to consider beyond funding major candidates, tight races, and ballot initiatives.
- Fund organizing and civic engagement activities. Helping progressive candidates and ideas win requires investment long before election day in organizations and networks, not just the candidates. Civic engagement activities to register, educate, and mobilize voters, especially traditionally underrepresented populations, months and years before elections are essential. Groups like State Voices, PICO, and America Votes all work in key states across the country. NEO’s State Infrastructure Fund is a skilled funder intermediary supporting similar civic engagement networks and organizations in states like Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina, and has raised and deployed more than $40 million in recent years. Likewise, the Democracy Alliance and the Committee on States continue to prioritize investment in state level organizing and capacity building efforts.
- Support organizations developing and sharing progressive policy ideas: It’s not all political defense - and donors should invest in organizations like State Innovation Exchange and State Priorities Partnership that serve as essential think tanks and strategy centers to help state legislators enact progressive legislation (and counter right-wing policy proposals). Progressives have won major state policy victories in recent years, including expanding paid sick and family leave, increasing the minimum wage, expanding voting rights and reforming the criminal justice system. Those policies positively impact millions of lives, and these organizations help ensure a success in one state is transferred to others.
- Don’t overlook Secretary of State elections: Secretaries of State often oversee and set voting policies and GOP led efforts have systematically led to serious voter suppression policies, including the purging of millions of voters. Donors should support progressive Secretaries of State who are important leaders in protecting voting rights and expanding participation through best practices like automatic voter registration and increased access to early and absentee voting. Let America Vote and iVote elevate candidates committed to voting rights. The Brennan Center is leading the way with sound policy proposals and vital research.
- Or support for Attorneys General: Because the courts are a vital arena to contest right-wing policy and the Trump administration - electing skilled, progressive Attorneys General remains incredibly important. The AGs in states like New York, California, Massachusetts, and Washington are challenging the Trump administration on key issues from climate change to healthcare and immigration. Donors can support think tanks and research efforts that will help AGs advance critical litigation.
- Support the recruitment of a new, diverse candidates: Donors should invest in effective efforts to expand the diversity of progressive candidates who bring valuable perspectives and fresh ideas. These candidates better reflect the identity of the New American Majority electorate that progressive candidates need to win. New organizations like Run for Something and Rise to Run have joined existing groups like Emerge America, EMILY’S List and Wellstone to recruit, cultivate, train, and develop progressive leaders, especially female candidates and candidates of color running at the state and local levels. Together, these organizations transfer new levels of enthusiasm into a pipeline of progressive, diverse, and electable leaders.
While it can appear overwhelming and complex for donors to invest in state level social change efforts, progressives cannot surrender this arena to right-wing donors. Yes, progressive donors should support consequential races that can flip control of a state legislative chamber or governorship (there are 38 governorships races in 2017 and 2018 and Democrats can gain control in several state chambers). But progressive donors must also continue to move beyond election-cycle funding of candidates, and invest in systemic state level initiatives that expand voting rights, educate, register, and mobilize voters, and champion progressive policy ideas. Donor networks and intermediaries with expertise on state activity can help donors be more effective and better aligned. Success in the states will produce immediate improvements in the lives of millions of families and is essential for advancing long-term, progressive economic, social, and environmental goals.
Part I of this series called for donors to support frontline organizations with proven tactics to challenge the Trump agenda. Part III (forthcoming) will outline approaches to invest in transformative, progressive ideas outside of the contentious political arenas.