The Poverty of Grassroots Organizing

Honest talk from veterans of progressive philanthropy and movements about how this vital work is still desperately undervalued.

Hello to new subscribers and a reminder to regulars: The Connector is a twice-weekly newsletter focusing on democracy, movements, organizing and technology. If there’s a through-line to what I post about, it’s a search for the conditions that increase the ability of ordinary people to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. But since we live in a capital-driven, top-down, white-male-dominated world, inevitably I’m also writing a lot about things like Big Tech, Big Philanthropy, Big Email and other forms and processes that get in the way of participatory politics. Since we’re living in the midst of an organized fascist backlash against multiracial democracy (and not focusing enough on how to organize effectively to defend that goal) I’m writing a lot about that too. Plus, when I have time, I share pointers to timely books that dig deeper into these topics. The Connector is free to all readers—there’s no paywalled version—and to keep it that way I periodically ask for voluntary donations (use the button below). So if you aren’t already a paying subscriber, please consider signing up. And by all means, share this newsletter with your friends and colleagues.

Phil Radford, the former executive director of Greenpeace and now the CEO of Progressive Multiplier Fund, has a must-read piece in The Forge about the organizing gap in today’s philanthropy that starts with an astounding fact: Funding for grassroots organizing in America made up only 0.1 percent of total grantmaking from 2014-2018, according to an analysis conducted for Radford by the National Council for Responsive Philanthropy. And, Radford ruefully notes, “Among the few funders that do believe change happens because of organizing, many focus on a narrow portfolio of issues; they are willing to support base building to win victories on that issue but not to build power more broadly.” His solution: funders should shift from focusing on policy wins to power building, by investing 5-10% of their funds in helping organizing groups build their own revenues. Otherwise, he argues, “under-funding organizing makes the long arc of history towards justice much, much longer.” Read the whole thing.

Without more detail from Radford or the National Council for Responsive Philanthropy on how they defined “grassroots organizing,” it’s hard to evaluate that astounding statistic about the poverty of grassroots organizing. But it rings true. According to the National Philanthropic Trust, Americans donated about $450 billion in charitable giving in 2019, of which just under $100 billion came from corporations and foundations. The vast bulk of that went to religion, education, human services and health. One-tenth of one percent of five years of corporate and foundation giving would be, very roughly, a paltry $500 million. (Keep in mind that $14.4 billion was spent on the 2020 presidential and congressional elections.) Is it possible that grassroots organizing gets so underfunded?

According to Candid’s database on funding for U.S. democracy work from 2011 to present, just 1,399 grants totaling $159 million went to grassroots organizing as a specific strategy, out of a much larger pool of 141,000 grants worth $11.4 billion over that same period. (That’s one percent.) Among organizing groups, Movement Strategy Center in Oakland was at the top of that list with a total of $13.2 million. Pico National Network got $7.3 million. The Center for Community Change got $6.9 million. While the list of groups getting foundation support for this grassroots organizing to strengthen US democracy is impressive, and they certainly get other funding for other grassroots work, Radford’s central claim about the underfunding of basic grassroots organizing rings true.

The whole current issue of The Forge is on the intersection of progressive philanthropy and organizing, guest edited by Gara LaMarche, who has sat atop some of the pinnacles of liberal money in the United States, from Open Society Foundations and Atlantic Philanthropies to the Democracy Alliance. LaMarche is leaving the Democracy Alliance this month, and while he has always been one of the more transparent and self-critical leaders in American philanthropy, the entire issue of The Forge felt like him unburdening himself of some hard truths, with the help of a number of smart friends. It’s useful to read LaMarche’s own reflection on his years as a funder, especially as he discusses the inherent power imbalance in social change philanthropy. He notes, for example, that two grantees who were never obsequious or supplicant towards him were Bob Moses (a civil rights giant who started the Algebra Project) and Ernie Cortez (leader of the Industrial Areas Foundation). He writes, “Moses and Cortez were established enough to treat the foundation less as a benefactor and more as another power center to organize. It was refreshing, and rarely repeated in the years since.”

To LaMarche’s credit, he talks about how “start-and-stop” funding of foundations who think they can phase out supporting groups once they’ve won a policy victory has harmed major causes like immigrant rights, and urges for multi-year grants to be the norm. (Personally, I think one-year grants should be illegal.) And he’s also pretty candid about the limits of the groups he’s run, writing: “The grassroots fund at Atlantic came to an end after I left over a dispute with Atlantic’s donor, who preferred that more of his fortune be used for the kind of brick and mortar investments he was more comfortable with. At the [Democracy Alliance], it’s proven difficult to get most high-net-worth donors to allocate truly meaningful funds to BIPOC groups, particularly at the grassroots level, at anything like the scale of their giving to white-led groups based in the Beltway.”

Keep in mind: When people ask why the organized left in America is weaker than the organized right, it’s because the left’s major donors have generally avoided big, long-term, strategic funding of institutions, media and grassroots organizing. The Democracy Alliance, which was started in 2005 to get progressive donors to pool major funding more strategically, was built in direct response to “the conservative message machine money matrix,” a Powerpoint presentation by Rob Stein showing how the conservative movement had built its power. So when the outgoing president of the Democracy Alliance says liberal-left donors remain committed to “white-led groups based in the Beltway,” that’s a pretty damning statement.


Other nuggets of note from the rest of The Forge’s special issue:

-Bill Vandenberg and Urvashi Vaid, two movement veterans, talking about their time at the George Soros’ Open Society Foundations as program officers being, in Vaid’s words, “fifty percent of the time, at least,” […] “such an insular cycle of internal strategy development, reviews of applications, and board meeting preparation” and in Vandenberg’s words, “Your job was a perpetual cycle of strategy review and board meeting preparation. And what is so and so thinking about such and such?”

-Erica Kohl-Arenas and Megan Ming Francis arguing that the $12 billion in commitments from corporate philanthropy and foundations since June 2020 for racial equity is “acting in ways that undermine radical movements for justice,” criticizing the Ford Foundation for its $1 billion social bond initiative with Wells Fargo, and tagging Arnold Ventures, Koch, and Chan Zuckerberg—all leading criminal justice grant makers—with supporting “a criminal punishment system that activists have long argued is irredeemable and beyond reform.”

-LaMarche in conversation with Doran Schrantz, executive director of ISAIAH Minnesota and Tomas Robles, Jr., executive director of LUCHA in Arizona, both power-building grassroots organizations:

LaMarche: “A lot of these donors don't bother with power building. And it just seems crazy because it's so short-sighted. But the reason money flows differently in elections is that there's a whole consultant industrial complex whose livelihoods are based on that.”

Schrantz: “Yes. It's a lot of people making a lot of money off the technocratic industrial efficiency model. There's a lot of self-interest in that. If you are a mail vendor or you're a message machine person, you're a digital firm, you want to use the Analyst Institute's metrics to say there's a ROI for this X percentage more. And therefore, you're going to get a better return on your dollar. It's just a really difficult space. That being said, I do think there are more people with influence asking much harder questions about what that's producing in the long term and how much of it might be counterproductive even.”

Robles: “Acronym is a perfect example of failing up. They completely botched the Iowa caucuses. They still got $90 million to run a digital voter registration campaign. For us, your strategy only works if you make some monumental achievement within an election, and then they start trusting your methods. And by then, it's a five-year investment to even just start seeing stuff. Another data research organizing project that we're trying to get donors to buy into, they want us to have 25,000 face-to-face conversations in three months. The impossibility of that from an organizing perspective, if you want to have deep, meaningful conversations. But that was their way of thinking. And so, yeah, there's a humongous disconnect of folks getting rich while not having to show returns and us getting the tiniest amount but having to show three or four times an investment in terms of success.”

-Related: The always excellent Vu Le, who writes the Nonprofit AF blog, explains in his latest issue why the Accelerate Charitable Efforts Act, which would force foundations and donor-advised funds to spend out their funds more expeditiously, is so important. To their shame, the Council on Foundations is opposing the bill.

While we’re on the topic of organizing, a new paper from the consistently interesting due of Joshua Kalla and David Broockman finds that intensive voter outreach efforts that use in-depth two-way conversations have the effect of meaningfully reducing polarization among the activists doing the outreach. Looking at three 2020 deep canvassing efforts, two on immigration and one run by People’s Action directly on the 2020 election, they found that “Qualitative responses suggest that the conversations reduce polarization by creating opportunities for perspective-getting, which reduced animosity by humanizing and individuating outpartisans.” Or, to put it simply: deep canvassing, which we already know can reduce prejudice among voters canvassed, also reduces prejudice among the canvassers. As Broockman said in a tweet: “Doing this hard work of democracy makes people more positive towards the other side.”

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Fascism Watch

Timothy Snyder and Ed Zitron both are “hair on fire” worried about the bills advancing at the state level to shut down critical race theory and the online mob targeting journalists for daring to talk about surging white nationalism. Snyder writes that the rush of new “memory laws” bring us closer to tyranny, not just because the government is telling teachers what they can say about America, but also because these new laws “will whitewash voter suppression.” And Zitron zeroes in on how Mara Gay, a New York Times reporter, has been pummeled by the right recently for talking about Trumpers claiming the American flag as their own and no one else’s. He writes, “Reporters are continually being attacked in an organized, structured manner, with massive media outlets and influencers leading the charge, coordinating them several steps above what should be considered ‘online harassment.’ This is not a case of people being mean to other people, it’s coordinated, anti-democratic, anti-free press propaganda, ironically weaponizing the language and methods of the free press. It is a form of warfare, except it’s not engineered by countries to attack other countries - it’s private enterprises and individuals bringing war to the doorsteps of reporters.”

-Say hello to the 1st Amendment Praetorians, a QAnon militia providing free security at “patriotic and religious events” around the country, courtesy of David Gilbert’s reporting for Vice.

Odds and Ends

-A follow-up note on Friday’s issue of The Connector about “The Coming Cookieopalypse.” One reader who works in the political tech industry who asked to stay anonymous, wrote me to say that while they believe that any change that pushes campaigns towards more one-to-one voter engagement, in the short run the prospect of a 2022 / 2024 with much more difficult voting requirements but fewer ways to educate less likely voters is “terrifying.” Peer-to-peer texting played a huge role in Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts in 2020, and there was a strong correlation between receiving a text and voting. In addition, because texting is quite cheap, campaigns used it to reach less likely voters.

-From Matt Bernius of Code for America, a crowd-sourced guide to careers in civic tech, qualitative research and service and trauma-informed design.

-I’m currently working my way through Sarah Schulman’s magisterial book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT-UP NY, 1987-1993 and highly recommend adding it to your pile.