Recruit the Next Generation of Donors

This piece is part of the Prospect's series on progressives' strategy over the next 40 years. To read the introduction, click here.

Historically, progressive investors and donors have calibrated the bulk of their giving to election cycles and have neglected the more complicated issue of developing and implementing a plan that takes the long view. What is required as we move past the 2012 elections is patient capital. The conservative movement has spent more than 40 years building an infrastructure. That effort has been so successful that we talk more often about conservatives than we do about Republicans. The wholesale takeover of their party occurred over many election cycles, and it required discipline of a type that we rarely see in modern politics. While I don’t advocate a similar objective vis-à-vis the Democratic Party, I do believe that movement activists and funders are best positioned to build the permanent infrastructure essential to activating a long-term plan.

As chairman of the Democracy Alliance, I—along with my partners—have taken the first steps in that direction. Beginning in 2005, we identified a core set of organizations that we have now supported for seven consecutive years. It is our intention to continue this support for many years to come. While these groups engage in everything from policy development to communications strategy and base constituency contact, they also share a certain set of characteristics. First, they are working at scale, linking up national issues with state and regional opportunities. Additionally, they are targeting key audiences, including single women, young people, African Americans, and Latinos. Finally, they see collaboration as a critical component of advancing their agenda. Results are not measured by scoring short-term political points but rather by developing and executing initiatives that move the country in a more progressive direction. This also means investing in the capacities that make organizations healthy and successful. Just as the private sector pours millions of dollars into enhancing the skill sets of its workforce, we cannot afford to neglect to do the same with those who have chosen to make social change their life’s work. This requires that funders have a sophisticated and thoughtful approach to their investments. As much as the quick win in a political skirmish makes us feel good for a news cycle, it is the deliberate effort to build the coalitions, activate the base, and implement sound policy that ultimately changes our world.

To the extent that our movement has had patient capital, it has come from progressive philanthropic institutions. In recent years, individual donors and some of our friends in the labor movement have joined these funders. At the present time, all three of these funding sources are struggling to keep pace with the tremendous need in front of us. Progressive foundations face the challenge of conservative intimidation tactics designed to silence them. Individual donors have been asked to reach deeper than ever over the past six years, and a certain level of fatigue has set in. This has been compounded by the Citizens United decision, which highlights the contradiction of the role of big money in politics and our desire for a level playing field. Conservatives have set their sights on decapitating the labor movement at both the state and national level. This has forced unions to fight myriad reactionary battles on paycheck deception, pension reform, and right-to-work laws around the country. The net effect of all of these trends has been to shrink the resources available to finance movement building.

Put simply, our business model is broken. This squeeze on donor capacity must be addressed. There is a series of steps that should be taken immediately. 1) Recruit the next generation of wealthy donors. 2) Establish new for-profit vehicles with an explicit mission to generate funds for progressive activism. 3) Experiment with emerging technologies that identify and target new small-dollar fundraising programs. 4) Build a team of donor leaders willing to make the public case for what we believe in.

The challenge is clear. In a world of constrained resources, we must promote innovation and effectiveness across the movement. We will not match the right wing’s prodigious fundraising machine. Our groups must also increasingly reach beyond our base to engage, educate, and influence a broader cross section of the public. Our ability to stay the course and execute effectively will go a long way toward achieving our aspirations for many years to come. 

Read the other pieces in this series:>/h4>

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