Capacity Building in 501(c)(4) organizations and the role of leadership.

A previous version of this article appears in the research report, Capacity Building in 501(C)(4) Organizations, Civic Participation Action Fund, 2019. The author wishes to thank Dr. Marti Frank and Dr. Gigi Barsoum for their contributions to the research presented herein. Please address comments and questions to mpost@clarku.edu.

OVERVIEW

In the last decade, grassroots organizations have adopted the 501(c)(4) structure as an effective mechanism for engaging directly in politics. Within their IRS-designated social welfare mission and unlike 501(c)(3) counterparts, 501(c)(4)s can participate in unlimited advocacy and lobbying. They can endorse candidates and issues, and advocate with and for their member constituencies. Behind the successful Fight for 15, the victory over Amazon in New York City, the 2018 passage of Amendment 4 in Florida, and the decades-long tenacious battles for comprehensive immigration reform are sophisticated infrastructures that combine the rigor of community organizing with the incisive strategies of electoral campaigns. High functioning 501(c)(4) organizations with powerful leaders in executive positions have been crucial to the robustness of these infrastructures. 

Political effectiveness is a core element of the high functioning 501(c)(4) groups that underlie these types of campaigns. This phrase is used commonly to celebrate well-established and well-known community based organizations with high profile victories. However, it is rarely clear how organizations earn such laudatory reputations beyond anecdotes of great wins at the ballot box or lore about conflict-ridden accountability sessions with a local county commissioner or mayor. What assumptions, values, and practices underlie an organization’s reputation as powerful? To what extent are these features actually leading an organization to be more effective in the political arena, and in what ways does the 501(c)(4) designation facilitate such effectiveness? How does the organization’s leadership make way for its success and reputation? 

Findings from case study research help to answer these questions. Capacity Building in 501(C)(4) Organizations investigated how grassroots 501(c)(4) organizations build and sustain capacity through issue and candidate campaigns. We used case study methods to document capacity development in three organizations that received funding from a national funder between 2016 and 2018. The project explored how capacities were built, the extent to which structured campaigns supported this development, and the conditions under which capacities can be maintained over time. The findings indicate what factors supported capacity building, how they may be replicated in other contexts, and the ways in which they can facilitate an organization’s power. 

POLITICALLY EFFECTIVE ORGANIZATIONS

From our initial interviews, we determined that there are five features of high capacity grassroots 501(c)(4) organizations:

  1. Effectiveness at winning electoral and ballot campaigns

  2. Ability to build and maintain an engaged constituency

  3. Political credibility and reputation with allies, public officials, and opponents

  4. Ability to influence legislative outcomes by making claims, wielding power, winning elections and policy change, and holding public officials accountable

  5. Organizational designs and infrastructures that can ensure long-term sustainability

Grassroots 501(c)(4) organizations are typically on a continuum of strengthening each element, but together they are critical for establishing and maintaining a strong organization. Organizations need strong internal capacities such as skilled and politically experienced organizational leadership, clear structures for staff management and support, the ability to fundraise from multiple sources, and expertise in financial and legal management. They also need to develop and strengthen capacity for externally focused work, most often connections with allied organizations, public institutions, and political elites. These capacities include coalition organizing, relationships with public decision makers, and legislative influence (See Table 1).

Many factors enable grassroots 501(c)(4) organizations to achieve their mission and implement effective program, often in combination with affiliated 501(c)(3) organizations. For groups engaged in ballot initiatives and other electoral campaigns, specific structures and processes position them to lead successful campaigns, organize new and/or traditionally marginalized constituencies, and build statewide power for long-term legislative change. Some of these attributes are commonly found in both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) civic and political organizations. However, certain factors ensure that the 501(c)(4) organization is more politically effective when these capacities are well-developed, including executive leadership that has 1) experience with issue and electoral campaigns, 2) has a track record of running successful constituent organizing and training programs, 3) manages high performing administrative systems, 4) is seen as a credible and trusted coalition member and 5) is in relationship with decision-makers and political elites.

 

FINDINGS

The research we conducted analyzed how three organizations grew their capacities from 2016 to 2018. The cases offer one picture of how grassroots organizations can develop into stronger 501(c)(4) organizations through campaigns. The analysis also considered how certain capacities contribute to an organization’s strength and the extent to which capacity growth can improve political effectiveness. From this perspective, campaigns are not an end in themselves, but a means to building more powerful and sustainable organizations. 

The first case documented Arizona’s 2016 Proposition 206 campaign to increase the minimum wage and establish provisions for paid sick time. It analyzed how the lead organization, Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), built capacity through the campaign and how it is growing into a more effective 501(c)(4) organization. The second case looked at two organizations—Organize Florida (OF) and New Florida Majority (NewFM)—and how they built capacity through individual campaigns as well as through coalitions. We began the research with the Arizona case, and identified nine organizational variables that indicate how campaigns can facilitate capacity growth. We then focused on OF and NewFM to understand how capacity can be fostered over time and through organizational relationships in a broader political context. 

Arizona’s Proposition 206 Campaign

Arizona’s 2016 Proposition 206 campaign—Minimum Wage and Paid Time Off Initiative—raised the minimum wage to $10 per hour in 2017 and incrementally thereafter, rising to $12 per hour in 2020. The new law also requires employers to provide 40 hours per year of paid sick time at businesses with 15 or more employees and 24 hours per year at smaller businesses, beginning July 1, 2017. LUCHA was central to this campaign victory and led the way in gathering signatures, organizing new constituencies of voters, and mobilizing the vote for a sweeping progressive win in the state, even amid the election of Donald Trump. 

As a result of the campaign and the tenacity of LUCHA leaders Tomas Robles and Alejandra (Alex) Gomez, LUCHA expanded its reach in Arizona and strengthened its strategic capacity for an inside-outside political program—a hallmark of highly effective 501(c)(4) organizations. The campaign enabled LUCHA and its leaders to test out and show the success of its organizing model by targeting new and low-propensity voters while building up their campaign management skills for running statewide ballot initiatives. That combination helped establish LUCHA as a go-to organization for grassroots campaigns within the state’s progressive infrastructure. This case examined how LUCHA’s capacity as a 501(c)(4) political organization was strengthened during the 2016 campaign and what the implications are for the organization’s future organizing. 

The story of Arizona’s Proposition 206 campaign is not simply the story of a significant progressive electoral victory in a conservative state. Beyond the initiative’s win, with 58 percent of the vote, there were noteworthy successes for the progressive community that resulted from Robles and Gomez’ tenacious leadership, critical investments in LUCHA’s 501(c)(4) program, an unconventional campaign structure, and a mobilization strategy with new and low-propensity voters. This is the story of a political shift in Arizona. It is the story of new progressive leadership and of catalytic action by activists, funders, and campaign experts who cultivated a new way of structuring and executing campaigns. It is also the story of electoral breakthroughs in communities not typically targeted for turnout. This example demonstrates how a small grassroots 501(c)(4) organization built up its political effectiveness through a campaign and how it generated resources and community power for broader and deeper impact. 

The Campaign

In fall 2015, national funders began conversations with members of Arizona’s 501(c)(4) donor tables, local unions, and other key leaders in Arizona’s progressive community about whether a ballot campaign for minimum wage would be a viable strategy in Arizona’s 2016 election. Extensive negotiations focused on who would lead the campaign, how it would be structured, and how to best use the necessary funding for a statewide ballot initiative during a presidential election. Ultimately, the decision was made to have experienced campaigner Bill Scheel of consulting firm, Javelina, and Tomas Robles of LUCHA manage the campaign together with an explicit agreement that Scheel would mentor Robles. Additionally, Alejandra Gomez led LUCHA.  

With leadership in place and early money from national and state donors, the campaign kicked off at the end of March 2016, when the application for the ballot initiative was filed on behalf of AZ for Fair Wages and Healthy Families. Signature-gathering began in April and was the crucial first test of the campaign structure, the donor base, and the ability of the campaign to use its base mobilization strategy and field program that would yield the results needed to put the question on the ballot. The campaign operated under a tight time frame and faced various challenges, including strategic disagreements that delayed the start of signature gathering. However, on July 7, 2016, the campaign submitted 275,000 signatures to Arizona’s secretary of state—enough to put Proposition 206 on the ballot.

Competing interests, opposing factions, and a lack of alignment about strategy between funders, unions, community-based organizations, and political elites impeded the start of the campaign and the signature gathering. This was in part caused by a lack of common agreement on aligning local and state interests with the interests of national actors. Even though there was no initial agreement about campaign structure, leadership, or strategy, the persistence of local players and their allies fueled what turned out to be a positive relationship of mutuality—especially between Scheel and Robles—and an effective campaign outcome. 

There was little opposition in the general election period, and the Proposition 206 campaign successfully implemented an effective get-out-the-vote effort with a responsive communications strategy that reinforced other campaigns in Arizona. In-state and national donors increased support as Election Day approached, including from the Arizona Education Association and the United Food and Commercial Workers, two of the most active state labor donors. LUCHA’s field program that targeted low-propensity and new voters as its key constituencies helped build momentum not only for the Proposition 206 initiative but also for other races, including the Maricopa County sheriff’s race to defeat Joe Arpaio. The program was infused with the energy, commitment, drive, and vision of the young people leading LUCHA, and both national observers and state progressive leaders interviewed for this research recognized the power of that leadership. On November 8, 2016, Proposition 206 passed with 58 percent of the vote—a sweeping progressive victory in an otherwise conservative state. As one respondent put it, “Arizonans got a raise and Donald Trump as their president.” 

In the aftermath of the election, the campaign faced a legal challenge to the new law. A coalition of business organizations filed to overturn Proposition 206 in December 2016 on the grounds that the policy would impose new costs without raising new revenue. Defeating the challenge was crucial to preserving the new policy and ensuring that both the minimum-wage increase and the paid-sick-leave provisions would be codified into law. Coalition members, state progressive leaders, and the campaign were ultimately successful in defending all the provisions of the proposition. The Maricopa County Superior Court judge rejected the business group challenge in late December. Immediately after, the Arizona Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and on March 14, 2017, the Arizona Supreme Court unanimously rejected it. The new law stands.

Since the 2016 election, LUCHA has continued its efforts to advance more effective organizing and campaign strategies, striving to increase donors, expand membership recruitment and leadership development, improve internal operations, and develop its muscle for coalition work and policy influence. The Proposition 206 Campaign indicated that greater investment in organizing was needed for LUCHA to grow into a politically effective 501(c)(4) organization. Likewise, investments in staff management, operations, and communications along with staff who integrate organizing with a policy agenda have helped to advance LUCHA’s effectiveness. Third, lessons from the campaign reveal the need to promote the leadership of locally rooted, young leaders of color. In explaining the significance of the Proposition 206 win, several allies and observers described election night as an especially poignant moment: as young leaders of color celebrated their victory on stage they revealed the new face of the progressive movement, counteracting the status quo, politics-as-usual strategies that traditionally excluded them from participation and leadership. This image, and the story of the Proposition 206 Campaign, signaled the future of progressive organizing to these observers, a future in which grassroots leadership development combined with electoral campaign strategies not only make policy gains, but also strengthen democracy.

LUCHA’s Capacity Building through Proposition 206

Our analysis of the Proposition 206 campaign found that certain characteristics facilitated LUCHA’s success and served as the foundation for its capacity development. LUCHA’s theory of change oriented the campaign around grassroots engagement and guided the approach to constituent targeting. LUCHA was (and remains) committed to not only reaching likely voters but also reaching and cultivating new and low-propensity voters in elections and beyond. LUCHA’s leaders believed that its organizing approach—and especially with the leadership of young people of color—could facilitate a win on minimum wage and have a transformative impact in Arizona. Key allies in the state shared that conviction, and they supported a campaign leadership role for Robles as well as LUCHA’s responsibility for implementing significant portions of the field program.

Robles and Gomez are young leaders of color who have been directly affected by the issues they organize around. They began organizing in the wake of Arizona SB 1070 and the Dreamers movement—issues connected to their experiences as immigrants and the experiences of their communities. They brought these experiences, connections to community, and growing organizing expertise to the campaign, yet certain political elites and funders did not value or validate such experience. Even amid a dynamic of various biases inside the campaign and within the political environment, their leadership was vital to the campaign’s success. 

The Proposition 206 campaign also built on the momentum of LUCHA’s earlier years. Prior to the campaign, LUCHA was a well-established community-based organization in the communities where it organized. The group’s national funders, partners, and in-state coalition partners recognized that position as well as LUCHA’s record on previous campaigns that in turn built legitimacy for its role in the Proposition 206 campaign. LUCHA’s work on the Fight for $15 movement laid the groundwork for its successes in 2016. Its previous organizing efforts and campaigns had demonstrated a track record as a strong local organization with the potential for broader impact. That early work also built credibility for LUCHA among some political elites, national partners and funders, and other progressive allies—relationships that were essential for supporting the organization’s role in the Proposition 206 campaign. In addition, LUCHA’s existing field-organizing strategy and skill set around direct, ongoing contact with primary constituencies were applied in the campaign and yielded results for engagement and turnout. The successes of 2016 furthered LUCHA’s reputation and solidified its position as a leading grassroots organization in Arizona. 

LUCHA and its 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) partners possessed a strategic vision of how to win minimum wage that had a clear framework for what voters would support in the campaign and the type of field program needed to target those voters. Retrospectively, respondents viewed the campaign as the right issue at the right time, and LUCHA had put forth a winning strategy. Some actors wanted to wait until 2018, which caused serious tension. However, the momentum behind other minimum-wage victories in the country, the tenacity of LUCHA’s leaders and its champions in state, and support from national funders that believed in LUCHA’s organizing approach propelled the campaign forward. 

Additionally, building a statewide ballot campaign operation was important for growing capacity at LUCHA. Having a shared strategic vision, developing the discipline needed for a statewide campaign, and making multiple strategic choices that led to victory were integral to LUCHA’s development as a 501(c)(4) organization. Unlike the traditional voter engagement activities of a 501(c)(3) organization, this process was critical to enhancing LUCHA’s 501(c)(4) political capacities. The nontraditional approach to a campaign structure that privileged local leadership yielded a powerful outcome. The approach favored local knowledge and expertise, and ultimately it was respected and leveraged to advance the campaign. Respect for Robles and Gomez’s knowledge and expertise had to be earned—especially among the state’s political elites and national funders—itself a problematic dynamic. Robles, Gomez, and other key allies in the state demonstrated tenacity in overcoming such obstacles within the progressive movement. They got a seat at the decision-making table, and garnered a legitimate voice that influenced the campaign’s strategy. They pushed to get the question on the ballot, dealt with legal issues related to the signature-gathering campaign, and advocated for a particular kind of field campaign. Their leadership broke through an entrenched political culture of who leads campaigns and controls resources. 

Another hurdle that the leaders overcame was organizing support from in-state allies and then catalyzing and mobilizing support from national funders and intermediaries. LUCHA first gained support from local allies, which positioned the group to negotiate for a lead role. LUCHA also had support for playing a prominent role in the campaign from national intermediary, the Center for Popular Democracy, and the Civic Participation Action Fund. With time, LUCHA’s ability to establish strong relationships and a positive reputation with donors grew. That growth was not solely a function of LUCHA’s organizational position but also relied on the strength of relationships among the 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) table partners and between Scheel and Robles. 

To that end, the combination of Scheel and Robles fostered the development of campaign management and fundraising skills for LUCHA. The structure of their relationship facilitated Robles’s learning and built on the best that each leader had to offer. Scheel had the opportunity to mentor and support Robles’s development of new skills, and Robles was able to demonstrate to Scheel how to use grassroots organizing as a successful campaign strategy. They each described a spirit of mutuality and openness to learning in the relationship. Observers recognized that they had well-matched personalities and skill sets for effectively working together. Hard skills were not the only important elements. Compatible personalities for working together also made a difference. One respondent said, “This worked really well” and built confidence in locally rooted talent to lead major statewide campaigns, which challenged the notion that outside consultants should run these kinds of campaigns.

Last, Gomez and Robles organized and ran a field campaign with people of color at the center. LUCHA’s relationships are rooted in constituencies of color and in low-income communities. It was not just images of people affected, but the organizers shared common identities and experiences with the voters they were trying to connect with. This turned out to be an important factor that supported LUCHA and the campaign’s success in strengthening its infrastructure and building momentum towards a campaign victory. Reflecting on the campaign, Robles commented:

“We have to be able to have people who know how to talk to our communities, who know how to organize in different parts of the state, people from the neighborhoods from which they come. The easiest way to get people engaged in our political process is to have people from their own communities talk to them. We’ve seen campaigns [that] have come in and brought in outside consultants with outsiders, people who did not live here and they would organize for 3-4 months then go back home. We wanted to ensure that the people working for Prop 206 would stay here and continue to organize towards building that statewide capacity, which is our end-goal.”

Organize Florida and New Florida Majority 

From the case of the Proposition 206 Campaign, we turned to Organize Florida (OF) and New Florida Majority (NewFM) to further understand how campaigns can create the conditions under which 501(c)(4) organizations and their leaders build new capacities, strengthen existing ones, and increase their ability to influence the policy environment. One important factor that has supported OF and NewFM’s capacity growth has been their collaboration with other progressive organizations in an intentional alliance. While coalitions are a common strategy in campaigns, organizational leaders in Florida identified the need for greater power among constituency-based organizations. OF and NewFM along with Florida’s Service Employees International Union and Flordia Rights Restoration Coalition have worked together with other community based groups to support statewide campaigns like the passage of Amendment 4 (“Rights Restoration”), a ballot initiative that restored voting rights to 1.4 million Florida residents with previous felony convictions. With a long-term vision for change, the groups have developed strategies for leveraging collective resources and strengthening their inter-organizational capacity for more powerful campaigns. The alliance is a context in which individual organizations situate their own organizing and campaigns in light of shared goals for building power in Florida.

Our exploration of OF, NewFM, and its coalition infrastructure allowed us to consider organizations in relationship with one another. It showed how internal capacity can grow from relationships within an organizational alliance, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. In that regard, the Florida story is a window into how support for internal and inter-organizational capacity can lead to more collective power during campaigns, rather than depleting the resources of one or more organizations. Here too, politically experienced leadership is a critical element of organizational success. 

Organize Florida

Organize Florida is a multi-racial, multi-issue, and member-run organization. Members are dues-paying low- and moderate-income people who work for social, racial, and economic justice. Staff members are responsible for daily organizing and other activities including door-to-door recruitment and issue identification. Members lead OF’s working committees and generate campaigns that address issues of common concern such as criminal justice reform, reproductive rights, housing, the Puerto Rican diaspora, health care, and climate justice. OF strives to build a large body of active, engaged citizens who together can effect long-term progressive change. The organization aims to generate electoral and governing power: the ability to train, develop, and elect progressive leaders while also holding them accountable to a progressive policy agenda that advances economic and social justice. 

Although OF is the vehicle whereby members can engage in direct political organizing activities, OF’s 501(c)(3) sister organization, the Organize Florida Education Fund, runs an education program to train its members in civic leadership skills. Especially through its locally rooted organizing, OF has established connections with many city and county elected officials. The relationships have evolved over time and been sources for change wherein OF members and organizers bring the voices and ideas of directly impacted people into the policy-making arena. For example, OF supported the successful candidacies of State Attorney Aramis Ayala of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida (Orange and Osceola Counties) and Andrew Warren of the 13th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida (Hillsborough County) in 2016. Since that election, OF and its members have worked on criminal justice reforms in those counties given the positive relationships they established with Ayala and Warren. 

From 2016-2018, OF experienced shifts in the capacity needed for achieving its goals. Founded as Organize Now, the organization was rebranded to its current name in 2015. Around that time, OF hired its first senior vice president and managing director. OF also established senior and core leadership teams, new structures created to better manage and support OF’s ongoing organizing and campaigns. With a managing director position in place to focus on internal operations, OF’s executive director, Stephanie Porta, was able to focus more fully on external relationships with donors, relationships with peer organizations in Florida, and the organization’s strategic political direction. Those staffing shifts improved the structure of OF’s internal operations and also augmented the organization’s ability to run its campaigns and political program. 

After the 2016 election, OF then hired several new senior leaders, including a political/civic engagement director and a director to run issue campaigns. The current senior leadership team has both dispersed and shared decision-making functions. OF has moved toward establishing managers within the organizing unit—a strategic investment to support and manage the working committees. However, staffing those positions has proven difficult because few candidates have the organizing skills and political knowledge needed as well as the willingness to move to less-attractive parts of Florida1. OF also has increased its organizing team by hiring staff who focus solely on electoral organizing. That change improved the organizing infrastructure: OF is better able to staff working committees with organizers focused on specific issues. Electoral organizing staff also have greater ability to follow up with new members by folding them into the organization more easily and directing them to opportunities for training and action. Moving into the 2018 election, these elements of staff leadership capacity were essential to building a higher-functioning 501(c)(4) organizing operation.

OF engages in various electoral and issue campaign activities, including state and local candidate races and policy campaigns. OF’s municipal, county, and state campaign experience speaks to the diversity of skills and capacities the group has developed. With each campaign, OF cultivates its base of volunteers and members who engage with candidates and issues; it establishes stronger and more-effective campaign operations; and it grows its ability to manage staff and financial resources. OF also has deepened its relationships with candidates and elected officials such as county commissioners in Orange, Osceola, and Hillsborough Counties and newly elected progressives in the state legislature. OF has also been involved in statewide ballot initiatives including the 2018 campaign to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals. OF supported the signature-gathering effort to get Amendment 4 on the ballot, helping achieve an estimated one-quarter of 1 million signatures gathered by volunteers. It went on to support the successful get-out-the-vote effort for the landmark new law. 

New Florida Majority

The New Florida Majority was established in 2011 as a 501(c)(4) by organizations that felt constrained by the limits of permissible activity under the 501(c)(3) status. It was intended to become a vehicle for building power in communities of color and strives for racial and gender equity through its voter-engagement and direct-action strategies. NewFM’s primary activities are electoral organizing, legislative lobbying and advocacy, and training and education through its sister 501(c)(3) organization, the New Florida Majority Education Fund. Since its inception, NewFM has played a convening role for smaller grassroots groups—especially in Miami and Jacksonville. 

NewFM aims to cultivate and sustain independent political power outside the Democratic Party by supporting progressive issues and local candidates. To do that, the organization directs resources toward (1) greater grassroots engagement; (2) a progressive legislative strategy focused on climate change and hurricane relief, voting rights, and criminal justice reform; and (3) electoral strategies that include year-round voter engagement as well as candidate endorsements. For example, NewFM and its coalition partners, not the Democratic party, hosted a June 2018 gubernatorial debate with attendance by 800 people and coverage by every media market in Florida. NewFM’s mission emphasizes that its purpose is to expand and strengthen the power of constituencies that have been excluded and marginalized by the political process. With the arrival of Andrea Mercado, NewFM’s executive director, in June 2017, the organization went through a period of transition, growth, and learning.  Like OF, NewFM expanded its senior leadership team, hired a political director, and increased staffing in communications and administration. 

Early in Mercado’s leadership, the organization ran two electoral campaigns that provided an important opportunity for organizational learning. The campaign for Annette Taddeo in Senate District 40 resulted in the election of the first progressive Latina elected to the Florida Senate (September 2017). With the unexpected challenge of Hurricane Irma just as early voting began, NewFM was able to turn its electoral canvassing into an opportunity to check in on neighbors after the storm, provide community barbecues, and disseminate information about the special election. NewFM also was able to shore up support among African American voters. NewFM’s engagement in José Suárez’s race for city commission in Miami District 3 reached into a neighborhood historically controlled by the right. Though Suárez lost, the campaign was an occasion to promote a local progressive candidate and begin building a presence in a new neighborhood. The campaign also resulted in useful lessons for Mercado and the NewFM leadership team. They understood better the types of capacities and processes that were in place for executing campaigns and where there were gaps that needed to be filled for more-effective action. These campaigns early in Mercado’s tenure showed the new executive leadership team exactly where the organization was weak. Mercado explains, 

“Those were really key races for me to deeply understand where our organization was at developmentally, our processes, the gaps, the shortcomings, where we need to shore up and what we're strong at. For me, I think those two races were really key in preparing me, but also the new leadership team of the organization to be a force in the midterm and in 2020.”

In addition to campaigns like the Suárez and Taddeo races, NewFM has a portfolio of issue-advocacy and organizing projects. For example, a team of organizers focuses on climate justice issues—especially in low-income communities of color that have been most directly impacted by hurricanes and other effects of climate change. The work has been a means of organizing members around issues of preparedness and resilience, including extending the enrollment period for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and securing funds for hurricane relief. NewFM also is active in voting rights issues, including the parameters of early voting and resisting legislative efforts to restrict people’s rights to receive voting assistance. As with OF, NewFM joined the effort to gather signatures and turn out the vote for Amendment 4. Mercado also served on the initiative’s steering committee. 

Strategic Collaborations 

OF and NewFM are members of an alliance that brings together Florida’s community-organizing and electoral resources in a more strategic and collaborative way than had existed previously. This was the result of an intentional process of relationship building, shared visioning, and coordination. It emerged from a mutual interest among organizational leaders who historically had attempted to work together to realize electoral gains in Florida but whose organizations did not have a record of getting along or sharing resources for campaigns. Organizational clashes, competition, and a legacy of personal hurts led the leaders to want to figure out a better path forward. 

Working with an outside facilitator, they coalesced around a theory of power and collective action rooted in their individual organizing strategies and constituencies. They develop a common vision for Florida’s future, and from that process, identified priorities to advance that are winnable and also can move the needle toward statewide change in the next ten to fifteen years. Respondents spoke about the importance of trust building and vision clarity. They emphasized that, with hard-earned trust, the partners have a hopeful, bold vision for something that is bigger than each of their individual organizations alone. Their work is stronger with that trust and vision, and with a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities. 

In the 2016 election cycle the groups worked on more than 60 down-ballot races, giving them an opportunity to develop collective muscle on how to make decisions and run campaigns together. During the 2018 cycle, the organizations again engaged in shared electoral work, including support for Amendment 4, the statewide ballot initiative that restored voting rights to Florida residents with previous felony convictions, provided they have served their sentences and were not convicted of murder or a sex offense. OF and NewFM supported a significant portion of the campaign’s field program, participated in the steering committee, and supported fund-raising. Amendment 4 passed with 64 percent of the popular vote in November 2018 and is expected to substantially alter the politics of the state.

Capacity shifts in OF and NewFM

During the time period of this project, OF and NewFM built up their 501(c)(4) capacities through local and state campaigns, issue organizing and policy advocacy, and organizational shifts in their leadership and management. Their participation in coalitions with other like-minded organizations complemented that internal development: As OF and NewFM experienced internal changes they also grew new inter-organizational capacity through strategic collaborations. These shifts were supported by core elements of their organizational design. OF and NewFM have theories of change that center on leadership development and power building. The groups focus on organizing year-round and mobilizing constituencies of people who are most directly affected by the issues they fight for. OF’s door-to-door organizing approach and its use of a “leadership-ladder” underlie all of its programming and campaigns. Similarly, NewFM views voter engagement beyond election cycles as its key power-building mechanism, targeting not just statewide races but also local races connected to people in the neighborhoods where the organization has a strong presence. OF and NewFM have diverse issue expertise and variation in geographic focus. Those features are supported by momentum and experience from previous local campaigns as well as their organizational reputations for rootedness in low-income communities and communities of color. Moreover, experience, political sophistication, and community ties are hallmarks of OF and NewFM’s executive directors—women who have garnered credibility and respect from peers. 

Organizational Leadership

OF and NewFM saw significant shifts in organizational leadership between 2016 and 20182. Both organizations saw staff expansions that influenced growth in other areas including fundraising, campaign management, and the ability to influence local decision makers. At NewFM, the transition to a new executive director was an opportunity to recalibrate the organization’s priorities, and discern its role, scope, and approach. Mercado is focused on developing a consistent funding base for the organization and a more intentional approach for member recruitment and leadership development that supports building power. Mercado also expanded the leadership team—a shift that has added strategic capabilities to the organization. For example, creating a political director position was intended to focus more sharply on an inside political strategy accompanied by more-consistent, year-round engagement of constituents in local and state politics. In addition, early campaign experiences like the Taddeo and Suárez races showed the new executive leadership team exactly where the organization was weak. 

OF’s changes within the executive team centered on hiring new staff who could share the burden of executive functions, including hiring three people in director-level positions. Those positions are filled by staff who bring political know-how, campaign and management expertise, and the ability to strategize in partnership with the executive director. One senior team member explained, “When I first got to Organize Florida, one person was holding far too much of the decision making, and not only was that stressful and unsustainable for that person’s mental health; it was [also] stressful and unsustainable for the organization.” Like NewFM, the expansion of executive leadership was beneficial to OF’s capacity for running effective campaigns in 2018, and it freed up time and space for Porta to focus on broader organizational strategy issues, coalition work, and fund-raising. Even though the infusion of staff resources at the director level added many assets to the organization, OF still struggles to recruit midlevel managers who can advance constituency building and campaign effectiveness by providing an additional layer of oversight, management, and strategic thinking at the field level. 

Fundraising and internal operations

Since 2016, both OF and New FM experienced improvements in fundraising that have had important benefits for the organizations’ capacity to accomplish goals. Donors and staff alike are drawn to organizations they perceive are well-run and have a reputation for stability. Efficient and well-managed human resources, finances, and other operations functions (like legal compliance) are critical to sustaining 501(c)(4) organizations. Across the interviews, respondents described how financial uncertainty impacts an organization’s ability to recruit and retain high quality staff, to develop internal structures that support campaigns and activities, and to expand their programs. As organizations experience the uncertainty and constraints of variable funding, the ability to maintain connections and momentum in base communities is strained as staff come and go. When funder interests drive activities, it can have a destabilizing effect on organizations. They regularly experience the boom and bust cycles of campaign funding from state and national donors. This can be hard on staff morale, especially when organizations have to end programs or lay off organizers. Moné Holder, Policy Director at NewFM, commented, 

“We may not be able to keep all of those neighborhood organizers or we may not be able to keep every single issue-based organizer [for] a particular issue that's important for this cycle because the funding's just not there, it's dried up and so we have to just make some tough decisions.” 

 

Likewise, there are significant challenges to raising sustainable funding for operations and ongoing organizing in light of donors’ preference for specific campaign outcomes, such as running a canvass in a particular neighborhood, or targeting a specific population of voters. These activities are not set up to build membership, but to produce clear and specific results that help win elections. Therefore, the ability to fundraise and generate consistent and diverse revenue streams are critical capacities needed to achieve goals and manage organizations well. As one respondent explained, the goal is to "not let the membership go by the wayside because we're in the throws of intense political campaign.” 

OF and NewFM both experienced a rise in out-of-state investments, as well as increases in donors’ willingness to give directly to organizations and infrastructures (sometimes at the expense of campaigns). On the growth in fundraising, Porta comments, “The difference between 2016 and 2018 funding has been dramatic. In 2016 we had four 501(c)(4) donors; in 2018 that number grew to 18, including sizable individual donations from around the country.” Mitigating the boom and bust cycle also eased because funders have demonstrated more willingness to provide longer-term grants. Mercado explained, “I'm feeling good about our budget …specifically because some national funders have come in with multi-year general operating support both on the c3 and the c4 side.” This reflects a broader shift among national foundations to coordinate funding better, and invest in long-term sustainability of organizations rather than short-term outcomes. Regarding the changes in out-of-state interest in Florida, Porta observed:

“We have funders calling us that we don't even know who they are, asking, how do I give you money? I feel like this is the golden age of organizing fundraising - it's not in-state money. I had one conversation with the guy and he wrote us $100,000 check.”

 

Even with improvements from outside funding, OF and New FM have made organizational changes to further adapt to this environment. OF has refined its budgeting process and is better able to decide which funding opportunities to take on, and which to avoid where they may expend more organizational resources than receive. New FM is re-launching a membership dues program that they hope will provide a stable funding stream into the organization. Aligning with other grassroots groups may also support a better balance for OF and New FM, as campaign funding can be directed towards the coalition versus individual organizations, and the resources and time of staff can be shared among organizations geared towards a collective goal.

Shifts in fundraising also supported improvements in staff management and operations, facilitating a more stable and adaptable organizational structure. Beyond executive level positions, they also recruited and maintained more field staff through campaigns, honed in on what they do best programmatically, and invested their own resources deeply in collaborative work with other organizations. This capacity growth from more secure financial resources also is due to a changing landscape among national funders who are paying closer attention to Florida’s politics along with a trend among donors who are beginning to favor direct investments in organizations rather than going through state tables or campaigns. Multi-year general operating support has made a difference for the organizations. 

As the ability to raise financial support has improved, both organizations also strengthened their capacity for internal operations and managing staff. Hiring executive staff members improved staff management and supported expansion at the field level. For example, in OF the staff management responsibilities are now diffused, versus only falling to the executive director’s portfolio. While there have been improvements, respondents from both organizations described the gaps and challenges of finding consistent support for human resources management and more advanced systems for budget and finance, communications, and legal compliance.

Alliances

OF and NewFM’s inter-organizational capacity development has been a dynamic process in which local campaigns necessitated that the organizations expand base building and voter engagement strategies, hone leadership development practices, support and grow staff teams in new ways, and mobilize organizational power for influence. The evolution of OF and NewFM’s collaborations and their ambitious collective agenda also facilitated capacity development within the organizations. The leaders deepened their capacity for coalition work with peer organizations. They made critical contributions to shared successes, and as a result strengthened their positioning as leading community organizations in the state. The shared purpose, the growing trust and mutually beneficial relationships, and the implementation of joint actions have reoriented Florida’s progressive infrastructure to be stronger and more effective. In particular, the organizations’ power is rooted in communities that have traditionally been on the margins of politics and policy change in the state. 

OF and NewFM, together with their partners, face the future asking, “What will it take to build power and change Florida?” Both organizations demonstrate growth in establishing an organizational design that is oriented more toward sustainability now. Sufficient and skilled leadership in core functions are vital parts of that design. The 2018 elections demonstrated the potential and critical role of grassroots, community-based organizations working together across differences. As Amendment 4 takes effect and with the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, the new capacities and the recognition of the power of community-based organizations will be further tested and challenged.

IMPLICATIONS: LESSONS LEARNED FOR THE FIELD

Our research showed that certain conditions have facilitated successes for LUCHA, Organize Florida, and New Florida Majority. Though these conditions may be unique to each organization, they supported and fostered capacity development, campaign success, and ultimately political effectiveness. The combination of inter-organizational development, intra-organizational capacity growth, and campaign success indicate important lessons for practitioners. In particular, we found that organizational leadership is a core capacity that facilitates effectiveness through and beyond campaigns. While organizational leadership is not the only capacity that yields success, the lessons we learned suggest that who leads an organization and how they approach both strategic decisions and internal operations is a critical dimension of building and sustaining high functioning 501(c)(4)s. The stories of these organizations and their leaders provide insights for practitioners about the c4-specific methods that yield campaign victories and demonstrate political effectiveness. They also challenge the field to think differently about what is needed for political change in the 21st century. 

The framework of high-capacity 501(c)(4) organizations as developed in this study serves as a starting point for practitioners to assess political effectiveness and look for opportunities to strengthen organizational leadership in service of a stronger c4 structure. It is common for grassroots organizations and their funders to lack the time and space for intentional reflection on and learning about the successes, opportunities, challenges, and failures of their initiatives and their relationships with one another. To that end, Table 2 suggests questions that explore how well an organization is achieving its intended goals and developing the capacities needed for effectiveness and sustainability. 

 

 

 

1 The problem with recruitment is twofold: (1) To attract applicants with skill levels suited to the position, relocation is necessary, which can be a significant hurdle for applicants to overcome. (2) Highly skilled candidates also require salaries much higher than OF’s current scale. In response, the organization reevaluated its salary scale to better align with the needs of this talent pool and to make relocation less onerous.

2 In addition to the expansion of organizational leadership, we found three other prominent themes: improvements in ability to fundraise and manage staff; advancement of campaign management and ability to influence legislation through inside-outside strategy; and growing influence and relationships with state decision makers and political elites.

 

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