The Problem

You’d think from conversations in progressive philanthropy that we all agree that there are two sources of power in democracies: organized people and organized money. You might also think that progressives’ commitment to realizing democracy for every American would come with the following realization: the only way for many communities of color and low-wealth communities to engage in self-governance on any semblance of an even playing field is through organizing. Unfortunately, philanthropy invests a fraction of one percent of its giving in organizing. To make matters worse, progressive organizing groups lag behind almost all other sectors in the nonprofit space in the size of their independent revenue generation programs. 

We can choose a different path. Progressive organizing groups can invest in generating independent revenue to scale their organizing budgets, and philanthropy can invest more in organizing as well as organizations’ independent revenue generation programs. 

In 2003, I was hired to build Greenpeace’s grassroots department. My ambitions far outstripped my $20,000 annual budget. I knew that philanthropy barely funded organizing; if I wanted to scale Greenpeace’s organizing work, I needed to scale my team’s independent revenue. Our first organizing program invested in student leaders and was substantially funded by the Greenpeace Semester, a tuition-based, semester-long training program. Our field organizing program was funded largely by the canvass that my team started, which raised about $25 million of unrestricted 501(c)(4) donations per year from dues-paying members. All told, we raised about one quarter of a billion dollars of unrestricted 501(c)(4) funds from my team’s programs over my tenure. This gave us independence, the (c)(4) resources to do candidate work and direct action, and a member-oriented mindset.

Most progressive local, state, and national organizations don’t have the resources to invest in such programs. They don’t have reserves to finance their proven revenue generation projects. And while philanthropy provides some general support, it is often restricted for work on a set of issues.

While many foundations and philanthropists understand the importance of organizing — Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, to name a few — philanthropy writ large has yet to embrace power building through community organizing as a key tool for change, relying instead on a theory of change that is rooted in research, analysis, and communications. According to an analysis provided for this article by the The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, grassroots organizing funding only made up about 0.1 percent of total grantmaking from 2014-2018. 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.  

There is a role for philanthropy to play, not only to fund more organizing but to provide catalytic funding to achieve the 50/50 rule: to help organizing groups achieve fifty percent of their funding from philanthropy and fifty percent from their base and businesses. To get there, philanthropy should invest five-to-ten percent of its funding in the independent revenue generation programs of mission-aligned organizations and flip its funding priorities from policy formation to power building.


So what?

Under-funding organizing makes the long arc of history towards justice much, much longer. It results in organizations that are less able to focus on community-defined needs, to sustain the capacity that is required to win long-term campaigns, and to build local power at scale.

First, under-funding organizing makes it harder for groups to focus on the needs of the communities they serve. In her book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty, Erica Kohl-Arenas shows how grassroots groups morph their work into "nonthreatening service or 'civic participation' programs in keeping with [philanthropy’s] current funding priorities," crippling progressive organizations’ ability to focus on community-defined needs that would build their base and credibility. Kohl-Arenas rightly argues that “this model…doesn’t produce permanent community-based power or the capacity needed to sustain it.”

Second, the organizing funding gap weakens the capacity needed to win long-term fights. We in philanthropy rely on organizations with organizing capacity when our strategies require that capacity. But we fail to invest in the long-term base building necessary to maintain it. We see this in the boom and bust cycles of civic engagement funding and with each strategic shift to new issues within a foundation. This kind of inconsistent investment means that, at the moment when we need power on the ground, it’s not there because progressive groups have been starved of resources. If good strategy is what you do with your resources to achieve your goal in a changing world, then we’re neglecting the very foundation of good strategy: the resources and capacity of the movement. 

Andrea Serrano, executive director of OLÉ New Mexico (one of my organization’s grantees), explains the damage election-based investment can cause to organizations on the ground: “When you're knocking on someone's door in an election cycle, they're like, 'Great, you're just here because you want my vote.' But when you're talking to someone in the middle of April, off cycle, and you're just asking that person, 'What's important to you?' that creates a different kind of relationship with our community." Serrano is prioritizing non-institutional funding efforts this year so that her team is “resourced to have these conversations daily.”  OLÉ’s membership has been fighting for permanent funding for early childhood education in New Mexico for eleven years. The state legislature recently approved a ballot measure for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee a right to education to children younger than five years old. Eleven years in the making. Thousands of door knocks. This kind of long-term work to build infrastructure and move issues requires stable funding over the long haul.

Finally, all politics is local. The dearth of funding for local organizing means we have not built the local power we need, town by town, to influence critical decisions. Ending police violence will take organizing town by town to pressure police departments, mayor’s offices, and district attorneys. On climate, there’s plenty of money for clean energy on the table from the federal government, but there are 30,000 mayors, school board members, and city and county councilors who also need to be pushed to actually switch to the clean energy, electric buses, and green buildings that the Biden Administration is championing. Lasting federal change happens when we’ve built enough power locally. To see significant policy shifts nationally, philanthropy must invest in local organizing. 


What Do We Do?

Philanthropy should do more to fund organizing capacity, full stop. But that is not the entire answer. At the Progressive Multiplier (PM), where I serve as CEO, we work to provide financial and technical support to organizations developing scalable models to fund organizing, supporting organizing groups to achieve scale, self-determination, and sustainability. This is an incredibly high-leverage approach: for every dollar we’ve granted to groups, they’ve raised $5.85. I’m privileged to have a bird’s eye view of the creativity of groups on the ground working with the PM and our allies in Accelerate Change, Worker’s Lab, New Media Ventures, and New Left Accelerator, as they tackle the challenge of building revenue generation models to fund organizing. Here are a few examples that illustrate the types of work movement leaders are doing across the progressive movement: 

  • Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA) has a vast number of students who go through its rigorous political education courses. The group is formalizing its curriculum to offer it in a traditional charter school. This will create revenue streams from the state, which pays $5,390 per enrolled student, as well as from donations to the school. The Texas After Violence Project turned its training program into continued learning education credit courses that attorneys and social workers pay to take to remain professionally accredited.

  • Citizen Action of Wisconsin pioneered a model in which each organizer spends their first three months on the job recruiting 250 monthly members, who fund the majority of that organizer’s salary. In little time, Citizen Action hired six year-round organizers and developed a committed membership. By the end of the first year, 65 percent of dues-paying members volunteered each month and 82 percent were still contributing.

  • Nobody Leaves MidHudson (NLM), a community organizing group in upstate New York, is leveraging its leaders’ organizing skills to create independent revenue to support organizing. Using the snowflake model, NLM is empowering member leaders to organize teams to directly ask their networks to donate during a membership drive. NLM is on track to raise $340,000 on a $25,000 investment from the PM. This pilot can be scaled to raise far greater sums of money and can be replicated across many organizing groups.

  • Organizing networks are also working successfully to create replicable revenue generation models that can serve as plug-and-play programs for their grassroots partners or affiliates. U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) is training its partners to encourage their activists to do peer-to-peer member recruitment. The Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) and People’s Action are leveraging their email lists to recruit supporters to become planned giving donors. With a $25,000 budget, People’s Action was able to secure $413,000 in bequest commitments. With an $8,300 budget, CPD secured over $650,000 in bequest commitments.

None of these pilots can be tested without funding, and none can scale without financing. Transforming the capacity of the movement requires a combination of technical and financial support for such pilots, shared learnings across the movement, and a sizable pooled recoverable grant fund to finance successful organizations.

As in organizing, none of this is easy. For progressive nonprofits, building scalable revenue programs requires a team leading the work that is more outcome oriented than process oriented. A team that is driven, rigorous, passionate about constant improvement, and accountable to measurable outcomes. A team that is open to experimentation, that learns to manage the risks it chooses to take so that the project can succeed. A culture that celebrates failing as long as the team executed the test well enough for real lessons to be learned.

For philanthropy, we can no longer assume that someone else will fund the groups we stop funding to maintain their capacity for the next time we need them. In order to strengthen our movements, we need to put power-building first, and that means centering the people we need with us and investing in the leaders on the ground who make our shared vision possible.


At the onset of the pandemic, organizers at Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE, a partner of Community Change) asked 2,500 people around Northern Virginia: “If you could change one thing to make life better, where would you start?” The most common answers were heartbreaking stories from families on the verge of eviction. So the organization centered its work on keeping people in their homes, asking its members to invest their time and treasure to make an immediate and significant impact on the community.

VOICE was able to make this pivot because the organization is funded primarily through membership dues and individual donations. According to senior organizer James Pearlstein, “We’re accountable back to local leaders and that makes everyone’s investment run deeper. It changes the nature of who feels ownership of the organization and its responsibility to create something better in the community.” Pearlstein credits philanthropic funding with allowing him to invest in fundraising around the housing crisis in Northern Virginia: “[It] was critical in that it gave us the ability to invest just in fundraising itself — we didn’t have to do it on the cheap like we usually do. We turned an $18K grant into $108K — that’s a 6:1 return.”

What did the $108K in revenue allow VOICE to do?  What they have done again and again with the dues they raise: hire yet another organizer.


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