Sending Up the Bat Signal
Dear Colleagues in Philanthropy:
I’m sending up the Bat Signal. The bad news: We have a five-alarm fire going into 2024. The good news: We can still protect democracy and catalyze unprecedented turnout.
I’m worried about two things:
- Our democracy is facing an existential crisis, and at the same time large numbers of voters report feeling unmotivated and civically disengaged.
- Funding for local voter engagement groups is down across the board. Over the past five years, funders gave like our lives depended on it. This hasn’t happened yet in 2023. As a result, many groups are struggling, and it’s getting worse.
This is an open letter to the philanthropic community to address this funding drought in advance of 2024, before it becomes a Canada-sized wildfire that burns down our civic organizing infrastructure.
The good news: There is a giant glimmer of hope. Read on.
Executive Director, Movement Voter Fund (MVF)
The Funding Drought
Recently I spoke with an executive director from a well-respected organization. The organization, which has an excellent track record of voter engagement and mobilization, hit an unexpected funding shortfall and would have to lay off its entire staff in the coming month unless they raised over a hundred thousand dollars.
I’ve gotten more than a dozen calls recently from leaders describing desperate situations: painful layoffs, program cuts, and Executive Directors going without pay or burning out.
2022 saw an historic drop in US charitable giving (10.5% after inflation), which appears to be continuing in 2023, especially for grassroots organizations working to engage voters in marginalized communities.
This is happening across grassroots movements for democracy, justice, and sustainability — even for established groups working on hot-button issues like LGBTQ and reproductive rights.
The funding shortfall of 2023 in the local democracy and organizing sector is the equivalent of an extended nationwide drought. If we don’t get rain soon, we could have a massive wildfire burn through the sector over the next few months, leaving us dangerously weakened going into 2024.
How much money would stem this drought? $100-300 million, deployed strategically to grassroots voter engagement groups for the remainder of 2023, would go a long way.
Yes, that’s a lot of money. But every year, Americans donate $500 billion to charity. Less than 1% of that goes to voter engagement and related areas. If funders shifted 1% of their charitable donations to encourage greater voter participation and protect our democracy, the field would have $5 billion a year and our democracy would have a fighting chance.
The. Money. Is. There.
The Bat Signal doesn’t mean hope is lost. It means help is needed. I know we’re up for this challenge, because we’ve accomplished so much together already.
We Have Already Won SO Much
2016-2020: Unprecedented Turnout & Policy Results
The 2016 election was a wakeup call like no other. In Virginia’s 2017 elections, turnout among voters of color increased while youth turnout doubled relative to 2009, thanks in part to years of organizing by grassroots groups like New Virginia Majority Education Fund.
In 2018, voters of color turned out at historic levels and youth turnout more than doubled from 2014, thanks in part to tireless organizing around the country by groups like Forward Montana Foundation, Make the Road Nevada, and Arizona’s Poder in Action.
In 2020, youth turnout increased 11% over 2016, while voters of color had the highest increases in turnout, resulting in the most racially diverse electorate ever. A larger share of 2020 voters identified as LGBTQ than in any past election.
At least some of this historic turnout among marginalized communities can be attributed to years of grassroots voter engagement and power-building by groups such as Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) in Wisconsin, Detroit Action Education Fund in Michigan, and 1Hood in Pennsylvania.
Then, in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoffs in January 2021, voters of color cemented their status as a force to be reckoned with, thanks to a culmination of over a decade of voter registration and engagement by civic organizations like New Georgia Project and Asian American Advocacy Fund. And voters elected the most gender and racially diverse Congress in US history.
In 2022, voters broke records by once again electing the most diverse U.S. Congress ever. And at the state and local levels, organizers have achieved victories that seemed out of reach a few years ago, from clean energy to voting rights, direct democracy, abortion rights, gun safety, paid leave, and more.
Organizers: The “Essential Workers” of Democracy
These legislative victories wouldn’t have been won without 1,000+ local, largely unsung, local community organizations – and the donors who support them.
These organizations are the “essential workers” and “first responders” of our democracy: Day after day, local organizers fight injustice, heal the wounds of our communities, and patiently plant the seeds and till the soil of voter turnout.
We often think of grassroots groups as small. Yet their impact is enormous — larger than any national group and, in many ways, the major political parties.
Movement Voter Fund’s more than 500 grassroots partners collectively train, develop, and deploy tens of thousands of local voter organizers who engage tens of millions of voters – with a focus on the most disenfranchised voters: young people, voters of color, and other marginalized communities.
They gain major policy wins on every issue and at each level of government. They punch above their weight. Yet they rarely get the credit or funds they deserve.
The Fierce Urgency of 2024
The Backlash Against Progress
For all the advances which local community organizations have helped to make possible, we are also experiencing a period of immense backlash against progress.
Consider the following:
- 14 states have made abortion illegal since June 2022.
- State legislatures have introduced a staggering 735+ anti-LGBTQ bills so far in 2023, taking a heartbreaking toll on the mental health of queer youth.
- This summer saw a sharp increase in support for political violence — “kindling” that could catch fire in reaction to looming political indictments and unprecedented trials, threatening voting rights and fair elections in 2024.
- Last but not least: After the hottest summer on record, we’re still seeing a persistent partisan and generational divide around the climate crisis.
Obviously, this should spur us to action — like swerving back into your lane when you realize you’re on the wrong side of the road and a truck is coming at you.
We can’t afford to treat this as just another election.
If ever there was a time for the most marginalized and disenfranchised voting communities to have their voices heard, the time is now.
Voting Rights: A Key Factor in 2024 Turnout
Looking ahead to 2024, a deciding factor in how many youth, voters of color, and other marginalized voters turn out will be: who is eligible, registered, and allowed to vote.
There is a highly-organized, anti-democratic movement in this country, and they are using every trick in the book to diminish the basic voting rights so many have struggled and given their lives for.
Their tactics include:
- Aggressively purging voter rolls;
- Enacting restrictive voter laws at a near-record pace in at least 11 states;
- Gerrymandering voting districts so that the politicians “choose their voters”;
- Even defying the Supreme Court by denying fair representation to voters of color.
Local grassroots organizations are leading the charge to stop voter suppression, extend voting rights, register voters, and organize public support for transformative policy change after Election Day — but they need funding in 2023 to address urgent threats and seize opportunities to go big in 2024.
If every pro-democracy funder heeded this call, we’d cause such a surge in 2024 turnout among disenfranchised voters that it would dominate the headlines well into 2025.
Voter Enthusiasm: Issues & Messengers Matter
Of course, another key factor in voter turnout is enthusiasm.
There’s bad news and good news here.
The bad news? Right now, enthusiasm to vote in 2024 is at a troubling low, especially among youth voters and voters of color. For instance, a recent survey found enormous dissatisfaction with the political system among young voters, with half of respondents not especially motivated to cast a ballot in 2024.
The good news? Youth and local voter engagement groups are stepping up to bridge this gap — they just need the resources to scale up.
Two big reasons grassroots engagement is a winning strategy:
- Marginalized voters are motivated by issues, much more than by political candidates and parties.
- Trusted messengers succeed where ads, spam, and cold calls fail. The evidence shows that neglected voters are most likely to turn out when they hear from people they know and trust. This is why grassroots organizations are the most effective “trusted messengers” to register, educate, protect, and get out voters in their own communities.
All of this is precisely why trusted local organizations will be all-important in 2024: to fill the inspiration vacuum and give millions of sporadic, skeptical, and disaffected voters a reason to vote — especially when traditional political operations do not.
Democracy: The Ultimate “Single Issue”
There is a case to be made that democracy is the ultimate “single” issue, which we as funders can and must include in our existing program areas, as responsible fiduciary stewards of our resources.
There is no lasting, structural change that can be achieved in the United States without a vibrant democracy, whether our priorities are sustaining the environment, improving education and social services, economic fairness, protecting the rights of immigrants and religious minorities, housing, mental health, reproductive and sexual rights, or virtually any other issue.
Yes, there is absolutely an essential role for funding immediate remedies to meet immediate needs. However, at the same time, we must direct at least some of our resources toward addressing systemic problems with systemic solutions — which inadvertently includes building the voting power and political efficacy of communities most impacted by historical and structural inequities.
Seen this way, the electoral arena is one which funders do not have the luxury to ignore. We cannot afford not to protect, strengthen, and expand our democracy. This means investing earnestly in the local, community-based organizations upon which our democracy depends — and, when needed, taking a more holistic view of our philanthropic mandates, in order to do so.
The Future We Can Choose
We have come so far. This is not the time to let up.
Younger generations (Millennials, Gen Z, and the beginning of Generation Alpha!) are poised to become a majority of the electorate, and are the most diverse, well-educated, and socially and environmentally conscious cohort in history.
By the early 2030s, fossil fuels will be on their way out. Yes, climate science tells us we are late in the game — but the game’s not over.
We could be on the verge of a democracy renaissance in this country. Following nonpartisan redistricting and voting rights breakthroughs in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and New Mexico, advocates are taking the fight to severely-gerrymandered and voter-suppressed states like Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Thanks in large part to years of organizing to build power and shift the public debate, over two million formerly incarcerated people could regain the right to vote in five states alone.
Local community organizing for voting rights breakthroughs and policy change in the 2020’s won’t solve all our problems, but it would constitute an enormous leap forward. Potentially the biggest in our lifetimes.
That is our Giant Glimmer of Hope.
If you were a time-traveling activist from the future, looking for a time and place where your efforts might be most likely to make the greatest historical-level impact, the United States in the 2020’s would be an incredibly strategic time and place to park your time machine, hop out, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.
What Do We Do Now?
So where do we go from here? What do we *do* about all this?
The #1 solution to the problem of dehydrated organizations: Make it rain.
Step 1: Give Big.
The most impactful thing you can do right now is to make a bold funding plan for grassroots civic engagement. Period.
Many thoughtful donors and funders assume that other funders already have the democracy space covered. Not so! Many funders may already be locked into their program areas, and assume voter engagement is outside their lane, or don’t feel like they have the in-house capacity or expertise to fund in a new area.
The good news is that nonpartisan voter engagement is a tactic that can be funded by 501(c)3 foundations in almost any issue or geographic area: climate, reproductive rights, economic justice, you name it.
Fortunately, there is a wonderful group of democracy funders and funding intermediaries who would be happy to listen, be supportive honest brokers, and help make it easy for newer funders to contribute strategically.
Feel free to reach out to us at Movement Voter Fund to help creatively think through how to include
Come join us – the water is warm!
Step 2: Give Early.
When we recognize that every issue we care about is dependent upon an equitable, representative democracy, our next logical step must be to frontload our 2023-2024 funding for civic engagement as much as possible.
We are calling on funders to give early for the same reason financial advisors say to invest early in retirement and kids’ education: Compound interest.
When we give early, grassroots groups are able to beat the “boom and bust” funding cycle. This allows them to:
- Staff up: Retain skilled, experienced staff.
- Scale up: Recruit leaders and build an engaged, durable constituency.
- Level up: Build organizational infrastructure, from digital tools to voter data.
- Change policy: Frame the agenda, shift public opinion, and win tangible victories on key issues, thus giving voters a reason to stay involved.
As Alexis Anderson-Reed, CEO of State Voices, put it: “The earlier we begin our work, the more impactful we can be. We can plan. We can strategize. We can ensure that every dollar makes a difference.”
Local Voter Organizing: The Best “Democracy Insurance” Policy
I get why funders might balk at the idea of early, consistent funding for voter organizing. It is often literally the least glamorous item on the menu, and it’s an investment.
But here’s the thing. Local voter organizing costs money — but gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the erosion of democracy costs more.
If you knew you had a 50-50 chance of your house burning down in the near future, wouldn’t you buy the best homeowner’s insurance you could?
In essence, funding grassroots civic engagement is like buying the best “democracy insurance” policy we can afford.
Giving Plan: The 50-25-25 Strategy
Here is a simple plan of action that takes away the guesswork:
- Set your 2023-2024 giving budget to support grassroots organizing. Dig deep. Then dig deeper. Identify the stretch that is commensurate with the importance of your mission.
- By Fall 2023: Give 50% of your budget, as early as possible.
- By March 2024: Give the next 25%.
- By July 2024: Give the final 25%.
Simply giving earlier will make your money go a lot farther.
Step 3: Rally Your Network.
What if democracy-minded donors embraced our full financial power and influence by focusing our free time and energy on getting other funders we know to donate?
Put another way, which is likely to turn out more votes if you have a free hour:
- A) Calling voters you’ve never met in a state where you don’t live? Or,
- B) Dropping notes to like-minded funders who you know are able to make a donation, believe in the cause, and are connected to the messenger (you)?
Each of us is a trusted messenger to someone.
To whom are you a trusted messenger?
Why I Trust the “Trusted Messengers”
It’s tempting to write postcards to voters, join a phonebank, or even get in the car or hop on a plane to knock on doors. It’s helpful, tangible, and can be deeply fulfilling.
But whether or not you choose to get out the vote, I want to challenge all of us to help solve a bigger problem by doing something that might feel uncomfortable: Talking with fellow donors about how to deploy money to make a strategic impact. We need thousands of funders and major donors to shift their giving habits to include supporting local grassroots democracy. If we don’t have those conversations, who will?
There has never been a more urgent time
Too many philanthropists have undercut their own good intentions, by steering clear of funding work which could fundamentally shift the landscape and government budgets on every issue we care about through voting and civic engagement.
Additionally, too many of the donors and funders who see the value of this work still fail to give to grassroots voter organizing efforts until a big election is right around the corner.
But the most savvy investors know that consistent multi-year investment is the only way we can ensure that grassroots voter engagement groups can organize effectively, mobilize every last vote, build power for the long haul, and bring about the transformative policy change we seek.
With so many critical issues facing our country, and the funding drought threatening our local voter engagement infrastructure, there has never been a more urgent time to fund strategically.
This memo was authored by Billy Wimsatt and co-authored and edited by Zo Tobi; with major contributions from Laura Flynn; and with edits and feedback from Anna Grant, Andrea Catone, Lisa Beem, Mike Gast, Talya Stagg, Rachel Gordon, Rahna Epting, Anna Galland, Chloe Cockburn, Laura Livoti, Haley Bash, Betty Herschman, Jackie Kaplan-Pekins, Tom Mendelsohn, Jason Franklin, Sarah Chaisson-Warner, Javier Morillo, Carrie Cuthbert, Ulysses Lateiner, Margit Birge, Irene Yen, David Roitman, Kara Tennis, Diane Kemsley, Janet Selcer, Steve Miller, Dana Brooks, the Movement Voter Fund Team, and many other donors and friends, although Billy Wimsatt is solely responsible for the final product.