Toward Building Long-Term, Sustainable Grassroots Political Infrastructure
The problem: The need for a new generation of organizations that can reinvigorate civil society in our country is more urgent than ever. Yet, at the same time that the stakes for our democracy have sharply increased, some of the key institutions that have created space for democratic participation in the past are in decline. The labor movement, under sustained attack by the right, is less able to serve as a vehicle for working people to express their views and organize collectively to exercise power in the economy and in political life. Likewise, there is no longer public consensus that the government has an important role to play in promoting social welfare and shared prosperity. Absent this, there are few institutions remaining that alone can counteract the power of concentrated wealth and privilege.
At the same time that large-scale democratic institutions are in decline, there is an abundance of social innovation taking place among base-led state and local organizations that are working to promote social justice and raise the voices of racially and economically marginalized communities. Locally rooted, often people-of-color-led civic engagement and worker organizations are devising new models for claiming power and rebuilding mechanisms for popular participation. However, they face urgent questions about how they can obtain the level of resources needed to both function sustainably and to bring their efforts to scale.
In this context, the philanthropic sector must play a critical role in supporting new models of resource generation among grassroots organizations. Foundations have long been in conversation with their grantees about how these groups could continue their work after a given grant cycle has ended. In recent years, some important progress has been made in providing groups with technical assistance to develop major donor programs or experiment with online giving.
Yet, in spite of this, there has not been adequate attention devoted to creating a coordinated, field-level strategy for developing and promoting those models that might exist for creating new, sustainable, and unrestricted revenue streams. In particular, there is now a need for grantees, partner groups, and other funders to devise best practices and highlight the most promising learnings from efforts to expand the pool of overall resources available to the social justice sector, given the demands of the current political moment.
Over the past several years, funders including Solidago, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, have funded individual organizations’ experiments, as well as new intermediaries tasked with working with groups in the field on the issue of alternative resource generation. However, the spaces where these investments are shared with other funders and the field have been limited to specific sectors—for example, Workers Lab for low-wage workers or New Media Ventures for media and technology projects. We have learned that there is no central place that currently exists for the sharing and harvesting of the lessons being discovered. Moreover, we are discovering that there is a plethora of questions about the topic that remain to be explored and answered. In short, we lack a concerted and coordinated effort to turn the knowledge being gained into an acknowledged field of practice and study, as well as a strategy to advance this field to address yet-unanswered questions.
Our shared experience to date has led to us to believe that there are several key coordinating and financial elements needed to move this work forward and bring it to scale. These include:
- Coordination of foundations’ efforts in this area across sectors and issues;
- Developing a learning community of funders, donors, and investors with vast experience from other sectors;
- Discerning the full range of possible independent resource generation models and solidifying a typology for understanding their relationships to one another;
- Creating strategies and understanding of how financial and philanthropic capital can best be deployed to support independent resource generation projects at various stages in their development;
- Matching or development of technical assistance (TA) providers for the right project and stage of development.
As Cristina Tzintzún noted in a 2016 Ford Foundation report, capital investment in the field is uneven and poorly structured. While she found that a common challenge across the field was lack of sufficient start-up capital, we believe other major problems relate to:
a lack of coordinated experimentation in the social justice field and the need for a more robust pipeline of projects in development;
the need for greater knowledge and capacities within organizing and civic engagement groups seeking to launch resource-generation initiatives; and
a strategy that can direct the right financial support and technical assistance for the specific projects at the right stage in their development.
This coordinated strategy requires bringing together the different funders and organizations currently supporting this work across sectors, as well as technical providers and intermediaries. It must also entail an organizing effort both in the social justice field and within philanthropy to raise the importance of this work for building independent power.
The Solidago Foundation Independent Resource Generation Hub (IRG Hub)’s goal is to help strengthen place-based, sectoral, and national social justice infrastructure that is building independent community and worker power. The IRG Hub is premised on the idea of bringing together key players in this field to co-create strategy and jointly undertake a series of initial actions. The players we are engaging include the core funders who have worked on this issue for the past several years: the Ford Foundation, OSF, Amalgamated Foundation, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. We are also engaging independent political-based and organizing groups, national networks, and technical assistance providers/intermediaries that are all experimenting, in one way or another, with independent resource generation. These include:
The IRG Hub will work from an understanding of the universe of possible revenue sources available to organizing and social justice groups. Leaders of these organizations must generally turn to one of four main sources for resources:
Member-based funding: This includes revenue generated through direct contributions from those individuals that an organization serves. For labor unions, this includes dues mandated in a contract and deducted automatically from workers’ paychecks. For non-profit organizations, it can include voluntary monthly dues payments or contributions collected through a canvas. It also includes direct mail, e-mail, and Internet solicitation. Larger contributions may be collected through special events or major donor programs.
Philanthropy and Foundations: This primarily involves grants from foundations or partner organizations (such as unions that are supporting workers’ centers). It also includes corporate sponsorships and non-monetary resources such as no-cost or subsidized technical assistance. Relevant to this area, social justice organizations have also explored the creation of c4 organizations, with the prospect of securing political/electoral resources that might be otherwise unavailable.
Government funding: Revenue obtained via program or contract funding through the local, state, or federal government, or reimbursements such as Medicaid-related payments. Market-based revenue sources: Including services provided for members at a cost, services provided for the public or other stakeholders (such as consulting services), and revenue created through advertising fees or the selling of products.
In the discussion of opportunities for independent resource generation, we are referring to a specific set of options that do not merely intensify or reshuffle old methods for raising money. IRG might include new innovations in any of the branches of the above typology. However, our focus is that IRG methods be avenues to new sources of support, expanding the pie of resources available to the sector as a whole. In particular, we are interested in market-based models (expanding the breadth and effectiveness of the approaches included under category #4 above) and non-market opportunities that offer new revenue streams, rather than merely drawing from the existing governmental tax base or established philanthropic outlays. Our aim is to highlight new revenue streams that are also unrestricted and provide the flexibility of use that groups need to build their political power.
Examples of market-based IRG that have been identified in our initial survey of the field include: field vendors and initiatives to offer consulting services relevant to nonprofit organization’s areas of expertise; certification programs; development of monetized apps relevant to an organization’s constituencies; and creation of worker co-ops producing marketable products.
Examples of non-market IRG opportunities that offer new revenue streams that we identified in our initial survey of the field include: Creation of new regulations that generate revenue through fines on violators, or exploration of new methods of online fundraising.
The desire of the IRG Hub has been to help to organize and social justice groups find revenue sources that are continuous, ongoing, sustainable and, unrestricted–in a way that foundation grants are not. An implicit focus of the group in its initial meetings has been on exploring the largely untapped potential of market-based models. However, a key task remaining for the group is to discuss and clarify whether this is the intended emphasis of the hub’s efforts, to examine the shortcomings of market-based initiatives that have been tried by nonprofits and social movement organizations in the past, and to consider what conditions now exist that might result in different outcomes today.
Anecdotally, we know that a variety of groups and intermediaries have undertaken their own explorations of independent resource generation models. Yet, beyond a general lack of space to share the learnings from these efforts, the field has lacked any rigorous experimental framework that would allow us to evaluate the concepts and practices that have been deployed.
In the interest of addressing these shortcomings, we envision the main elements of the IRG Hub to be:
- A gathering place for funders and donors/investors interested in building the political power of the social justice sector;
- A space for engaged constituencies to learn and share about IRG activities already taking place in the field;
- A means of disseminating models for resource generation that might be familiar to a small set of groups but have yet to be widely adopted;
- An initiative to formalize IRG as a field of practice and study, with methodologies for deploying trial experiments, evaluating outcomes, and discerning best practices;
- A “campaign” in philanthropy, political donor circles, and progressive investors to raise the profile and establish these efforts as an identifiable field, with the purpose of increased support and understanding to all the elements of this work;
- A group that works with the Independent Political Organizations to connect resource generation with power building that would help create a pipeline of projects;
- A resource to help funders and the field to understand the capital stacks needed for IRG and who might provide them. The Hub will work to better connect these capital providers and to support the development of new mechanisms that aim at filling a capital gap;
- A body that can help funders and field understand the different intermediaries, support coordination among them, and increase support that allows for their work to scale up.