Photo: Michael Scott Milner/shutterstock
Photo: Michael Scott Milner/shutterstock

The siege and desecration of the United States Capitol by domestic attackers that dominated the news over the past several days stands in stark contrast to how the week began. Georgia’s senatorial runoff races, like the 2020 election itself, drew unprecedented numbers of voters peacefully to the polls to register their free and democratic choice. Over 4.4 million people cast ballots, more than doubling the turnout from Georgia’s Senate runoff in 2008, a previous record.

The Georgia results were also great news for the Democratic Party, whose twin victories put it on course to push through a bolder agenda in Washington D.C. once Biden’s in charge. And to an even greater degree than last November, it was strategic organizing by people of color—Black activists in particular—that made the Democrats’ Georgia success possible.

At the same time, the runoffs also played host to a glut of political spending. All told, candidates, PACs and other outside groups dedicated a total of over $800 million to the contests—an unwelcome reality for the many Georgians subjected to a barrage of campaign ads, texts and calls in the lead-up to January 5. Amid such a torrent of political money, it’s usually hard to spot the influence of philanthropy, operating in the background to support lower-key civic engagement, voter education and the like.

But philanthropy did in fact play a role in the Georgia results, simply because of how crucial things like civic engagement and voter education proved to be in the organizing context. Some of the most consequential organizing efforts in the state, like Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project, benefited early on from philanthropic money, which helped them build up their infrastructure year upon year. Just as we saw more clearly last summer with the Movement for Black Lives, patient support for BIPOC-led movement organizations is beginning to yield dividends for progressives as political norms change and diverse liberal voting blocs evolve in former conservative bastions.

A relatively small number of foundations helped build key 501(c)(3) civic engagement organizations that drove record turnout in the Georgia runoffs. Here are a few of the main players.

Ford Foundation

Ford’s pretty much always on these lists, isn’t it? In 2020, the resolute movement funder awarded the New Georgia Project a $500,000 BUILD grant, along with another $75,000. Founded by Stacey Abrams, who has emerged from the runoffs with the reputation of a powerhouse fundraiser and strategist, the New Georgia Project has been pursuing its mission to register voters and offset voter suppression since 2014. In addition to the New Georgia Project, Ford has heavily backed ProGeorgia State Table Inc. over the past few years. In 2020 alone, grants totaling $3.6 million went out from Ford to ProGeorgia, which is a member of the civic engagement-focused State Voices Network. State Voices is made up of nonpartisan “tables” of local grassroots democracy organizations, which then coordinate with each other.

In addition to the New Georgia Project and ProGeorgia, the Ford Foundation has backed Mijente, a national Latino-focused civic engagement effort with an imprint in Georgia, as well as Southerners on New Ground (SONG), a movement organization that engages at the intersection of LGBTQ activism, racial justice and a variety of other progressive priorities.

NEO Philanthropy

This stalwart progressive funding intermediary has played a key role in the incubation and growth of Georgia’s now-robust democracy movement. Through both its immigration-oriented Four Freedoms Fund and, especially, its State Infrastructure Fund, NEO and its donors helped lay the groundwork. The New Georgia Project itself was fiscally sponsored by NEO at one point, and in 2018, the organization received over $1.4 million from NEO’s war-chest.

NEO has also given quite a bit to ProGeorgia over the years, as well as to the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR). The latter spent the run-up to the 2021 contests working with allied groups like Mijente—also a NEO grantee—to help get Georgia’s Latinx population to the polls. According to GLAHR executive director Adelina Nicholls, the two organizations attempted to contact over 760,000 voters and knocked on almost 280,000 doors over the past seven weeks.

Foundation for a Just Society

Not to be confused with George Soros’ Foundation to Promote Open Society, this is the giving vehicle of Audrey Cappell, daughter of hedge fund billionaire James Simons. In Georgia, FJS has pursued a similar funding strategy to Ford and NEO, backing places like ProGeorgia, Southerners on New Ground and GLAHR. Owing to its emphasis on gender and LGBTQ justice, FJS also backs the work of other progressive organizations operating in Georgia, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Racial Justice Action Center. FJS is also a committed reproductive justice funder in the state.

Rockefeller Brothers Fund

Around the middle of 2020, RBF committed to a payout increase of $48 million over five years, in an effort to seize what its president Stephen Heintz called “a hinge moment in history.” The foundation has earmarked a portion of those funds to grow its U.S. democracy practice, which began in 2002 and has since evolved to embrace a movement lens that acknowledges liberal democracy’s interdependence with racial justice and economic inclusion. RBF’s grantmaking for democracy in Georgia is quite new—$200,000 for the New Georgia Project in 2018 and another $600,000 in 2020—but it reflects rising levels of interest in BIPOC-led organizing for democracy among longtime funders. Those strategies’ success in bringing voters to the polls at a critical time will likely spur on that trend.

Smaller Donors and DAFs

A good amount of 501(c)(3) money has flowed into places like the New Georgia Project from community funders like the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, reflecting interest in the battleground state among smaller donors as well as donors moving money through DAFs. That doesn’t just apply to donors in Georgia itself—the Silicon Valley Community Foundation is another notable source of these donations. Just as with political spending, givers from outside the state didn’t hold back with control of the Senate in the balance.

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All of these out-of-state funders hammer home the point that while it’s all quite legal, this philanthropic spending arguably has just as much impact as the downpour of actual political spending that just drenched Georgia. Episodes like this spotlight the porousness of IRS rules, which expressly forbid private foundations and other 501(c)(3) organizations from supporting direct electoral work. At the same time, what’s a donor supposed to do? It makes sense to take advantage of every funding lever available in the quest for policy impact, a lesson progressive donors have taken to heart since 2016. The result, we’ve seen now, is tangible political victories, as well as the more philanthropically appropriate accomplishments of heightened turnout and fairer access to the franchise.

This incomplete overview of 501(c)(3) funders hasn’t even gotten into crucial non-c3 organizing shops in Georgia like Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams’ other major organization, or Black Voters Matter, a major multi-state turnout engine founded by LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright. Or, for that matter, has it addressed groups like the Asian American Advocacy Fund, a 501(c)(4) that drove participation among what many consider to be Georgia’s fastest-growing demographic group.

Progressive philanthropy may not claim any direct credit for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff’s wins, but the basic lesson here is that state-level organizing works, and that it’s not just strategic mastery on the part of figures like Stacey Abrams that changes the political map. Rather, it’s the patient application of money and collective human effort. That effort will remain vital in Georgia going forward, seeing as work is already underway to re-suppress the vote.

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