Photo: Ann Schwede/shutterstock

Photo: Ann Schwede/shutterstock

Even before COVID-19 and a resurgent movement for racial justice, the presidential election already promised to make 2020 a tumultuous year. Liberal donors took a serious blow four years ago, when the Democratic establishment failed to deliver what many considered a sure victory. The disillusionment that followed gave rise to a constellation of edgy nonprofits, advocacy groups and donor organizing platforms on a mission to fix what went wrong for the left.

The 2016 election marked a turning point for wealthy progressives like Susan Pritzker, whose 501(c)(3) giving flows through the Libra Foundation. “What became crystal clear to me in the aftermath of 2016 was how really badly broken many of the mechanisms of our political system had become, and how many people were being left out of the process or were opting out,” she told us last year.

Pritzker is one of a number of donors behind Way to Win, a donor collaborative and umbrella LLC that epitomizes progressive funders’ post-2016 resolve to fight on all fronts: 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), PACs, you name it. The group’s overall strategy is to expand the effective electorate by engaging communities of color and other underrepresented groups in the political process. Rather than limiting its work to swing states and stereotypical swing voters, Way to Win seeks to build broad new multiracial coalitions in places like the Sun Belt.

The overall Way to Win brand makes no secret of its goal of flipping the White House and legislative seats. However, it does encompass a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) arm called the Way to Rise Fund, housed at the Amalgamated Foundation. Legally distinct from Way to Win’s (c)(4) and PAC activities, Way to Rise caters to private foundations and other (c)(3) donors seeking to fund civic engagement, such as GOTV and voter registration drives that do not support or oppose any party or candidate. 

As anti-racism protests spark new progressive momentum, Way to Rise has begun a concerted effort to fill funding gaps for vote-by-mail, voter protection and voter education in communities of color. The campaign calls on philanthropy to furnish nearly $60 million toward 70 organizations working in electoral battleground states. Though the November elections are a focus for Way to Win’s PAC and (c)(4) funds, Way to Rise’s (c)(3) approach has it looking further ahead, toward what it might look like to engage a diverse and youthful “new American majority” in the political process.

Closing the Racial Funding Gap

Way to Rise’s racial justice lens predates the ongoing national reckoning around police violence and structural racism. According to Nicole Boucher, an executive at Way to Win who serves as a senior advisor to Way to Rise, the aim has always been to fill a funding void for communities of color. “Philanthropy is grappling with its problem around race, which both in institutional and funding practices is egregious,” she said. 

Although funding for communities of color gets a lot of lip service, it has never been a high priority for philanthropy. Just look at the numbers. According to research by the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, only about 10% of U.S. grant dollars went to people of color in 2016. That marked an improvement over an 8.5% ceiling that characterized the period from 2005 through 2014, but only a small one. Despite the budgetary limitations they often face, Boucher said, “we’re seeing this incredible leadership happening on the ground from Black, Latinx and Indigenous folks.” 

Directing resources away from national campaigns and toward grassroots engagement was already part of Way to Rise’s focus. The events of 2020 have highlighted the need to double down. “The protests are a clarion call, a five-alarm fire for this country to turn its attention to making sure democracy works for everybody,” Boucher said.

Earlier this year, Way to Rise identified roughly $26 million in unfilled funding needs among 70 organizations working to drive civic engagement in communities of color. The need has grown to an estimated $59.1 million as the pandemic takes activities like community events and door-to-door canvassing off the table. 

Way to Rise sees COVID-19 as yet another structural challenge that affects communities of color more than most. Still, there’s space to examine what’s been working. Despite unprecedented barriers to the franchise, recent state primary contests saw people flock to the polls in large numbers, braving the crowds and maintaining social distance where possible. Turnout is trending up, and philanthropy-backed efforts are underway to virus-proof the vote. But there’s a lot of uncertainty around how well those strategies will work, and for whom. 

In addition to addressing racial disparities and the effects of COVID-19 on voter engagement, Way to Rise’s fundraising effort seeks to overcome a “boom and bust” cycle in civic engagement philanthropy where funding tends to mirror the election calendar. Like other nonprofit programming, voter engagement and voter protection campaigns benefit from steady and reliable support that won’t dry up when the national spotlight moves elsewhere.

Way to Rise’s strategic priorities include voter protection and education—specifically around access to vote-by-mail—as well as narrative change work and efforts to ensure that elected officials and civic sector leaders can advocate for underrepresented communities as they govern. Just a few of the organizations Way to Rise supports include regional voter protection and education groups like Blueprint North Carolina and the Texas Civil Rights Project, digital organizing venues like Reframe and Kairos, and racial justice groups like Color of Change and United We Dream.

Progressive Networking

Those familiar with progressive grantmaking won’t find Way to Rise’s philanthropic partners too surprising. They include big names like Ford and Open Society as well as more modest left-leaning grantmakers like the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Akonadi Foundation and the Weissberg Foundation. Susan and Nicholas Pritzker’s Libra Foundation also backs Way to Rise, as does the Amalgamated Foundation

Since 2018, Way to Rise has worked with its funding partners to move nearly $5 million to state-based groups. This year, it also launched a Latinx Justice Fund in partnership with Ford and Nathan Cummings. The fund’s mission is to support narrative change in Latinx communities via a range of content creation and storytelling. 

On top of their institutional funders, Way to Win and Way to Rise enjoy the support of a network of individual donors, many of whom split their personal giving between (c)(3) funding and political donations. That ecosystem of deep-pocketed progressives overlaps with like-minded donor networks, including the Women Donors Network, the Donors of Color Network and Solidaire. For instance, donor and political activist Leah Hunt-Hendrix co-founded both Solidaire and Way to Win itself. 

Many of those donors, Hunt-Hendrix included, have also been active with the Democracy Alliance, a major hub for progressive donor organizing and coordination since 2004. The Democracy Alliance has recently plotted a course similar to Way to Win, focusing on get-out-the-vote efforts in contestable states and recommending that its members back groups supporting a “new American majority” centered on youth and communities of color. 

According to Boucher, Way to Win and Way to Rise prioritize power-building at speed. “Philanthropy can move as slow as molasses,” she said. “Donor organizing networks that are nimble and responsive can meet the need right now.” 

Political Proximity

In this case, greater speed comes at the cost of an apolitical reputation. Newer (c)(3) platforms like Way to Rise must follow certain rules while operating legally as charities, but it’s clear where they stand politically, in this case, due to its connection with Way to Win. That distinguishes such outfits from the older cohort of liberal philanthropies, whose studied distance from politics has been as much a function of philanthropic culture as it is of legal requirement. Clearly left-leaning and social-justice-focused philanthropic institutions often strive to appear “above the fray” or entirely apolitical.

But moving closer to politics may serve progressive donors and funders well. Liberal foundations’ reluctance to appear too political has arguably set their interests back, opening the door for wins by conservative funders with smaller endowments but less restraint about leveraging their wealth. Networks like the Democracy Alliance and newer hubs like Way to Win are, in part, responses to conservatives’ success. 

Way to Rise’s multi-channel model—coordinating a fund that supports charitable activity alongside others that back explicitly electoral work—is yet more evidence that a long-term shift is underway to a future of more politicized giving. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter of interpretation. But if recent trends are any indication, we may end up seeing donors toe the political line more often, finding it ethical as well as expedient to take a tax write-off for (c)(3) donations that support the political interests they favor, if indirectly.

Some may find that shift objectionable, but there’s nothing unlawful about Way to Rise’s politics-adjacent donations (they are far more transparent than other avenues of political influence). GOTV and voter registration drives have long been a permissible staple of (c)(3) work, so long as they follow the rules and steer clear of partisan politics. Generally, philanthropy tends to underestimate the leeway it enjoys under the law. In a recent article, Inside Philanthropy’s Michael Kavate discussed the many paths open to (c)(3) funders interested in advocacy, including removing grant restrictions on lobbying (which aren’t mandated by law) and extending general and capacity-building support to grantees.

From Voting to Governance

At Way to Rise, the notion of capacity support for advocates extends beyond the typical definition. Boucher referred to a “co-governance” model as the organization’s North Star, in which community-based nonprofits maintain a seat at the table once elected officials enter office. The idea is to build community groups’ capacity to shift power by empowering them to counsel elected officials and actively affect local government. 

While that might seem like a less likely prospect than simple (c)(3) voter engagement, there is precedent. Take the “innovation teams” Bloomberg Philanthropies has embedded in city governments across the country, or partnerships between philanthropy and local government to cover excess costs or pilot experimental programs. Or, indeed, the conservative state policymaking apparatus active through ALEC and the philanthropy-backed State Policy Network. 

It’ll be interesting to see how this notion of co-governance will fare in the age of COVID-19. The pandemic has already eviscerated state and local budgets and trained the public eye on governors, mayors and other local officials. Philanthropy’s role in state and local policymaking may evolve quickly and is sure to spark controversy. But for progressive collaboratives like Way to Rise, governance is a natural complement to voter engagement. “Never before in this country has there been a moment when I’ve seen the importance of governance so clearly,” Boucher said. “This is a moment for philanthropy to pay attention.”

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