A voter mobilization gathering in Georgia, one of the states targeted by the susan sandler fund. Michael Scott Milner/shutterstock
A voter mobilization gathering in Georgia, one of the states targeted by the susan sandler fund. Michael Scott Milner/shutterstock

Back in 2015, Inside Philanthropy first published a piece entitled “The Sandler Way,” detailing how banking entrepreneurs Herb and Marion Sandler deployed common-sense strategies to achieve outsized impact in their giving. When we republished the piece after Herb Sandler passed away last year, those points still stood. Finding underfunded leverage points, conducting thorough due diligence, backing great leaders, and providing long-term general support are all wise practices for funders to adopt. Sadly, though, for progressives, the liberal funding world hasn’t been quick to do so.

That may be changing in 2020, although it’s too early to say whether those changes will last. What we can say is that both general support and the underfunded leverage point of intersectional racial justice organizing have gotten a major boost this year. And since 2016, progressive funders have been scrambling to make up for lost time, building out the kind of policy and advocacy infrastructure that conservative philanthropy has bankrolled for decades.

Herb and Marion Sandler’s giving was ahead of its time in many ways. But as a precursor to the progressive funding atmosphere of 2020, it only got part of the story right. The clearest indicator of that dynamic comes from within the family.

The couple’s daughter Susan Sandler, a longtime partner in the family’s giving enterprises and a progressive political donor, is moving forward with a bold philanthropic agenda of her own, and it’s one that both parallels and diverges from the model set by her parents. In a September Medium post, Sandler outlined her theory of change and the first set of grantees chosen to receive money from the Susan Sandler Fund, a new giving vehicle housed at the Sandler Foundation.

Referencing Inside Philanthropy’s phrase from that 2015 article, Sandler pledged to carry forward “the Sandler way” while tacking in a distinctive strategic direction. Instead of attempting to sway policymakers, Sandler wants to “change the climate and environment in which decisions are made.” For the Susan Sandler Fund, that means empowering those who’ve been marginalized by systemic racism.

“We have developed a philanthropic investment strategy that is rooted in our analysis that the power relationships established by centuries of systemic racism are the greatest obstacles to creating a just and equal society,” Sandler wrote. Here’s how that strategy is taking shape, and what Sandler’s example may tell us about the shape of things to come.

No strangers to politics

Sandler begins her Medium post on a personal note: a 2016 brain cancer diagnosis and subsequent years of treatment, which convinced her of the need to speed up her philanthropy and consider her legacy. “We discussed how I could best continue the spirit of the family philanthropy and also make my own distinctive mark in the world,” she wrote.

The Susan Sandler Fund is the result of those conversations, but it’s far from Sandler’s first foray into the progressive funding arena. Along with her husband, author and political activist Steve Phillips, Sandler has been a fixture in progressive donor circles for some time, notably as a one-time board member of the Democracy Alliance. She’s also a dedicated political donor, coordinating efforts to support Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, as well as the candidacies of other high-profile Democrats like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

It’s fairly clear judging from the Susan Sandler Fund’s priorities that Phillips is a factor in Sandler’s approach. He’s one of the foremost advocates of the “new American majority” theory of progressive politics—the idea that an expanding multicultural coalition of voters will carry the cause forward by sheer demographic weight. Phillips laid those ideas out in his 2016 bestseller Brown Is the New White, and in the same year founded Democracy In Color, a political organization dedicated to empowering the new American majority. Back in 2008, his PowerPAC also helped mobilize support for Obama in his primary contest with Hillary Clinton.

Sandler and Phillips also founded the Sandler Phillips Center, which has played host to a number of interesting political projects. They include a 2016 “election autopsy,” efforts to flip Congress back to the Democrats in 2018, and an endeavor to “turn Georgia blue,” or at least establish it as a battleground state. The center is akin to a “financial advisory firm for politics,” as Phillips described it, and mostly engages in electoral research and data dives. But it’s also taking on a more traditional nonprofit role through the Fannie Lou Hamer Fellowship program. Launched in summer 2020, the initiative awards a year of training and mentorship to emerging progressive movement leaders, 18 of whom were chosen for the inaugural cohort.

“A clear path to power”

The new Susan Sandler Fund closely reflects the couple’s background and approach to progressive politics. Although it’s housed at the Sandler Foundation and draws on the family’s charitable coffers, it differs from the parent organization in its theory of change. Sandler describes the approach as focused on “power, not persuasion.” She goes on, “A lot of foundation funding is geared towards persuading people in power to change their minds, and that objective is usually pursued by supporting the development of well-researched reports, studies, and analyses… I do not subscribe to this view as the best way to bring about change.”

Rather than changing politicians’ minds by presenting them with well-ordered information, Sandler aims to “make the faces of the people with whom policymakers have to interact reflect the full racial, cultural, and economic diversity of the population that is affected by those policies. When our government, corporate, and other societal institutions are responsive to—and, frankly, fearful of—the people who most bear the brunt of inequality and injustice, then better priorities, practices, and policies follow.”

By rejecting the think tank approach, Sandler is charting a divergent course from her parents, whose philanthropy gave birth to the Center for American Progress and the Center for Responsible Lending, two heavy-hitting progressive mainstays on the Beltway. The elder Sandlers also heavily bankrolled the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and put up the funds to start ProPublica: not a bad track record. However, what Herb and Marion Sandler didn’t have was a pointed focus on countering systemic racism. To be sure, they supported that cause in a general way via a wide slate of progressive funding, but not with the level of focus Susan Sandler is bringing to bear.

The new fund’s efforts will revolve around Sun Belt states with burgeoning racial diversity—Arizona, California, Texas, Georgia, Florida and Virginia in particular. The initial slate of nine grantees includes six organizations operating in particular states as well as the State Power Caucus, a voter mobilization coalition operating across many states. The six state-focused grantees are the Arizona Center for Empowerment, New Georgia Project, New Florida Majority, New Virginia Majority, PICO California and the Texas Organizing Project. Rounding out the list are two organizations driving engagement from particular demographics: the Asian American & Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Fund, and Advance Native Political Leadership.

“In selecting our initial set of grantees, we looked for organizations that are run by people who can execute on mission,” Sandler wrote. “These leaders have a clear path to power in their state, and are rigorous in their work.”

Leading the Susan Sandler Fund itself is Vivian Chang, its executive director. Chang played a major role in creating the fund and selecting its initial grantees, working with Sandler over the course of a year to identify prospects. Previously, she served as Vice President of Community Investment & Partnerships at the East Bay Community Foundation and led the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

It should be noted that Sandler doesn’t specify an overall dollar figure for the fund. And though it has distinct grantees and priorities, the Susan Sandler Fund is for all intents and purposes still a part of the larger Sandler Foundation, not a freestanding entity. The Sandler Foundation itself will pay out the grants in an ongoing fashion.

Playing hardball

In some ways, this is just another tale of the next generation remolding a family’s philanthropy to fit the times. What makes it interesting is the family involved: staunch progressives even in the first generation, without whom keystone progressive institutions wouldn’t exist. And now, a second-generation chooses to continue funding progressive causes, but in a very different way.

Susan Sandler is only one of many individual donors leaning into bottom-up movements this year, and it really feels like what was once a sparsely funded niche has become the new hotspot for progressive philanthropy. Befitting her history of political fundraising, Sandler’s giving has migrated even closer to politics than that of her parents. The grantees she and Chang chose all operate in the realm of civic participation and voter engagement. In the case of some, like New Florida Majority and New Virginia Majority, Sandler has given to the 501(c)(3) education funds associated with 501(c)(4)s specifically dedicated to building the “new American majority,” state by state.

As a philanthropic strategy, funding to empower that new American majority makes sense. The demographic changes Phillips writes about are well underway, and with great rapidity in the Sun Belt states Sandler is targeting. Giving residents of color equal opportunity to influence the mechanisms of government only makes sense. As a political strategy, though, going all-in on the promise of demographic change opens progressives to possible losses over the short term if turnout among target demographics isn’t up to par.

Whatever happens on November 3, all this targeted power-building and civic engagement funding from Sandler and others is a clear sign that left-leaning philanthropy isn’t shying away from politics nearly as much as it used to.

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