SCG is a nonpartisan organization. As a 501(c)3 organization, we do not endorse or oppose political candidates or parties. Opinions expressed in this piece belong to our guest contributor. For more information on how 501(c)3 organizations can engage in advocacy before and after elections, please check out resources from our friends at Alliance for Justice to hold elected officials accountable and respond during an election year.
“Building lasting political power.”
“Centering the interests of communities of color.”
“Creating a democracy that works for everyone.”
These are goals shared by many individual and institutional donors all across California. But we continue to fall short of achieving them. By focusing on the shiny penny of the next election or initiative battle, we’re ignoring the long-term ability of people and communities to sustain and build on their wins. Funders seeking to improve democracy must invest across an entire ecosystem of civic, electoral, policy, and political infrastructure across tax statuses for power-building and power-wielding.
Conservatives understand this. They have invested for decades — quite strategically — in building a robust infrastructure dedicated to making their anti-democratic and authoritarian vision real. They are focused on wielding power. A recent estimate suggests right-wing donors have funneled $7-8 billion nationally to a sprawling apparatus of 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) groups in the last 50 years. The results: GOP control of both houses of the state legislature in 31 states, an anti-democratic Supreme Court, and a wave of extreme policies at all levels of government designed to remove rights from immigrants, people of color, women, LGBT people, and other vulnerable populations. Meanwhile, the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and other groups are spoon-feeding these institutions of power with new ways to promote unfettered capitalism and white nationalism.
It would be something to marvel at if it weren’t so frightening.
Progressive policy shops are a slender reed compared to the baseball bat conservatives use to cudgel our political system away from community power. There are many moderate and Democratic Party-aligned think tanks and policy shops. Still, they don’t help progressive leaders who are being elected to protect communities from environmental destruction and economic exploitation. Even “blue” California is home to very few racial equity-focused think tanks that help progressives govern. The Center on Policy Initiatives in San Diego is the go-to governing resource for regional progressive elected officials like County Board of Supervisor Chair Nathan Fletcher and members Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer. They help progressives wield power. Again and again, progressives in office in California run up against a wall of well-financed policy and political organizations advancing corporate and conservative interests, from the Chamber of Commerce to the realtors to police to the oil and gas industry, without the support of robust progressive governing infrastructure.
“A Lack of Enduring Capacity”
Favoring some elements of civic, electoral, and political infrastructure while ignoring others means a lack of enduring capacity to advance progressive change. Community-elected officeholders need support right after elections to create post-election transition teams and year-round to wield their power to advance policies that yield lasting benefits for families, workers, and communities. Community-based leaders need support to strengthen their campaigning chops and, when they win, learn the ropes of governing progressively and effectively in the office. And progressive organizations and networks need support to align their strategies to build powerful coalitions to support progressive elected officials' ability to govern.
At the California Donor Table, we have seen how year-in-year-out support makes a lasting difference for progressive elected officials to deliver much-needed policies. Consider the case of Diana Becton: after serving as a judge for 22 years in Contra Costa County, she was appointed and elected as the first African American district attorney in the county's history. Progressive non-partisan funding helped community groups advocate for Becton to be appointed to the position in 2017, and progressive partisan funding enabled those groups to support her first campaign in 2018. Following the candidate/community win, community organizations supported her efforts to reduce racial disparities in the justice system while holding law enforcement and public officials more accountable for police violence, despite getting very little funding for that purpose. DA Becton was the only progressive District Attorney in California re-elected in 2022 on a strong criminal justice reform platform, with critical support from progressive groups supporting her agenda and candidacy. This situation contrasts with the recall of SF District Attorney Chesa Boudin in the same election, primarily because philanthropy did not invest in SF community groups to expand to the scale of co-governance.
At the California Donor Table, we believe progressives have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase representation and leadership in the state legislature because of term limits that will see many lawmakers leaving office after the 2024 elections. This is our chance to build a sustainable progressive non-partisan public leadership pipeline that will enable progressive, community-based leaders to step into power, hold onto their positions, and succeed in enacting progressive policies over time.
Elements of a Progressive Ecosystem
What does this progressive ecosystem look like for California? In the view of the California Donor Table, it includes these core elements, each one of them includes 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) investment opportunities:
Planning and collaboration. Progressive groups need resources and capacity to effectively leverage the shared power of multiple issue areas and constituent serving groups toward a joint vision for lifting communities of color across the state.
Voter engagement and year-round organizing. It’s time to move beyond the boom-and-bust-cycles of get-out-the-vote funding for the initiative and candidate races and support groups to do the year-round organizing needed to engage communities to develop lasting political and electoral power.
Shared polling and messaging research. Progressive groups need shared access to sophisticated research on public attitudes and opinions and how to communicate on issues effectively.
Data and targeting. Groups also need access to accurate voter data to target get-out-the-vote and registration campaigns to neighborhoods and communities that can deliver lasting electoral gains.
Leadership and candidate development. Across California, BIPOC leaders are ready to step up to positions of community and public leadership — they need support to develop their skills in areas from campaigning and fundraising to policy and budget development and coalition building.
Policy development.The Far Right has created a sophisticated policy development apparatus for conceptualizing and advancing its policies; it’s time for the progressive Left to do the same at the state and regional levels.
The conservative movement has shown what’s possible when funders invest in the year-to-year, behind-the-scenes work of building and sustaining aligned policy and political networks, including, but not limited to, electoral work. It’s time for funders who care about democracy and lifting communities of color to develop a coordinated approach to building lasting power and voice for communities closed out of the American political system for far too long.
The California Donor Table seeks to build a progressive political ecosystem in California that matches our ambitions for change. We invite you to learn more about our efforts and how you can invest 501(c)(3) funds in California’s long-term progressive movement. Additionally, we encourage all funders to continue exploring how they can build a holistic 501(c)4 funding strategy to support community organizations in that movement.