This past month, millions of people cast their vote in elections across the country to choose local leaders and decide on policies that will be consequential for their communities. Although some people considered these to be ‘off-year’ elections, organizers and nonprofit leaders who are committed to sustaining grassroots movements know that there’s really no such thing as an ‘off year.’
All elections shape the nature of the communities we live in, and there has been an immense amount of work that went into ensuring that the will of the people was heard. Yet after the votes are counted, there is still the need for organizers after every election to continue engaging their communities. This kind of sustained effort is key – to holding elected officials accountable, passing progressive legislation, and continuing to leverage people power in the struggle for collective liberation.
This year’s election wins a in Viginia and Ohio were years in the making but may become flashes in the pan if the current level of funder engagement is not reversed.
This is why we should all be concerned about the current state of funding for voter engagement which is detailed in Movement Voter Project’s Executive Director Billy Wimsatt’s must-read memo, Sending Up the Bat Signal: An Urgent Message for Progressive and Democratic Donors. Here, Wimsatt has noted that donations to progressive organizations in 2023 have decreased significantly compared to contributions made throughout the 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 election cycles. This could be due to a misinformed belief that recent wins in the past two election cycles means that voter engagement groups no longer need resources to do their work. Or perhaps donors have turned their attention to other, seemingly less controversial strategies for impacting communities.
Whatever the reasons for this drop may be, Wimsatt is right to point out that there’s still time to correct course and set up progressive organizations to do the work that is required between now and November 2024, but donors need to act now because the stakes are too high to wait.
Change is not an overnight victory
Looking back to 2020, I still remember the general sense heading into the elections. It was during the racial uprisings amid a deadly pandemic, and there was a feeling everywhere that so much was on the line in terms of the future of our nation that we simply had to do everything in our power to ensure safe and fair elections. There was clear conviction that the harmful policies and rhetoric propelled by the Trump administration needed to be stopped, lest we suffer under the continued spread of violent authoritarianism.
So, we must ask ourselves, as we head into 2024, what has changed? Let’s review:
• We continue to see ongoing backlash to the previously mentioned protests including campaigns against efforts to teach the history of this country and the end of Affirmative Action in higher education
• Legislative officials across many states are moving forward with agendas to harm and disenfranchise marginalized communities
• Efforts of groups like Moms for Liberty and multi-million-dollar donations to conservative c4s and PACs show that there is still work to be done against an organized and well-resourced right-wing movement
Effective progressive donors understand that lasting, transformative change will happen only with continued investments as part of a long-term strategy. They remember without much prodding that the wins of 2020 also didn’t happen overnight. Organizations and funders collaborated to lay the groundwork for the necessary repudiation of the Trump administration as early as the day after Election Day 2016. Electoral wins should be viewed as a sign for donors to increase their giving – instead of scaling back. Yes, we must take time to evaluate what worked, but any pause is in the service of successfully building off the momentum in anticipation of predictable political backlash from those working to stand in the way of progress.
Many of the organizers who are helping to get out the vote in battleground states are the same ones who are there putting in the work around everything from affordable housing to police accountability. The work of sustaining progressive movements relies on donors understanding the needs of organizers and even supporting organizations to prepare for any possible scenario. People working at community organizations deserve to know that there are sustainable resources to support the work they lead.
Investing in communities, not just issues
Whether they are canvassers or strategy directors –these changemakers are providing important labor in the progressive organizing ecosystem. These are the people who funders need to consider as they determine if – and when – they will move much needed resources to grassroots groups. Despite that misstep, it touches millions of people and makes a difference on a national scale. This organizing is happening year-round, and that is part of why voters trust these groups when the time comes to head to the polls. As Wimsatt stated, organizers are the “essential workers” of democracy. Their work of bringing people together for political education, engaging voters, building relationships, and providing resources in their communities is often rendered invisible.
If progressive donors wait too late to provide necessary funding to community organizations doing this important work, they risk undermining the people and the movements that they want to support. It takes time to thoughtfully scale up a voter engagement campaign with consideration for factors such as reaching overlooked populations, organizer safety, and combatting misinformation. Early investments can help groups ensure that they have the right people in place who will be paid what they deserve for the important work they do.
This is not the time to become relaxed about the future of this country, nor is it the time to hold back support for grassroots voter organizing. If progressive donors are committed to supporting a multiracial democracy and winning on issues that matter to impacted communities, then they must focus their attention and giving toward the tried-and-true approach of grassroots organizing to prepare for 2024 and beyond.
As Wimsatt reminds us, “Whether or not we identify as ‘political,’ we all have people, places, and communities we care about. The antidote to inaction is to realize that the 2024 elections are our best chance to protect what matters most to us.” Giving big, and giving early, is the best way to hold on to the momentum of this moment and create the future we know we deserve.
Trey Gibson is NCRP’s Field Manager. In this role, Gibson supports the organization’s relationships within philanthropy and brings extensive coalition-building experience to the role.