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In unusual push, funders band together to get out grants around election work ‘early’

A small portion of the billions spent around the November election will go to nonprofits working to boost voter participation and access to voting around the country. And usually, those funds flood into counties and cities right before Election Day.

This year, a coalition of funders tried to change that dynamic to give organizations that knock on doors, run election day hotlines or challenge voting restrictions in court some time to plan and bring on staff several months in advance. The nonprofit Democracy Fund, established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, launched the All by April campaign earlier this year. And as the month ends Tuesday, some 170 foundations, advisors and individual donors have signed on.

“We wanted to change the culture of philanthropy,” said Joe Goldman, president of Democracy Fund. “To create a kind of underlying assumption that being an effective and responsible philanthropist means not waiting to make grants in an election year.”

The campaign asked funders to make every effort to allocate grants by the end of April or to take other steps like moving up disbursement dates and providing general support to grantees rather than funding for a specific project or set of activities.

“We know that our own grantmaking timelines and practices are at the heart of the challenge. So, this year, we’re doing something about it. We’re pledging to make commitments earlier and to move funds sooner,” the commitment letter reads.

The nonprofit Tides Foundation — which funds organizations like Florida Rising, a member-supported nonprofit that seeks to build political power in historically marginalized communities — signed the commitment. Florida Rising takes on local issues, like campaigning to extend the length of time a person facing eviction has to find new housing, said Andrea Cristina Mercado, its executive director.

“One of the big challenges that we’ve had here in Florida that other states also experience is boom-and-bust funding, where people invest in these sandcastles that are built specifically around an election,” and then are washed away immediately after the polls close, Mercado said.

She said philanthropic funders have pulled back support in the third-largest state as they perceive Florida’s policies and politicians to be less competitive in national or statewide races.

“As Florida has fallen off of the battleground map, it’s been putting the infrastructure that we’ve all worked really hard to build at risk,” Mercado said.

Tides, which is a public charity, set up a fund to consistently support grassroots organizations who try to increase voter participation, counteracting the deluge of funding in election years and drought in others. They recently received a $10 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist and author, to its Healthy Democracy Fund. They will hold back at least some of those dollars to give out after this year’s election, said Peter Martin, Tides Foundation’s executive director.

Tides also has a big appetite for allocating funding to nonprofits that can do more direct political work, including around ballot measures for example. That includes 501(c)(4) organizations, that are organized under a section of tax code so they can lobby for specific legislation but still accept charitable dollars.

“We embrace complexity and we try to really think about how our c3 money can have the greatest impact in a way that’s totally allowable,” Martin said. In general, tax exempt nonprofits, sometimes referred to as 501(c)(3) organizations in reference to their status in the tax code, cannot support the specific political campaigns of any party or candidate.

Tides’ work will concentrate in more than a dozen states the foundation says have growing populations of young people and people of color who face barriers to voting — including Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Goldman, of Democracy Fund, said he hopes the campaign this year helps push funders to support these community groups more consistently after the election as well.

“We are here in service of these nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations that are doing heroic work, and we need to be there for them when they need support. That is why we exist,” Goldman said of philanthropic funders.

In 2020, the civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, came to a similar conclusion. As it was building out its litigation work around democracy and voting access, Margaret Huang, its president and CEO, said they realized community organizations were working to build political constituencies around those same issues.

“It’s not just a legal fight, but it’s actually a political fight where communities are engaged and weigh in on what’s really important to them,” she said.

SPLC’s board decided to commit $100 million over ten years to build up the capacity of these organizations in Southern states through its Vote Your Voice campaign. It was uncomfortable for her organization, Huang said, in part because they had never been a funder themselves and their relative size and budget could create a power imbalance between them and their grantees.

They partnered with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to administer the grants and say their partner organizations have now made more than 100 million attempts to contact voters through a range of strategies over the phone, in-person and online.

“A relatively modest investment in community organizations across the South is showing that there can be a different way moving forward,” Huang said. “And it’s our hope that this kind of work can demonstrate to others who care about democracy and who care about civic participation that investing in the South is worthwhile and it is paying off.”

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Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

Thalia Beaty, The Associated Press


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