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This event recap is part of a series covering the We Give Summit: A Celebration of Collective Giving hosted by Philanthropy Together.
“I ask myself, what can I do to make sure that I wake up the day after an election with no regrets?” - Zo Tobi, Movement Voter Project
When you look at the root of the issues facing our country, from voting rights and healthcare to education and climate, and democracy, giving circles can be the tip of the spear for meaningful change. During the 2022 We Give Summit, Melissa Walker, head of giving circles at The State’s Project, and Zo Tobi, director of donor organizing at the Movement Voter Project, discussed how individual donors and giving circles can invest in structural change.
Making Structural Change through Giving Circles
“Look to see who is starting the fires, how can we shift power to ensure that the fire starters are no longer in power,” Walker said.
Many policies that threaten people’s rights are coming from state and local legislatures – such as Florida’s Parental Rights in Education, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and Texas abortion law SB.8, known as the “Texas Heartbeat Act” – not the federal level. Despite this fact, federal elections garner an overwhelming amount of donor dollars and attention while midterms and local races are often neglected. Real, sustainable change happens from the bottom up, and strategic investment at the state and local levels will make a bigger impact in shifting power away from “fire starters.”
Early investment in key issues and elections is also important.
“We wake up in September or October and remember that there’s an election coming up and throw money at it -- that doesn’t work,” Tobi said. Long-term grassroots organizing played a critical role in turning many states blue during the 2020 election.
“We’re in Michigan every year, not just election years,” Walker said. “We’re building that infrastructure all the time.” Organizers knock on doors, listen to people’s concerns, and then in election years, these organizations transfer that information to campaigns so they know which doors to knock on.
Investing in grassroots organizing and base building is one of the most effective ways to impact elections and make structural change.
Choosing Which States/Elections to Focus On
The State’s Project is prioritizing races where it’s possible to shift power in the state capital. Walker expressed the importance of district races, where there is a disconnect between the representatives’ policies and the constituents’ needs. It is important to support candidates that are representative of their constituents and/or have been directly affected by the “fire starters,” and to ensure that they have the resources they need to run effective campaigns. A few seats in key districts can make all the difference. The State’s Project’s partners in Arizona were able to elect a few representatives to balance out the state’s legislature. Those representatives were able to stop more than 50 anti-democracy bills and make reforms to the Census process ensuring more equitable voter maps.
How Bipartisan or Apolitical Giving Circles Can Start Conversations About Structural Change
“When you have a conversation with people on the opposite spectrum about what side is better or which party is better, you’re not going to go anywhere,” Tobi said. A great way to start talking about systems change in your giving circle is to talk about what issues matter to you most and the kind of change you want to see. Once you start exploring the issues you care about, you’ll quickly see that meaningful change on those issues is going to come from policy.
If you’re new to systems-change giving, focusing on strengthening our democracy is a great starting point. Tobi recommends seeking “organizations that represent the needs of people on the ground that you want to support, and trust those communities to allocate the resources where they see fit.” For example, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition was founded by formerly incarcerated people and spearheaded the “Free the Vote” campaign which successfully restored voting rights in Florida for formerly incarcerated people.
“Whether this affects this election or the next, this is the kind of long-term structural change that makes life better for everyone because now we have a more representative democracy,” Tobi said.