Hunger Games in the Resistance

This past winter, I was invited to a private dinner at the home of someone described to me as a “big donor” to progressive and Democratic causes, along with a mix of people with decades of experience in movement organizing. According to the person who pulled together the invitee list, our host was interested in supporting creative efforts to resist Donald Trump’s impending presidency, but this wasn’t a meeting to pitch specific projects, more a listening session to hear what people were working on or thinking about.

Nevertheless, on the elevator up to our host’s apartment, one fellow attendee turned to me and quietly said, “I just hope this isn’t another version of ‘activist Hunger Games.’”

“What do you mean?” I asked. My friend replied, “You know, one of those meetings where we are all hoping to be the winner and you have to figure out who to ally with and who you have to kill.”

Unfortunately, the Hunger Games analogy describes all too well the hidden dynamic underway as the many new projects and budding organizations that have flowered since the November 2016 election, along with many pre-existing efforts, jockey for support from progressive funders. A bunch of poor actors are pitted against each other on the national playing field while funders (the Capital) watch their progress from above; the rules of the game are opaque and can change at capital’s whim; and only a few will survive.

In the last few months, I’ve taken a semi-deep dive into this burgeoning scene, writing first about how new and old organizations alike were trying to take advantage of the “whirlwind moment” produced by Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, and then digging in, with the help of several collaborators, to try to understand how many new groups were dealing with the massive influx of volunteers and the “over-communication” problems that come with rapid growth. Along the way, volunteers with Civic Hall’s “Call to Action” working group helped flesh out a functional spreadsheet of “Resist projects” that we posted online.

While doing this, and as part of the work that goes into curating our annual Personal Democracy Forum*, I had many one-on-one conversations with leaders of these groups. I’ve learned two things: First, that the post-election wave of participation is wide and deep, with more volunteers seeking meaningful things to do to resist Trump and protect democracy than pre-existing organizations were prepared to absorb. If you picture the landscape of progressive local organizing in America, it’s as if water has reached places that have been dry for years, and suddenly thousands of seeds that lay dormant have started sprouting. Indivisible, the biggest vehicle for this flood, claims some 6,800 groups, with at least two in every Congressional district in America. There are “Resist” Meetups all over the Midwest and the South. Some of the ACLU’s “People Power” local groups have popped in places like Rosedale, MS and Norman, OK.

The digital landscape has proven to be an especially fertile ground for organizing. RISE Stronger, which claims 50,000 volunteers, has built out innovative digital tools like the “People’s Calendar,” a free resource which has catalogued more than 13,000 events since January 1. “We built this all with volunteer energy from thousands of people putting in extra time on top of their jobs and family commitments,” says Andy Kim, one of the group’s founders. He adds, “The most important development since Trump’s win has been the activation and mobilization of huge populations of people who were not previously politically involved.”

The second thing I’ve learned is more sobering. While volunteer energy is abundant, funding to enable these many new groups to stabilize and grow their operations has not been. Many large donors to progressive causes have been overwhelmed by the influx of new groups, and instead of spreading their wealth around, they are holding back, waiting until autumn to see who survives. It is the Hunger Games.

That—or funders are playing it safe, giving to people and organizations they already know, like David Brock of the Media Matters-American Bridge-CREW-Shareblue nexus, who is reportedly working on a $25 million warchest for 2017, or Guy Cecil of Priorities USA, reported to have $10 million in commitments, some of which he is reportedly spending on creating a “Breitbart of the left” media platform with 25 employees, or Jonathan Cowan of the centrist Third Way (also reportedly claiming a $20 million budget) or the ACLU, which got a $1 million check from Lyft’s founders back in January. (The ACLU has raised more than $80 million since the election.)

Either way, the disconnect between new, creative efforts and major funding means that those people with better connections to the right gatekeepers will inevitably win out over less-well connected actors. As Vu Le, the executive director of the Rainier Valley Corps, wrote in a terrific post back in 2015 about the Hunger Games dynamic among nonprofits:

In the Hunger Games, the youngest kids, the sweetest, kindest ones, are usually the first to get killed. Everyone bets against them. In the Nonprofit Hunger Games, funders bet on which nonprofits are the most “sustainable” and invest in those organizations. Instead of holistically looking at problems and systems, society just funds those organizations we think will be strongest and most likely to survive. And since we fund these more “sustainable” organizations, then of course these organizations are likelier to survive, while the smaller, “weaker” organizations (often led by marginalized communities) are left to struggle. We start to believe that those organizations that survive deserve it, that those who fail also deserve it. But simply because a nonprofit is good at surviving, it does not necessarily mean that it is most effective at solving community problems.

The same is true in the political sector. So far, new groups with strong political connections are winning. For example, Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for political tech and state/local electoral organizing, says it has already brought in its first million dollars in commitments. Its co-founders are a powerhouse trio: Betsy Hoover, the co-founder of 270 Strategies and Obama 2012’s national digital organizing director; Andrew McLaughlin, former Obama White House chief technology officer (full disclosure: also a longtime friend of ours); and Shomik Dutta, founder of a private equity firm who was a finance director for the 2008 Obama campaign.

Only rarely does the hidden jockeying for resources break out into the open, as it did a month ago. That’s when James Rucker, the founder of Color of Change, called out Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, for claiming that his group had led the successful campaign to dethrone Glenn Beck from his perch at Fox News and fundraising off that claim. As Rucker wrote, “If Color Of Change got its fair share of the credit for bringing Beck down, it could become hard for Media Matters to justify their level of funding. Indeed, Media Matters was extremely effective in using the story of the Beck campaign to bring in new donors and dollars.”

Rucker speaks with more than a decade of experience in the trenches of political organizing. Many of the leaders of the new resistance groups lack that experience, coming from places like government service (Andy Kim was a National Security Council staffer; the founders of Indivisible were congressional staffers) or digital marketing (Shannon Coulter of GrabYourWallet). This puts them at a big disadvantage in the Hunger Games.

“Like the members in our group, many of the leaders of RISE Stronger are also new to politics,” says Kim. “We didn’t have deep experience in starting up new organizations from scratch and we didn’t have networks of donors to approach. It has been difficult to know who to talk to about funding and how to talk to them. Many new organizations are in similar positions and I do worry that we may lose some of this new energy if we don’t find new ways pair ideas and innovative organizations with resources in a more open manner.”

Indivisible, the standout start-up of the “Resistance,” has raised a little over $2 million as of now, Ezra Levin, the group’s co-founder, tells me. Most of that is small donations, which bodes well for Indivisible’s long-term health and allows the group to take an independent approach. But it also means that despite the hundreds of millions that Democratic fatcats spent on politics in 2016, barely a fraction of that has made it to them. (Seven months into the rise of the Tea Party back in 2009, big money from groups like Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers group, were providing most of the muscle behind its efforts.) 

“Indivisible should have $100 million,” says Jonathan Smucker, a veteran organizer who is the author of the new book, Hegemony How To. “They should have an organizer for every six local groups.” Right now, Indivisible has a staff of twenty, which includes a handful of regional organizers. Of its original hardworking corps of roughly 150 volunteers, who put in dozens of hours per week, many are phasing down.

To be sure, some traditional sources of support for progressive organizing have stepped up their grantmaking. Back in the winter, the Open Society Foundations put up a special fund of $10 million to combat the rise of hate crimes, for example. Democracy Fund Voice has moved several six-figure grants in late 2016/early 2017 to groups working to defend civil society and resist the rise of Islamophobia. But since many of the new groups work horizontally, covering many issues at once, rather than vertically, on only one issue at a time, traditional progressive donors used to giving in order to fight X or win issue Y are holding back.

Corinna Kester, the co-founder of and the founder of the Action Alliance, a coalition of 80 similar start-ups, argues, “Much of the resistance runs on volunteer energy, so we need to think about how to sustain this. Just a little bit of funding can be a big boost for volunteer-run groups – it reduces the burden of both leading and self-funding an organization, and it boosts morale because volunteers feel supported and appreciated.”

She adds, “An organization can’t sustain itself over the long term based on passion and willpower alone. Now is a critical time for funders to step in, as the post-election energy settles down and as leaders focus on executing their visions for progressive change.”  

No one knows how long the current moment of mass mobilization will last, and as a result places and projects lifted by the new high water mark may be lost for the lack of immediate help now. Julie Menter, one of the principals of New Media Ventures, is seeing this problem up close. She tells me, “We just reviewed 500 applications for our ‘resist and rebuild’ open call, and a few things really stand out. Many of these startups are volunteer run and need an immediate infusion of cash to staff up and make long-term plans. Rapid response funding is essential. Funders understand this, but the desire to understand the landscape first to make the ‘right’ investment slows down the flow of resources, and we risk missing this moment.”

She adds, “There’s a natural instinct to invest in groups and people in our existing networks, but right now, some of the best ideas are coming from players who aren’t connected to the funding networks. If we don’t look beyond the ‘usual suspects,’ we run the risk of reinforcing dynamics around race and class privilege. This is a chaotic moment, but it’s also full of opportunity.”

Plenty of people are aware of the Hunger Games problem and taking steps to try to address it. For example, Genevieve Thiers, a tech entrepreneur, has been organizing the New Founders Conference for this coming October with an eye to bringing together the leaders of many promising new groups with a hundred or more funders. But by the fall, it’s also a good bet that the volunteer leaders of a fair number of new groups will have given up.

A new effort called ResistHub is organizing to support both emerging and existing resistance groups, with a goal of moving money faster to work that turns the energy we’re seeing right now into long-term progress and power. “Progressive funders have been playing it safe for far too long,” says Erica Sagrans, a co-founder of ResistHub with Billy Wimsatt and advisor Jackie Mahendra. “If we want to build a more powerful movement coming out of November’s election, we need to start aiming higher, moving faster, and making sure new efforts have a chance to scale, instead of letting them wither on the vine because we waited too long to invest.” 

Sagrans added: “We’ve seen unprecedented new forms of organizing these past six months, but without new funding, it’s challenging to keep this energy going. And we need to make it inclusive, not just funding new tech-focused projects from founders who are newer to organizing, but supporting efforts led by those most affected by Trump’s policies. We need strategic investments now in order to turn this resistance energy into real, networked infrastructure to take back power.” 

*Many of the people and groups cited in this piece will be featured at our annual Personal Democracy Forum conference June 8-9 at New York University. Tickets are still available.