One of the first things I learned as an organizer is that there are two kinds of power: money and people. Our side doesn’t have money, so we need people. Over more than a decade of organizing, this became a robotic refrain I repeated while on the streets, in legislative offices, at campaign events, and at people’s doors.
Is it true? Much (though not all) of my work was paid. Many of our national partners seemed to easily raise and waste millions every year. Some of the most transformative organizing I witnessed was funded, and fundraising was a central question any decently experienced organizer, paid or not paid, was expected to agonize over. Clearly, money power and people power are not entirely separate.
Perhaps because the left is thought to be disadvantaged in accessing money, we often avoid the conversation. But money is useful. It can pay organizers to build tenant unions toward a city-wide rent strike or replace the wages of workers laid off in retaliation for a strike. In 2021, for example, the Invest in Our New York campaign won billions in new taxes on the rich (and billions for public schools, undocumented families, and rent relief). We couldn’t have succeeded without a funded campaign that paid for communications staff, organizers, field tools, food and transport costs, literature, and more. If we want to win, we must figure out how to raise and spend money strategically.
The left has always debated over the role of money in movements, but in recent years, that debate has escalated. In 2007, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded—a collection of essays published by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence—exploded onto the scene with righteous critiques of the “nonprofit industrial complex.” The book argued that 501(c)(3) organizations limited mass movement building and were replacing the functions of a receding state. It condemned the gatekeeping role well-connected white liberals in private philanthropy played in doling out money to poor people of color. Organizers repackaged these critiques during the Black Lives Matter protests, the George Floyd uprising, and the COVID-19 pandemic, demanding funders cede power to the ground. In response, foundations, individual donors, donor advisors, and consultants hosted a lot of conferences, diversified their staff and boards, and made commitments to spend down.
These reforms, however genuine, were insufficient because they didn’t address the central question. We are not close to building the powerful and sustained mass movements we need, in part because we have not yet figured out how to transform the power of money into multiracial working-class power. Such a project is much more complicated than just changing the decision-makers named on a website.
As I’ve spent more time in the money space, I’ve come to understand something that any good organizer could diagnose almost instantly: because funders don’t have a clear strategy based on an analysis of power and outcomes, what remains is cyclical and beleaguered conversations about structure and capacity. It doesn’t have to be this way. Many foundation program officers are former organizers. Many donors are seriously committed to the project of redistribution. Many advisors and consultants hold aligned values and think strategically. But they’re unorganized. And our failure to organize progressive funders reflects larger problems on the left.
For at least fifty years, the left has failed to hold any kind of significant governing power in the United States. Most leftists only know how to lose, which means we have tremendous gaps in electoral infrastructure, leadership development, and policy capacity. We lack an organizing culture that both dares to dream big and understands how to build power to actually win those dreams. In the face of defeat, a significant portion of the left retreated into proto-anarchist formations that idealized local, prefigurative work, and funders followed. Today, despite some recent electoral and policy wins on the left, charity-style mutual aid and small-scale solidarity economy work remain popular among a certain set of progressive donors, perhaps because the effects of such donations can feel more concrete. But limiting our ambitions to small pockets of survival means giving up on the prospect of a world where everyone—not just those lucky enough to work in a co-op or live on a community land trust—is fed, housed, safe, and cared for.
Though the broad left has recently shifted focus to winning and wielding state power, funders have yet to catch up. If we want to move toward a world where everyone’s needs are met, the organized left—the portion of the left that sees building organizations and institutions as necessary to changing people’s lives at scale—will need to get serious about the role of money in our movement. Money has the potential to help us align on and execute a disciplined strategy to win. And funders won’t take consolidated, risky, multi-decade bets without deeper political connections to the groups they fund. Rather than treating funders as just a means to cover budgets, we need to develop them as peer organizers.
Money on the Right
We often cite the Koch brothers as an example of the right’s superior access to money. In fact, across large foundations and small-dollar political donations, the left has significantly increased its war chest in recent years. For example, ActBlue, the primary engine for Democratic small-dollar donations, nearly doubled its fundraising from $1.3 billion in the 2017–2018 electoral cycle to $2.2 billion in the 2021–2022 cycle. Groups to the left of the Democratic Party have also benefited from this surge.
“The [progressive] money landscape has gotten bigger,” says Micah Sifry, a long-time democracy activist who writes The Connector newsletter. “There’s a whole industry of vendors who are very good at extracting money from individual donors, who can tap into progressives’ current frustrations and scale up temporary operations at the expense of horizontal organizing. It isn’t that hard to raise sufficient funds to get your project going, [but] there’s a lot of redundancy.” A lot of money is sloshing around to support duplicate tactics and organizations, with no real examination of whether they fit into a winning plan.
Leah Hunt-Hendrix, who co-founded Solidaire and Way to Win (donor networks focused on social movement and electoral funding, respectively), has also seen the rise of more progressive funding networks. “It feels like the dam broke, and we are collectively moving more donors and more money than we did individually,” Hunt-Hendrix told me. “But all these networks have slightly different theories of change. The problem is not a lack of money, but a lack of a shared set of strategies.”
The right offers a good example of how coordinated spending can make a big difference in politics. In State Capture, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez looks at the work of three conservative organizations, funded to the tune of over $200 million a year by business interests and wealthy donors. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) organizes networks of state legislators to pass model bills. The State Policy Network coordinates and fundraises for more than sixty state-based think tank affiliates that publish policy and polling propaganda, bring lawsuits when they don’t win in the legislature, and house and train political staff to rotate into government when Republicans are in power. The third organization, Americans for Prosperity, typically spends more than $100 million a year across its PAC and foundation-backed policy and communications campaigns, creating the appearance of grassroots support for the conservative agenda.
This troika flipped state legislatures red in traditionally blue or purple states, including Wisconsin in 2011, Michigan in 2011, and Iowa in 2016. Once in power, Republicans in these states swiftly enacted policies to crush unions, privatize prisons, expand policing and sentencing, deregulate gun possession and use, increase barriers to voting, and prevent immigrants from accessing public benefits. As Hertel-Fernandez writes, “it would be a big mistake to read history backward and assume that the troika’s present-day success was preordained from the start.” Strategists on the right saw fundraising as essential to success and reorganized to prioritize money. For example, facing budget gaps in the late 1980s, ALEC began to approach its work as a business, with a product, defined customer base, and minimum profit it wanted to generate from each member. ALEC brought corporations and private philanthropists into membership, granted members who paid larger dues greater decision-making power, and increasingly turned away from conservative foundations, which took too long to move money and often attached strings to their grants.
Meanwhile, the right has also successfully undermined the left’s capacity to fundraise. For years, charter schools and tort reform have been pet causes for conservatives. These issues aligned with an agenda of privatization and minimizing corporate liabilities, but as Hertel-Fernandez argues, the real prize for the right was eroding the left donor base. “It’s very clear what the program is—it is to defund the Democratic Party,” says one political operative in State Capture. By forcing teacher unions and trial lawyers—both major sources of funding for Democratic Party war chests—to spend on defense rather than on affirmative campaigns, the right weakened its opponent’s political power.
According to Hertel-Fernandez, the left has failed to establish an equally powerful ecosystem focused on state politics in part because funders preferred single-issue work to ideological fights or long-term institution building and supported too many scrappy organizations that competed against each other rather than consolidating. When it comes to winning and wielding power at the state level, the broad left, including but not limited to the Democratic Party, has much to learn from the right. First, money is a key chess piece that can be used to strengthen our position and weaken our opponent’s. Second, whether we like it or not, money drives strategy unless we take control.
What to Fund?
Before I got to know the money space, I was bewildered by how bad funders were at their jobs: the less work an organization did, the more money it seemed to get. The disparity was especially apparent in coalitions, when funder darlings (often national organizations that claimed to be “connective tissue” between local affiliates) contributed just the occasional meeting attendance, while low-paid organizers at base-building organizations worked more than seventy hours a week.
The problem is not incompetence; it’s structural. Youth United for Change, a Philadelphia-based organization that builds the power and leadership of young working-class people of color, writes in their report Y’all Tryna Win Or Nah?!, “The aversion to talking openly . . . about our sector’s political shortcomings and missteps . . . are byproducts of the ‘dog-and-pony show’ . . . philanthropy has forced U.S. social movements to take part in as a means of survival.” In conversations with and reports to funders, grantees are pushed to present failures as victories to keep up appearances. In the money space, the culture of dishonesty goes beyond a polite refusal to gossip. I was warned early on that saying anything critical can permanently ruin one’s reputation. Even in writing this piece, I am forced to temper my critiques and leave out names, for fear of retaliation.
This lack of transparency makes it harder for funders to identify the most powerful and effective work and harder for grantees to evolve. The organizations that are rewarded are not those carrying out the most politically disciplined and effective work, but those that best play the money game. This vicious cycle is exemplified by hollowed-out membership organizations. On the ground, I increasingly interact with groups that claim paper membership of thousands or tens of thousands but that can’t turn out more than a few dozen members (whom they share with other organizations).
As both Jane McAlevey and Theda Skocpol have argued, very few groups today are effectively doing the deep organizing that the institutions of labor and faith once did in our communities: the years of leadership development, the incisive assessments of people’s organic relationships to each other, the campaigns that asked people to make large sacrifices and thus deepen their commitment to a collective political project.
Instead of openly discussing what is and isn’t working, organizations have resorted to making demands of the most progressive (and often least powerful) funders that sound reasonable in the abstract but are impossible to parse in practice. Listen to Black and brown organizers—but which ones? Fund local grassroots organizations—but where and when? Give unrestricted, long-term grants—but should this apply when an organization death spirals for years? I can answer these questions as an organizer with a decade on the ground, but only based on direct experience and through my peer relationships. It is no wonder that funders, protected by layers of gatekeeping and a culture of silence, struggle to move money strategically.
The Progressive Money Paradox
This lack of transparency relates to a more fundamental problem: the interests of wealthy donors are not naturally aligned with a progressive agenda advocating taxation, redistribution, and policies that prevent the consolidation of wealth in the first place. “On the right, no one has to hide anything from billionaires—everyone is super clear,” says Chloe Cockburn, who has helped move more than $250 million in her career and is the founder and CEO of Just Impact Advisors, a grantmaking and donor advisory group devoted to ending mass incarceration and building the political power of affected communities. “Some of the wealthiest donors don’t have the most radical politics, so organizations have to do more translation between the needs on the ground and the worldview of the donors.”
Michael Gast, a long-time organizer of donors, is working on a book about engaging wealthy people in working-class-led movements. In talking to funders, he says, “We sort of flip-flop back and forth between two tendencies that have been there a long time: the first is a liberal relationship to wealth where we’re exceedingly courteous and we don’t agitate much, and the second is a really harsh, ‘give it all away,’ hyper-accountability style that turns people off.”
I often see younger funders, who are usually more progressive, recruited into projects where they are berated with the message that they must redistribute all their money immediately, that asking questions is a form of surveillance and control, and that they must never decide anything because making decisions automatically replicates classist power structures. Given the extraordinary power wealthy people have, this approach might be understandable. But in the long term, it can backfire.
First, it obscures the fact that someone has to decide. Whether it’s a donor advisor or consultant, foundation staff, accountability board, or a circle of “directly impacted” people, all funders choose who makes decisions. Second, this approach infantilizes funders and fails to bring them in for the long haul. While funders who are told not to trust themselves may move money to a great project now, they are a long-term liability—they could just as easily cede control to someone who tells them to move their money to a bad project next. Third, organizing people through guilt and shame does not help them develop the deepest possible stakes in a movement. Guilt-based funders often give less over time or retreat completely. Fourth, we are leaving significant money on the table. Funders who see themselves as organizing partners not only give more; they can also persuade their network to give. Finally, and most important, funding the right strategy, not funding everything indiscriminately, is essential if we want the left to win. That task is made exponentially harder when funders lack the skills and analysis not only to assess what is strategic, but even who can make that call.
Throughout history, the left has grappled with how wealthy people fit into social change. Though many funders will never be fully aligned with the more ambitious goals of the left, there are many wealthy people who are deeply committed to redistribution and a more just, equal world. We don’t need to persuade all the Democratic Party donors to get behind a more radical program, but we do need to identify and organize the true class traitors among the wealthy.
Funders as “Comrades”
To cultivate funders, we should bring them into live campaigns where they can experience what it’s like to struggle together. There is nothing as politically clarifying as a campaign where people can learn and practice organizing skills, build deep relationships of trust, see directly how money sustains or kills work, and develop the political discipline that comes from making complex decisions with real consequences.
Organizers know how to recruit a person and develop them into a leader who can bring in more people. It is a model tested by millions of organizers over tens of thousands of projects. Yet even the best political education programs within the progressive funder space use guilt to commit donors to months of tedious readings and workshops that are essentially group trauma bonding. It’s almost like we forgot that funders are people too, motivated by what motivates their fellow humans.
The donor I want is invested in the world we’re building, knows from experience how political change happens, and is disciplined about moving significant resources accordingly. The donor I want is an excellent organizer. They have the patience, emotional intelligence, and strategic analysis to form long-term relationships with other wealthy people to develop them into partners. The donor I want is someone we strategize with not just because we want their money, but because they have something meaningful to teach us about how to make money part of our plan. They are a real comrade, with just as much emotionally invested as the rest of us.
I know we can build this new cadre of money organizers because I’ve seen it happen. In the New York City chapter of Resource Generation (which organizes young people with wealth and class privilege and of which I am a member), we just wrapped up a pilot on this very hypothesis, partnering with Housing Justice for All on a campaign for Good Cause eviction protections. We moved hundreds of thousands of dollars but, more important, we developed a cohort of young organizers. More than sixty of us redistributed money, organized our networks to do the same, canvassed, phone banked, lobbied our legislators in Albany, engaged in civil disobedience, and threw down every day with tenant leaders across the state. Resource Generation members not only participated; they led by planning actions and recruiting more people to join them. Members of this campaign emerged from these experiences with an understanding of the power and complexity of successful inside-outside organizing—and the strategic analysis to continue funding it.
The End of Philanthropy
The problems with private philanthropy are well known. More than $1 trillion lives in foundations—a vast sum of unaccountable money, which excludes other private assets from which the wealthy often draw to make contributions. However, private philanthropy is a symptom, not the cause, of the problem. Beyond redistribution for redistribution’s sake, we need to use money to “directly challenge the conditions that produced the wealth inequality that allowed for private philanthropy in the first place,” as Farhad Ebrahimi, founder and president of the Chorus Foundation, writes.
I started out organizing in small, horizontalist, abolitionist collectives. We experimented with building alternatives to the criminal legal system. Years of supporting the same people in the same violent situations caused by economic desperation taught me that we would never end cycles of violence without first demanding the state meet everyone’s needs. We must build power (develop a mass base of politicized people), win power (succeed on big issue, labor, budget, and electoral campaigns), and wield power (ensure our policy wins are durable) so that we can deliver life-changing and life-saving policies for people.
Leftists who support this vision have begun to identify and develop progressive donors who share our goals and are committed to redistribution. But as movements aim their sights on capturing state power, they will demand more of funders. Together, we need to build a new set of institutions, strengthen and scale our organizing models, and cultivate a new generation of leaders—in the right order, and quickly enough to meet the moment. Such a multi-decade plan will cost at least $1 billion.
Just as people can organize money, money can also organize people. Let’s leverage this power. We must educate our donors about how the most strategic parts of the left are thinking, develop them into organizers and true comrades, and then build a plan that uses both the power of money and the power of people. If we can do that, we can align the left behind a shared strategy to win over the coming decades. It’s what we need to face the ruthless alliance between authoritarianism and consolidated corporate power on the right. It’s what we need to build a world where extreme wealth accumulation is a relic of the past.
Nina Luo is an organizer and political strategist with a decade of experience organizing and leading dozens of campaigns of all kinds. She is the Director of Campaigns at the New York Working Families Party and a member of the NYC chapter of Resource Generation. Previously, she was Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Political Director. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.