Philanthropy Can Ill Afford to Shift to Cruise Control Just Because a Democratic Standard Bearer Is in the White House
By Diana Philip
Anyone who has taken a road trip understands and appreciates the benefit of cruise control. When confronted with an open road and many miles to cross, putting a car in an autopilot of sorts eases travel-related tension. One can comfortably take in the sights, enjoy the company of traveling companions, or the harmony of music. While cruise control is a requirement for many drivers, it is disastrous when it comes to politics and organizing.
But unfortunately, whenever the White House is controlled by a Democrat, there is a tendency by those on the left, including donors and funders, to flip the switch to autopilot. That is evidenced by decreases in donations and memberships to grassroots organizing groups dedicated to protecting and advancing our rights, and it is a recipe for disaster.
For example, when Barack Obama won the White House is 2008, many hailed his victory as the dawn of a new day in American politics. Not only had the nation elected the youngest president in history, but America also elected the first Black president. For a country battered and bruised by racism and the legacy of slavery, Obama’s election must have felt like a dream come true. Many went from proclaiming, “Yes, we can!” to “Yes, we finally did.”
And yet every blessing comes with a burden. The shadow of victory is an eerie understanding that the work is not done; progress must be defended. But when Democrats win the White House, philanthropy dries up. The dollars that fueled grassroots organizing campaigns suddenly become scarce. Nowhere is that more evident than in the struggle to ensure abortion access and reproductive freedom.
When Bill Clinton won the White House, Democratic circles from coast to coast celebrated. But the celebration overshadowed dips in fundraising for movement work. Consequently, the LGBTQIA+ movement and environmental rights groups were not prepared for the onslaught of attacks from the George W. Bush administration. It is reasonable to celebrate the ascension of Democrats, but parallel and well-funded campaigns for progress must not be short-changed.
State-based work, which has ensured advances in everything from voting rights to abortion access, must be funded regardless of who is in the White House. Local legislative races must be prioritized without a misguided belief that the federal government is the panacea for injustice.
We know this anecdotally, but as the U.S. Supreme Court gears up to hear oral arguments in Mississippi’s challenge to Roe v. Wade, the importance of state-based work takes on new significance. If the conservative Supreme Court behaves as expected and overturns Roe, organizers will need to quickly implement plans to ensure safe, local, and comprehensive reproductive health care. They will be further thrust into a position of thinking through how to serve the most marginalized and vulnerable among us: persons who lack the resources, support, and timely access to abortion care.
States such as Maryland, where I live and work, will continue to play a pivotal role in ensuring reproductive freedom. Roe v. Wade was codified in state law in 1991. A ballot referendum to overturn it failed in 1992. Regardless of what happens at the federal level, organizers and legislators in Maryland have long protected women’s rights to make health care decisions in their own best interests. Of the state’s 23 counties and Baltimore City, roughly one-third offer abortion access. But having lived in a safe-haven state, I know how much demand will skyrocket, were Roe to fall. I also know how much grassroots groups need funding to maintain this pivotal work.
Further, our opponents show no signs of relenting. Former President Trump raised over $82 million by the second half of 2021. Numerous outlets reported he and Trump-affiliated groups had $102 million in cash on hand going into July. There is no question one only raises that kind of money to support candidates who share their vision. Democratic donors and funders must be equally committed whether a Democratic individual is in the White House or not. But the funding must include state and local candidates, and also stretch to grassroots and state-based groups.
As a former legal advocate to sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking survivors, I know the danger of taking progress for granted. We must always be plotting and planning, not just reacting and barely surviving. Instead of relying solely on the courts to protect that which advocates they despise have secured, we need to keep pushing philanthropy to provide consistent and significant financial support. Organizers must continue working to flip the Senate, pass the Women’s Health Protection Act safeguarding the rights of abortion providers and their patients, and support innovation in safe-haven states like Maryland.
Regardless of who is in the White House, state-based work keeps things afloat. Philanthropy can ill afford to decelerate at the very moment we should be gaining momentum. It is great to have a standard bearer in the White House. But the real work starts and stops in the community. Advocates know that — elected and philanthropic leaders must appreciate that as well.