Funders: Step Up and Help Women Lead America

Progressive women have pledged to bring #powertothepolls, but not enough funders are putting resources toward organizations doing the groundwork for a more representative democracy.

How would you turn a moment into a movement? That’s the question that organizations supporting women running for office have been asking themselves over the last year. It’s a hard question to answer in any field. Now imagine trying to answer it while being deluged by an unprecedented number of women ready to run for office.

There are nine national organizations dedicated to training and supporting women running for office. These are long-established organizations like Ignite and Emerge America. In addition, there are newer organizations dedicated to supporting women of color running for office such as Latinas Represent and Higher Heights. Regardless of when they were started or where they focus geographically or demographically, none of these organizations have experienced a moment like this – because, of course, the country has never experienced a moment like this.

The spark for this moment wasn’t just the election, but the first women’s march on January 21, 2017, when millions of women were buoyed by the energy and determination of a sea of sisters around the country. While some were still mourning the loss of the 2016 election, younger women were ready to fight. They organized the marches and took out their checkbooks to support women candidates and the organizations that prepared them to run for office.

Marya Stark, the co-founder of Emerge America, was a pioneer in this field when she started Emerge right after the election of 2004. The importance of women’s leadership has been growing for past 15 years. She said, “People are aware that elected women are more trusted by voters. There is actually an explosion of awareness about this from the 2016 election.”

Marya returned to the organization after a four-year hiatus to start Emerge New York because the election exposed the fallacy that all was safe for women in blue states. The reality is that there continues to be a huge deficit of women in elected office at every level in every state. Ny Whitaker was hired last month as the Executive Director of Emerge New York. Ny had previously run for local positions and found out how hard it was to run against the machinery of the old guard — particularly as a young African American woman. She ran for a position called female district leader in her home district of Harlem (yes, they still have district leader positions segregated by gender) and won by 93 votes. But the incumbent wasn’t happy with the result so she asked for a recount – three times. After the third time, Ny magically lost by nine votes. She was furious at a system that enabled these kinds of shenanigans, but as her mother said, “Sometimes you have to lose to win.” Ny decided that helping other women, particularly women of color, run for office in order to change the system was her way of winning. As she said, “In our communities, people of color don’t often have those conversations about running for office. I want to change that.”

Of course, the need to help women run for office has always existed, but now the supply of women actually running has exploded and is outpacing the help that can be provided. Anne Moses the CEO of Ignite, said “Our college chapters, trainings, conferences are all five times bigger than they were before the election.”

The urgency of this moment also highlights how far we need to go. Catherine Pino and Ingrid Duran launched the PODER PAC in 2008 after overwhelming response by Latinas to Hillary’s first run for president. However, the largest minority group in the country is represented by only ten Latinas in Congress. Catherine and Ingrid were also energized by last year’s Women’s March and this year. As Catherine said, “None of us could believe what had just happened. We had to raise more money, identify good candidates, partner with other organizations and work with them to ensure that we get out the vote.” And they have done that in the last year by partnering Emily’s List to help identify and support candidates earlier. In addition, Latina celebrities like Eva Longoria have been using their voices to highlight the dearth of women of color in elected office and encourage others to give and run.

Individual donors have increased their giving to these organizations substantially over the past year. As Marya Starks said, “Before the election, women (and men) supported Emerge because they believed that electing Democratic women was an expression of their values and would make democracy function better. But now, donors, particularly women, view this moment in existential terms.  Women feel like it’s up to us to save our democracy and restore decency.”

And even better news is that the women supporting this movement are younger than many other philanthropists. They are women in their 40s and 50s, many of whom made their own money. Rita Rodin, an Emerge donor in her 40s said, “A lot of women have the skills to bring, but they don’t have the network, and don’t understand the rudimentary things that need to get done to put together a campaign, much less win. Now more than ever the rhetoric, the lies, is crazy. I don’t see women lying like that, ever, for me there’s not a better place to devote my energy and money than to something like Emerge.”

Ny Whitaker echoed these sentiments saying, “Young professionals of color – it’s their turn. They’re moving up the ladders at corporate and industry, they’re entrepreneurs who are open to networking events and enjoy participating in giving circles.”

There are two shadows hovering around the silver cloud of increased giving to these efforts. The first is that individual donors too often want to give anonymously. Anne Moses describes the drawback of this. “In the last six months, we’ve received five anonymous gifts of $25,000 and up. Three foundations gave us $50k for two to three years, but we don’t know who they are and can’t cultivate them.” In addition, these anonymous donors aren’t encouraging their own networks to give.

The second challenge is that giving from institutional philanthropy has not yet risen to meet the moment. Local foundations like the New York Women’s Foundations provide support to Higher Heights. However, there are no national foundations making the support of women running for office a priority.

Here are suggestions for ways that philanthropy can meet this moment:

  1. Foundation, STEP UP! Ingrid Duran said it best: “Foundations should consider giving to the field. Not just for voter registration, but giving to voter turnout would be a huge help. New and different ways to get people to the polls are needed.”
  2. Invest in Laying the Groundwork. Investing more in educating girls about the importance of running for any office, literally from student body president to school board to Congress, would be tremendously helpful for creating a leadership pipeline that begins in elementary school. As Ny said, “The best investment a foundation can make is in a woman or a girl who wants to be in public service.”
  3. Research, Research, and More Research. Investing in research on women in elected positions of power is critical to fully understanding how to make investments. We tend to focus on counting the number of women in federal elections, however city and county councils often have even less representation from women. Much more research is needed to assess the state of women’s representation at local levels and better understand the barriers to running and winning (see Ny’s experience above) and ways to support women to climb the ladder of elected office.

The arc of history bends towards justice – but not without a fight, and not without funders fueling that fight. Making sure that women are equally represented in public office as decision-makers and influencers is a key part of ensuring that 2018 is the beginning of a movement and not the end of a moment.


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Author: Allison Fine

I am a pioneer in online activism. Am helping to rebuild our democracy. I am Vice Chair of the national board of NARAL: Pro Choice America Foundation.

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