Saturday, March 22, 2008

Beyond Exceptional Funding

One symptom of American exceptionalism is the degree to which its progressive left is dependent for resources on foundations. For the most part foundations are projects of the rich, so why would the American left allow itself to become so dependent on the largesse of a class of people most of whom will line up against the left when the left starts winning real change? Yes, five or ten percent of the rich may support the left, but to the extent the left is successful the majority of the rich are likely to respond by investing their resources in the right.

A strong American left will only have the resources it needs if the majority of its funds come from the lower and middle classes. There are currently only a few organizations of the American left that have those demographics of support – most of these are in the labor movement where members pay dues which provide steady income. The bad news for the left, of course, is that union membership has been declining for fifty years.

What does the American progressive left need in order to change this picture?

We need to renew a movement culture of active membership supporting regular contributions to organizations we identify with and trust. Imagine an expectation in progressive culture that every progressive gives five to sixty percent of income (on a sliding scale) to movement organizations.

There have been progressive movements with such cultures of resource gathering. We just don’t have it now and therefore it is hard to imagine.

What would it take to recreate such a culture of progressive giving? For one, we’d have to teach ourselves to become engaged members of movement organizations. It would no longer be enough to have progressive opinions, no matter how well informed or how passionately held. Rather, progressive culture would expect people to join organizations, struggle for and with a democratic decision-making process and work together for change.

Sustaining a culture of joining will require changes in our organizations. Organizational leadership can’t be remote. Leaders must have real responsible relationships with members. We must build greater trust in our organizations which only grows from dependable reciprocity. And our organizations must win tangible benefits and achieve inspiring goals.

Then the investment of time, money and spirit by members who are rarely rich will be worth their while. Then the progressive left will grow – with or without the foundations.

Charles Knight is director of the Progressive Strategy Studies Project at the Commonwealth Institute. He has thirty years experience raising money from foundations for progressive organizations and has spent some time helping organize the rich to support the left.


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