The project redirecting US election cash toward long-term progress

Both Trump and Clinton’s presidential election campaigns have spent huge sums on advertising – up to $1m per day. What if this went to grassroots community groups working year-round on solutions instead?

“Grassroots organisations do not have an end date. They do not close shop until the next presidential election. Local, grassroots organisations work year-round to build power within the communities they serve.”

So says Karla Basta, director of donor organising at Movement 2016, a platform that helps large and small donors to improve the long-term social impact of their financial donations. Already, Basta and her colleagues have steered more than $2.5m to grassroots organisations in 16 ‘battleground’ states, and they want to boost this further by the time the dust settles on tomorrow: the day either Donald Trump of Hillary Clinton will take to the White House.

Rather than helping fund a presidential candidate, with donations being absorbed into a huge pot, Movement 2016 encourages people to give directly to grassroots organisations instead. It is these projects, working on the ground on the issues that really matter to people, that will have more impact, they believe.

Author Rebecca Solnit describes the presidential elections as a “form of madness” revisited once every four years. She writes: “They fit the great-man or -woman narrative of history, seducing us into forgetting how powerful we are. They erase our memory of grassroots power, direct democracy and civil society. Leaders beget followers; people pin their hopes on one person, and with that they seem to shed responsibility for anything beyond getting that one person into office.”

Our model is about supporting work that takes place 365 days a year, no matter what election cycle we may be in

While the sums of money involved are vast – Hillary Clinton’s campaign is thought to have spent $9.9m between 18-30 October and Trump’s $7.8m – much of this goes on the likes of TV advertisements. Though this sort of spending can seem all-important as election anticipation reaches fever pitch, it does little to build long-term social change, argues Basta.

The groups that Movement 2016 select to work with fit a strict social impact criteria, working in various ways toward a ‘movement of movements’ that might help underpin more fundamental social change.

“Our model is about supporting work that takes place 365 days a year, no matter what election cycle we may be in,” she says. “Movement 2016 groups are locally-driven and work on a range of social, economic and racial justice issues. During election season, these groups also register voters and make sure they get to the polls on election day. At the same time, they understand that real change happens over the long term, begins at the local level and that local victories create trends that influence federal policy.”

So how did Basta and her team choose which projects to work with?

Independent research helped narrow down the field, as did consulting with national networks of community-based organisations. “We were able to find groups in every state that work year-round on social, economic, immigrant, racial, and LGBTQ justice issues and have a proven track record of successful voter engagement and voter mobilisation,” says Basta. This year, Movement 2016 prioritised groups in certain key states – the likes of Florida and North Carolina – and those with open seats in the US Senate.

All manifestations of systemic oppression are in one way or another connected

Unlike the presidential candidates [Trump is worth around $3.7bn and Clinton estimated to be worth around $31m], grassroots groups often face day-to-day budgetary gaps. So what is the wider context of this project? How does Basta define what Canadian author, filmmaker and social activist Naomi Klein calls the ‘movement of movements’?

“It is the idea that all manifestations of systemic oppression are in one way or another connected,” Basta tells Positive News. “For example the treatment of undocumented immigrants is connected to the prison industrial complex, workers’ rights are connected to women’s equality, and so on. We aim to strengthen the movement of movements by strengthening the grassroots organisations empowering marginalised communities to fight against systems of oppression.”

And she notes several causes for optimism around this year’s election. “We are absolutely thrilled with the amount of early voting taking place. For example, there has been a huge spike in early voting by Hispanic people in Florida – one of the most critical battleground states,” says Basta.

“Overall, we’re excited that there have been lots of conversations about voting, not just in this election, but also during the mid-term elections. People seem to be catching on that we cannot ignore ballot races and pivotal battles being fought at the local level.”

Image: Gage Skidmore