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Who I Give To
Because I write books on citizen movements, people have often asked me what social change groups I personally support. I'm not a wealthy donor and have often had to fundraise for different projects. But as I've moved from an situation where I barely get by to one where I have a bit of extra resources, I've valued the chance to donate to causes I believe in, with the hope that often-small donations will matched by those of others.
The end of the year is often a time when people often figure out their donations (though most of the groups I support are too politically engaged to be tax-deductible), so I thought I'd post an informal list that thought might be helpful, along with some of the rationales of why I've chosen these causes. I focus primarily on groups that do a particularly good job of engaging people, particularly people who aren't necessarily politically involved, as opposed to simply advocating for good policies. I've also been supporting political campaigns that I think can make a difference. (And of course the list doesn't count some great local groups I support). As we've seen the last seven years, electoral politics matters hugely, but we also need to build strong and durable citizen movements, so I've focused on organizations that help with both. And of course there are lots of great groups that didn't make this list.
You're on the CommonDreams site, and I go there too; in fact, it's what loads up when I first open my web browser. So I support it during the fund appeals, and you should as well.
Next, you should definitely have your phone and wireless service with Working Assets/Credo. The company was founded specifically to raise money for progressive causes, and has given away $50 million since their inception (subscribers vote each year on where the money goes). The company also does lots of additional engagement projects, from voter registration drives to email action alerts, and their top executives are good and committed people. Signing up with them helps support all sorts of good causes.
Speaking of organizations, I don't know if you're familiar with the environmentally-oriented auto club, Better World Club, but they're a great alternative to AAA, which despite its wholesome image, spends major resources lobbying for new road construction and against non-car transit options. I found out about Better World through the NPR show "Car Talk," and they contract with pretty much the same network of local towing companies (I've had no problem when I've needed assistance), give out similar free maps, and have other comparable services. But they also donate to environmental causes, encourage their members to speak out on them, and even have a roadside service option for bicycles, though I haven't had to use it as yet.
So on to some organizations, some well-known and others not:
They aren't that well known, but I love Institute for Public Accuracy. With a staff of just six people, they do a wonderful job in securing a media presence for progressive alternative perspectives. Every day they fax and email releases to an array of media outlets, containing three or four experts weighing in on a specific topic, generally one related to breaking news. The media outlets then contact the experts, generating significant coverage. When I've been on their releases I've gotten everything from the BBC and the largest newspaper chain in Japan, to the God-awful Bill O'Reilly show on Fox, major commercial radio outlets, and alternative networks like Pacifica.
Most people have heard of MoveOn.org by now. They draw plenty of heat from the political right, but that's because they're probably the most single effective progressive social change organization in terms of getting regular people involved. They did get in trouble this year trying to be too cute with the headline of their General Petraeus ad (though Petraeus is giving exactly the kind of political cover to the Bush administration that Generals Maxwell Taylor and William Westmoreland did for Johnson and Nixon during Vietnam). But no group in recent years has engaged more ordinary people in progressive politics, particularly new participants, and they're working continually to get their over 3 million members not only to sign petitions and email their Congressional representatives, but also to take additional steps towards involvement, like participating in local activist networks, or joining the phone banks whose seven million phone calls helped shift the House and Senate in 2006. They do this all with a tiny national staff (less than a dozen people at one recent point), and I've donated to a variety of their efforts from general support to specific targeted campaigns. (The political right promotes the myth that they're just puppets of George Soros, but although Soros did contribute significantly to their 2004 election efforts, their primary base has always been donations from regular members).
I don't share the theology of Sojourners (traditionalist Christian, tending toward evangelical), but no one has had a greater impact in getting conservative Christians, including evangelicals, to think about peace and social justice issues. Founder Jim Wallis has been an amazingly influential prophetic voice. Together with the organization, he really has created powerful ripples for change in a constituency that has been the core grassroots base for people like Bush and Cheney.
WellstoneAction does great regional trainings for progressive candidates running for office, including people who've never run before. Founded by the children of the late Senator Paul Wellstone, they continue his mission of trying to broaden citizen participation. If we're trying to bring new people into politics, they need to learn the necessary skills to run effective grassroots campaigns. No one does this better.
If you've ever felt that progressive organizations end up being less than the sum of their parts come election day, America Votes is an antidote. They bring together major environmental, labor, social justice, and peace groups to register voters and get them out to vote come. In 2006 they involved 250 different groups--from Acorn and the AFL-CIO to the NAACP and the Sierra Club--to coordinate and magnify their impact. And they reached 13 million voters in key swing states..
Democracy for America does similar work to MoveOn, but are a bit more face-to-face focused. They grew out of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign as a way of keeping participants involved, and do a mix of excellent action alerts, their own campaign trainings, and general organizing. They're smaller, but more intimate than MoveOn. And they put lots of good energy into building local community.
Speaking of Howard Dean, the media may have buried his career for trying to shout over a noise-filled room after he lost the Iowa caucuses, but I love what he's doing with the Democratic National Committee. He's trying to recreate the Democrats as a genuine grassroots organization as opposed to one relying primarily on media consultants and ad buyers, and to do it nationwide, and he's doing this despite major opposition from DC insiders. I don't know if he'll succeed in his goal of recreating a Democratic Party where people actually participate on a local level-like they used to do in the old political machines, but without the corrupt ward bosses. But if these horizontal connections grow enough, we'll see state parties strong enough to actually begin to call the shots on a national level. And to maybe even make possible genuine primary fights when incumbents get too complacent and refuse to lead. This is a long-term process, and may not succeed, because the Democrats have let their base atrophy for decades. But for all my frustrations with the timidity of Senate and Congressional Democrats, and believe me I'm frustrated, I've felt great supporting the DNC in building that basic infrastructure of volunteer coordinators and grassroots organizers that has the potential to both revitalize the party, and help shift its direction.
I also think it's important to support individual candidates who we like, and not just leave this to the big money donors. The internet really has made the small donor model more possible, so I often use it to add my small contribution to those of thousands of others. I'll sometimes give directly to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who then funnel resources to appropriate campaigns. They have the advantage of having an overview on which races are competitive and which aren't, and have a sense of who needs additional resources. But I can't say I always like their choices, so more often I'll pick specific candidates who not only seem to have a decent chance of winning, but also more closely reflect my values. Those tend to be the ones featured in the emails of MoveOn or on the pages of politically oriented blogs like the Daily Kos .
I've also been giving some to the presidential campaigns, just because the stakes are so high. I like to think my money is going not only for ads (where my dollars feel a pitiful drop in the bucket), but also for the campaign infrastructure that actually coordinates volunteers, gets people out to vote, and in the case of both the Edwards and Obama campaigns, goes to some lengths to try to build grassroots movements that might stick around, no matter who ends up getting the nomination. I've written about my objections to Hillary Clinton in some recent articles like Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Disappointment and Hillary Clinton and the Ghosts of 2006), Clinton is my distinct last choice of the Democratic candidates, though still better than the Republican field. I've been giving most of my money to John Edwards, who I think has taken the strongest recent stands. I loved how when he spoke to a Seattle union audience, Edwards led with not with economic issues where he knew he'd get an enthusiastic response, but with more challenging positions on the Iraq war and global warming. And I appreciate that he's been the first to stake out strong positions on issues like health care and global warming, with the other major Democratic candidates following in his wake.
I think Edwards still definitely has a chance, and a recent CNN poll flagged him as the only Democrat to beat all four major Republican candidates But I've also given some money, though a lesser amount, to Barack Obama, who I like as well, and who really does seem to be bringing new participants into his campaign in an exciting way, especially younger voters. I was quite impressed hearing Obama in Seattle recently, and think he could be both an effective candidate and president. And though I'm wary about they way "unify America" rhetoric can blur real policy differences and interests, I just read a very thoughtful recent piece that links it to Obama's community organizing background and suggests it might actually be the soundest approach in a nation where people have been deliberately polarized for short-term political gain..
Of course none of these electoral donations sever the link between money and politics, which we have to do if we are going to reclaim America. By far the best approach is the Clean Elections model that I described in one of the profiles in my Soul of a Citizen book, and which has worked wonderfully in Maine, Arizona, and Vermont. If you raise enough $5 contributions in these states, you now get public resources to run a competitive campaign. The approach has brought wonderful new people into politics (I recently heard a great presentation from an Arizona teacher who was able to run for state rep only because of this process, but could now be a rising political star). And it severs the link between campaigning and having to constantly do the bidding of wealthy donors. Public Campaign is the great group that coordinates the national efforts (with good work from a reenergized Common Cause and from the campus efforts of Democracy Matters ). Many states also have local Clean Elections efforts that are coordinated through Public Campaign. On a hopeful note, all the Democratic candidates have said they'll back the Clean Elections approach, although Hillary Clinton only signed on after Common Cause ran major Iowa ads on the subject, and it will clearly take a sustained grassroots effort to make this happen.
All of the groups and campaigns I've mentioned so far are multi-issue, because the challenges we face are so profoundly interconnected. But there are also some issue-specific groups that I've also been supporting.
I'm working a lot on global warming, as you may know. And more good groups spring up on the issue each day, like the 1Sky coalition, or the Focus the Nation project that's planning a day of national teach-ins January 31. The Climate Crisis Coalition puts out a particularly useful weekly digest of relevant news in terms of related science, new energy initiatives, and citizen and political efforts, and does it on an absolute shoestring. But of all the good environmental groups, the Sierra Club seems the most genuinely participatory and grassroots-which is key for me. Most of these groups lobby and take good stands, but the Sierra Club really puts energy into developing local chapters, which means it connects people to each other and then encourages them to take the lead. Sierra Club has also been in the forefront in creating labor-environmental alliances, as in its Blue-Green Alliance with the United SteelWorkers, who along with SEIU, do more innovative organizing projects than any other unions in America.
In fact, the UnitedSteelWorkers have a new Associates Member program, Fight Back America, which anyone can join for $40 (less if you're a student or unemployed), and which both builds their base and gives you a connection with union activism even if you aren't in one (or if you're in a union that's doing little to build social movements). The other major union-oriented group that anyone can join or support is Jobs With Justice. They do great work building labor-community coalitions, and have local offices in 23 states.
I also belong to the NAACP because they're still the major force working for racial justice and these issues are far from solved. Results is a great grassroots non-partisan lobby group on global and national hunger issues And I'm a card-carrying ACLU member because well--after what Bush, Cheney, and their appointed judges and justices have done to the constitution, we have a long way to go to get back to a balance that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of. (interestingly, somewhere around a third of the ACLU's new post-9/11 members have been self-described political conservatives.)
Finally, we need strong forces pushing outside the electoral arena to get us out of Iraq and to prevent future destructive wars. Lots of the multi-issue groups I've mentioned make this a major focus, but there are also some excellent specific ones working on war and peace issues, like Peace Action (formerly Sane/Freeze, the largest national group focusing just on peace issues), and True Majority (founded by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's). I'm not a pacifist, but The War Resister's League has carried the banner of peace activism for 85 years, and I always admire what they do. And there are some local friends, The Backbone Campaign, who are probably a bit harsher on mainline elected Democrats than I am, but have initiated wonderfully innovative efforts with puppets and processions, that have developed a national presence. I also support a couple of primarily Jewish peace groups that are definitely pro-Israel but push for a major shift from current Israeli policies), Americans For Peace Now and Brit Tzedek.
Hope this list is useful. If you don't like some of the groups, I've suggested that's fine, and I hardly expect you to give to them all. But I thought this might offer a useful window into some citizen engagement efforts that I admire and try to support.
By the way, a friend named Harvey McKinnon has a nice little book on donating called The Power of Giving. It's a bit more volunteerism oriented than I'd like (vs social action), but has some good thoughts on the role of giving in our lives
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org To receive his articles directly email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles