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Unlocking equity by investing in broad outreach and deep community organizing 

An older man talking to a young Black woman at a voting location.

Foundation program officers and government officials can unintentionally limit the impact of community-based organizations by funding them to serve only a specific demographic group and a narrow set of activities. Without the flexibility to pivot to new strategies and broad engagement among community members, organizations risk falling into a cycle where they only treat the symptoms of problems instead of tackling the root causes that underlie their mission. Tackling root causes involves year-round voter engagement and policy advocacy.  

Community organizing fosters deep and broad engagement beyond elections

In a healthy democracy, community members have a say in the policy decisions that impact their daily lives both during and between elections. Yet, electoral campaigns are projected to spend up to $16 billion in 2024 on ads and to hire expensive field vendors who churn through canvassers who don’t stay after Election Day. That money ultimately does little to shift power to those who are affected by election outcomes and policy decisions. What is needed instead is investment in community members and leaders who are engaged in voter outreach.  

Community organizing shifts power and addresses the root causes of problems by building deep trust within communities and engaging the electorate on a broad scale. Community-based organizations doing this work enable regular people to build power. They can then fight together for justice and equity against oppressive systems.  

Community-based organizations invest deeply in trusted messengers to provide information to their families, friends, and neighbors about voting and the electoral process. For example, nonpartisan voter engagement efforts by Living United for Change in Arizona and Black Voters Matter turned out more voters than the margin of victory in Arizona and Georgia in 2020. During the election certification crisis of late 2020, We The People Michigan and many other groups with a year-round base pressured state and local elected officials to ratify a free and fair election.  

Unlike candidate campaigns, community organizations continue to educate, advocate for, and mobilize their communities on the issues that matter most after the elections. For example, after the 2022 mid-term elections, the faith-based ISAIAH coalition in Minnesota switched gears to policy advocacy and won a sweeping pro-democracy and pro-equity state-level legislative agenda in 2023 that included restoring the voting rights of returning citizens and paid family and medical leave. Without the support of a community that is actively engaged in these issues year-round, it would have been difficult to make such a successful pivot.  

The secret to these organizations’ success is their ability to build interpersonal relationships that sustain movements. In this era of isolation and alienation, many people lack social connections and are alienated from the political system. Community-based organizations offer ordinary people opportunities to build relationships and take collective action—from attending town halls to exercising their right to protest. Through community organizing, leaders stay involved for the long haul, beyond one-off protests and election cycles. 

Funding community leader resources to create social change 

Successful community organizing and voter engagement require substantial resources. At the Healthy Democracy Fund at the Tides Foundation, we focus our grantmaking on state and local groups. These are organizations led by people of color, young people, immigrants, and/or working-class people who have the relationships needed for broad voter outreach and deep leadership development. To date, our fund has granted over $17 million to organizations working to turn out people of color, young people, and low-income people to vote this November.  

Here’s how the Healthy Democracy Fund works to create change: 

  • The fund prioritizes funding nonpartisan civic engagement work at community organizations, both 501(3) and 501(c)(4).  
  • 501(c)(3) funds can be used toward nonpartisan voter registration, education, and mobilization programs.  
  • The fund makes project-specific grants to support nonpartisan efforts to engage members and leaders in voter outreach. 

Of the $17 million in grantmaking from the Healthy Democracy Fund, we have granted $11 million for nonpartisan programs housed at 501(c)(4) organizations.  These grants require exceptional due diligence. For example, 501(c)(3) dollars granted to 501(c)(4) organizations can only fund nonpartisan activity and can’t be used for capacity building. They also require that grantees provide more detailed narrative and financial reports. But when given the option to apply for either 501(c)(3) general operating funds or 501(c)(4) project-specific funds, most grantees choose the more rigorous process. 

One reason is that, unlike 501(c)(3) organizations, 501(c)(4) organizations have unlimited lobbying capacity. That means that the power built during an election can continue to be deployed during the legislative session. Pivoting to advocacy, as ISAIAH did, allows organizations to develop leaders more deeply as they continue to work on the issues that motivated them during the election. 

Unlocking a more equitable electoral process 

The Tides Healthy Democracy Fund funds the community organizations best able to reach voters and build deep relationships in communities historically denied power. In this election year and well beyond, as funders, we can invest in organizations and leaders who can unlock a more equitable future. 

Photo credit: Drazen Zigic via Getty Images


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