Big and small donors start making their end of year contributions around this time, and I thought it might be a good idea to run through some worthy progressive organizations that you may not have heard of and to remind you of some progressive organizations that are well-known but could always use the support anyway. In addition, I'm going to do a quickie guide to different type of organizations, who can (and cannot) donate to them and how they use their money.
Many of the organizations I'm listing are state-based and are often neglected by national blogs or are only spotlighted when there's a controversy or screw up. In most cases, the organizations I'm listing have multiple entites to which you can donate. One organization can have a 501(c)(3), a 501(c)(4), and a state PAC. Donations to 501(c)(3) organizations are tax deductible.
Many of these organizations rely primarily on big donors, but they will take small donations as well and many also want to grow their grassroots community.
These organizations reach millions of voters that blogs don't reach. In some cases, these organizations have established roots in their communities and are considered trusted messengers.
Types of Organizations
Note: I'm not a lawyer. This is a layman's guide based on my work experience with various progressive organizations and how things have been explained to me in legal briefings by campaign finance lawyers and CFOs of organizations. I've tried to make this as accessible as possible, and in doing so, I realize that there may be some flaws in how I've worded something. Corrections from campaign finance lawyers and others are more than welcome.
- Contributions are unlimited and may be accepted from any source. Contributions are tax deductible. The gift tax does not apply.
- Lobbying expenditures restricted.
- Can't get involved in political elections (can't overtly support one candidate over another).
- Organizations with more than one entity will sometimes differentiate their c3 from their c4 by calling their c3 an "education fund" or the word "institute" is somewhere in the name of the org.
- 501c3s are great for doing nonpartisan activities like voter registration and voter education (what someone's rights are at the polls). Progressive organizations can use their 501c3 to go into neighborhoods with high concentrations of Dem-leaning voters (e.g. liberal college campuses, African American neighborhoods in cities, etc.) and register voters. We have an advantage over Republicans because there are significantly more precincts that are over 65% Democratic than there are precincts that are over 65% Republican. This is something that ACORN does with its c3 money.
- Some of the best known 501c3s are think tanks like the Center for American Progress.
- Contributions are unlimited and may be accepted from any source. The gift tax may apply and donations from individuals are NOT tax deductible. Corporations can deduct a portion 501c4 contribution as a business expense.
- No restrictions on lobbying.
- Can engage in issue advocacy.
- Can participate in political activity, but this cannot become the organization's primary purpose.
- Organizations with more than one legal entity will sometimes differentiate their c4 from their c3 by calling their c4 an "action fund."
- Media Matters has a c3 arm and a c4 arm. If you look at the content, the c3 arm focuses on the media, while the c4 arm takes on conservative and Republican organizations and politicians. One way to think about it is that c3s are informational and educational, while c4s are more political in nature.
- Another way of thinking about it is that the c3 arm of an organization can conduct a nonpartisan voter registration program. The organization's c4 arm can conduct a persuasion program (for example, direct mail comparisons between two candidates). (Women's Voices. Women Vote. is an example of this. Their c3 arm was responsible for the botched voter registration program during the 2008 presidential primaries. Their c4 arm sent out persuasion mail to women during the general contrasting Obama and McCain with pro-Obama messaging.)
- Contributions are unlimited, but can only be accepted from individuals and organizations that accept only individual funds (i.e. other MCFLs. Gift tax may apply.
- Political operatives like MCFLs because your political activities can carry a "harder" message. In other words, you can engage in express advocacy through independent expenditures. Political activity may not become its primary purpose, so lawyers advise MCFLs to use at least 50% of their money on something other than express advocacy, like issue advocacy.
- Well-known example: Planned Parenthood Action Fund. (PP's state action funds are usually MCFLs as well.)
- Contributions are unlimited and may be accepted from any source. The gift tax does NOT apply.
- No express advocacy. If its main purpose is influencing a federal election, the FEC may require it to register as a federal PAC and limit its contributions. One way a 527 can stay a 527 by doing a lot of work downballot (governor races, state leg races, etc.)
- Check your state's campaign finance laws.
- Contribution limit: $5,000 per calendar year from individuals, other federal PACs (registered with FEC), partnerships, and Native American tribes. The gift tax does NOT apply.
- Can engage in unlimited express advocacy through independent expenditures (IEs).
- Well-known example: EMILY's List
The kinds of legal entities that an organization has in a state depend on the state's campaign finance laws, the needs of an organization, etc.
What is express advocacy? The FEC defines express advocacy as that "which in context can have no other reasonable meaning than to urge the election or defeat of one or more clearly identified candidate(s)," or "could only be interpreted by a reasonable person as containing advocacy of the election or defeat of one or more clearly identified candidate(s)." So basically, if it mentions an election, a candidacy, or a political party, or takes a position on a candidate or officeholder character, qualifications or fitness for office.
What is issue advocacy? Basically, the focus should be on a public policy issue and urging the public to contact an officeholder about an issue or some sort of call to action OTHER than voting for/against a candidate/political party. For example, if an MCFL were working in a state, half of the money would go towards issue advocacy ("A progressive tax policy is good for the middle class.), and half would go towards express advocacy or talking about how one candidate was better than another ("Bush/McCain economics would doom us and McCain won't help the middle class.").
Some worthy organizations
My familiarity with these organizations varies. In some cases, I know people who work for these organizations, and know what they've done. In most cases though, I'm familiar with the organization and their reputation. If an organization has many state affiliates, it's likely that certain state affiliates rock, while others suck. Information also culled from websites and FEC filings. It's up to you to do your research. My main goal is to get folks to think about organizations that do not get attention in the netroots (or when they do, it's only negative). The reality is that progressive organizations have made a big impact and didn't need the major blogs to do it. I believe in coalition politics and think it is necessary in moving progressives forward.
Supporting Planned Parenthood (the c3s and the MCFLs) is important for many reasons. I'll focus on the political ones. Planned Parenthood works to get pro-choice legislators (especially in state legislatures) into office. Personally, I think is most effective at the state level. However, Planned Parenthood has also done some good work in federal elections; the national MCFL put out this ad on McCain last year which IIRC was aired on cable stations with a mostly female audience (e.g. Lifetime). PP is a particularly effective and trusted messenger (especially with single women), so their message is more likely to penetrate key voting groups than other organizations.
Planned Parenthood (c3) link.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund (MCFL) link.
Planned Parenthood has active state and regional legal entities. Two that I know have been particularly active and effective are in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, so consider donating to these MCFLs if you don't want to donate to one of the national action fund. These states also have c3s.
MCFLs can donate money to each other, so you could donate to the national MCFL which would direct resources to the states most in need when the time comes.
Defenders of Wildlife is a 501c3. You can support their work on environmental issues (including grassroots efforts to influence decisions in government) by donating at the link.
Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund was responsible for the ad about Sarah Palin supporting hunting wolves from the air. That may be the ad they are best known for by national bloggers, but they did an incredible job during the 2008 Republican Senate primary in New Mexico. Their "Too Bad for New Mexico" campaign raised negatives of both Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce at the same time. The campaign (according to their website which focused on Steve Pearce after the primary and FEC filings) included mail, TV ads, radio ads, and canvassing. Pearce became the Republican nominee but was already hobbled by the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund campaign. Tom Udall went on to win by double digits, and money that would have been spent on this race went to other races around the country. They had a coherent message and ran an effective campaign, so if you want to reward good behavior, here's an entity for that.
League of Conservation Voters (LCV), Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and other environmental groups work together not just in legislatures but also on the ground to get pro-environment legislators elected at the state and federal level. LCV has a good brand, and you can donate to either their c4.
Clean Water Action is an organization that I've heard mixed things about. They're active in various states, and I think the effectiveness of the organization depends on the state. If you're interested in learning more about them and donating, click here.
NAACP National Voter Fund registers voters and educates voters about their voting rights. This is a c3 and contributions are tax deductible. Party committees usually don't do full-blown voter registration drives in off-year elections, so that kind of work will likely fall on c3s.
Fair Wisconsin is an organization that works to advance LGBT rights in Wisconsin. This was born out of the 2006 fight against the same sex marriage ban in WI. Progressives lost the amendment fight, but in the last few election cycles, Fair Wisconsin has helped elect pro-LGBT state legislators into office. After the 2008 elections, WI Dems controlled both chambers of the state legislature and the governor's office. This paid off when WI Democrats (via Gov. Doyle's budget this year) extended some domestic partnership benefits to LGBT couples. (Rep. Tammy Baldwin has one of these partnerships, BTW.) These benefits are limited, but these domestic partnerships are viewed by some as a model for extending LGBT rights in states with constitutional amendments banning same sex marriage. If you're interested in an LGBT organization that's delivered, here's one organization that is worth donating to. Fair Wisconsin has several legal entities and you can choose which one you want to put your money in here. BTW, Fair Wisconsin is also involved in legal battles on LGBT rights.
Democracia U.S.A. is a 501c3 dedicated to increasing the participation of Hispanics in our democracy (voter registration & voting rights education). It is one of many organizations who focus on the Hispanic community. These organizations do work together to maximize their impact.
You are probably familiar with VoteVets Political Action Committee and VoteVets Action Fund. Their ads have gotten some notice in the netroots, but I want to highlight them anyway b/c they're good messengers for a variety of issues. They've got some smart political people consulting with them, so a tip of the hat. You can donate to their PAC here.
ProgressNow is a network of state-based advocacy organizations. These state based organizations organize earned media events, raise money for independent expenditures, etc. To donate to its national c4 arm, click here. It's state affiliates have c3 and c4 arms, and in some cases, state PACs. I'm going to highlight the work of a few of them and link to where you can contribute to state affiliates. Many of these organizations have been working with state organizations on health care reform and other issues.
- ProgressNow Colorado has been the model for similar organizations around the country. To make a one-time donation to their c4, click here. Sign up for monthly contributions here. Tax-deductible donations to their c3, ProgressNow Colorado Education can be made here.
- Alliance for a Better Minnesota ran ads in support of Al Franken last year. Contribute to the c4 arm here. The ABM Education Fund is the c3 arm, but there's no donation link that I can see. Alliance for a Better Minnesota also has a state PAC.
- One Wisconsin Now is the organization responsible for footage of Sarah Palin at a recent Wisconsin fundraiser that you may have seen on the Rachel Maddow Show. They do good work in support of progressives up and down the ballot, and in countering conservative organizations which are alive and well in WI. Donate to the c4 here. The c3 arm is the Institute for One Wisconsin.
To see if your state has a ProgressNow affiliate, click here.
BISC is invaluable to the progressive movement. They've helped pass progressive ballot measures and defeated conservative ones. They also serve as a watchdog on right-wingnuts who fund conservative ballot measures.
To donate to BISC's 501c4, click here. Information on contributing to the BISC Foudnation (the c3 arm) is at the bottom of the link.
The Oregon Bus Project mobilizes Oregon voters to vote for progressives. You can donate to this organization here. Many Oregon progressive organizations work together to bring out progressive voters and get progressives on the ballot, and generally, money that is invested in a state with decent progressive infrastructure (which means not only having a number of organizations that cover different voting blocs but also having these organizations work decently together) is better spent.
Other places to donate
- Don't forget to consider donating money to progressive media like The American Prospect, The Washington Monthly, The Center for Independent Media, etc. These organizations are 501c3s so your donation is tax deductible.
- Media Matters for America (501c3)
- Secretary of State Project directs you to Secretary of State candidates worthy of supporting, which is why I've included this.
- Progressive Majority does work downballot including local races.
- INDN's List focuses on getting Native Americans elected and mobilizing Indians. This is the only organization I've mentioned where I've had a difficult time getting a handle on the effectiveness of the organization. Not sure if they're a good organization in need of money, or an organization that needs a staff overhaul and money. Anyways, I've put them here mainly to show the diversity of organizations out there working on behalf of progressives and building progressive infrastructure all over the country.
There are other organizations that I left off this list, and will highlight them separately if there's enough interest. I don't work for any of the organizations I listed but did spend time working for a c4 that is not on this list which explains my familiarity with various organizations.