Propelling Change: A Venture Philanthropy Shop Gets Behind Progressive Organizing

photo:  a katz/shutterstock

photo:  a katz/shutterstock

During the first years after Sarah Williams and Jeremy Mindich co-founded Propel Capital in 2008, they focused mostly on backing social entrepreneurs trying to scale new solutions to pressing problems, both in the U.S. and globally. They embraced a venture investing mindset, borrowing ideas and language from the VC world—like the importance of providing patient, early-stage growth capital and offering hands-on help to startups. They described their grants and investments as a “portfolio.”

In other words, Propel Capital looked and acted like other venture philanthropy shops that have popped up in the past twenty years—places like New Profit and NewSchool Ventures. By focusing on scaling innovation in the social sector and embracing risk, these intermediary funders have drawn support from new donors in the business world, especially tech and finance.

At the same time, venture philanthropy firms kept their distance from traditional kinds of liberal advocacy work. The language of these outfits has been technocratic and non-ideological. They’ve defined social entrepreneurship mainly in terms of problem-solving. They’ve rarely talked explicitly about overturning power hierarchies of class and race, or the all-important arena of political combat.

For a long time, the Brooklyn-based Propel Capital positioned itself in much the same safe way. But that was then.

Last week, the fund launched Propel Democracy, a new $5 million effort that seeks “to catalyze investment in local organizing strategies that build progressive political power in states of critical electoral importance.”

The fund has invested $1 million this year and will spend an additional $2 million in 2018.

“Supported by technology and national armies of volunteers with an unambiguous desire for change, these local mobilization efforts will be the driving force behind a major progressive rebound in 2018 and beyond,” said Sarah Williams, co-founder and CEO of Propel Capital. “With additional funding and coordination among like-minded groups, these organizations will have the power to lead a generational transformation in American electoral politics. That’s why we’re moving our resources now—not in six or nine months.”

The fund will move quickly to support partners leading up to the crucial 2018 mid-term election, which will determine party control of Congress and the 2020 presidential contest.

So how did Propel Capital come to chart this new path?

Well, in part, this is a familiar story of donors feeling compelled to change tactics by the rise of Donald Trump. But as Williams told me, Propel Capital’s funding had already been evolving before 2016 election. “This is a new portfolio for us,” she said of the democracy fund. “But it’s very much in line with who we are.”

Williams describes herself as a lifelong activist, who did organizing work around HIV/AIDS and reproductive rights before starting a career in philanthropy that’s included extensive consulting and helping to create the Pfizer Foundation, the charitable arm of the pharma giant. Mindich has a background in finance (and is the donor behind Propel Democracy), but he was a freelance journalist before that and has been involved in other progressive causes. He’s also been a huge contributor to the Democratic Party and in recent years.

Propel’s shift began a few years ago, when it started supporting work on criminal justice reform and became a leading funder of the campaign to close Riker’s Island, the troubled New York City jail. Its Propel Justice portfolio includes such organizations as JustLeadership USA and More Just NYC. It’s also supported the Working Families Party, a major force in progressive politics in New York State.

Like other donors these days, Williams and Mindich believe that traditional grantmaking has limits, and Propel Capital long been involved in impact investing. As they turned to the policy arena, they also saw the importance of giving to 501(c)(4) and 527 groups. That money tends to be far more scarce in progressive funding circles, but is critical to securing major wins, including through ballot initiatives. In the summer of 2016, Williams and Mindich created an LLC so Propel would have more flexibility in how it moved funds and motivated change—not just on criminal justice, but around the broader challenge of economic inequality.

“Then the election happened,” said Williams. “And we really decided to double down on the progressive organizing work.”

In ramping up in this space, Propel is drawing on some of the same principles that have guided its investing from the start. Williams said that the kind of funding it’s always provided—multi-year general support—is badly needed to bolster grassroots advocacy efforts. “That’s very much what these progressive organizing groups want,” she said. “That kind of growth capital is really valuable.”

One reason for the importance of such funding is that organizing groups often need to pivot quickly and be nimble, she said. They can’t be locked into a rigid set of activities and deliverables dictated by program grants.

The inaugural grantees of the Propel Democracy fund include Color of Change PAC for work to increase black voter turnout; the Electoral Justice Project – the Movement for Black Lives, for efforts to bolster black-led grassroots groups; and New Media Ventures Resist and Rebuild Innovation Fund, which is focused on the media side of building a more inclusive democracy.

If you look at the full range of groups that Propel Capital is now supporting, it includes quite a few other hard-hitting activist groups on the left. But as far as Sarah Williams is concerned, the fund is still in the business of backing social entrepreneurs. Many of the groups it’s backing are early-stage ventures led by driven, creative leaders determined to improve society, and who bring a “systems change lens” to their work. Williams said, “What we think of as social entrepreneurs, we see a lot of in the progressive organizing space.”

That’s a great point, and one that will resonate with anyone who’s hung around this world. Social movements have produced any number of highly entrepreneurial leaders, going back to the abolitionists. And there’s a strong case that these kinds of change agents—those attuned to power and animated by fiercely held values along with, yes, ideology—have been far more effective at reshaping society than those who embrace a narrower problem-solving approach. Historically, large-scale shifts in norms, policy and systems have tended to flow from the success of social movements as opposed to other kinds of actors. 

But this isn’t generally where the grant money flows, at least from today's newer donors. In recent years, many philanthropists have favored social entrepreneurs, narrowly defined, who are tinkering at the edges of structural inequities—and aren’t threatening to a donor class that’s benefitted enormously from the existing system. 

But achieving deeper change requires backing what we might call social movement entrepreneurs—those keen to challenge entrenched power arrangements and to influence the gut-level values that so often drive political behavior. For some donors, Trump’s election has been a wake-up call in that regard.

Propel Capital isn’t the only example of an equity-minded funder that’s lately swung behind edgier approaches, as we’ve been reporting. Other newcomers to progressive organizing have also supported grassroots advocacy and movement building with a strong sense of urgency. In fact, as Williams tells it, there’s not a moment to lose—donors need to act now to capitalize on the momentum that’s been building during Trump’s first year in office.

“While the Democratic Party has struggled to define its vision after 2016, grassroots groups are already busy mobilizing for the future,” she said. “This year’s sweeping victories in Virginia point to the importance of harnessing the new electoral energy and investing deeply in organizing to build a broad coalition of progressives, communities of color, millennials and working-class people.”