Election season often brings a flurry of articles about the sorry state of U.S. democracy, and this year is no exception, with the usual coverage of mega-donors, voter ID laws, negative advertising, the apathy of the American electorate, and so on. By mid-November, though, the media will be on to other topics—leaving the many problems of the world's oldest democracy to fester with little public scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Common Cause will remain on the case.
Founded in 1970 by former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare John W. Gardner, Common Cause continues to promote democracy reforms for open and accountable government that serves the public interest. It works toward enhancing voter participation, reforming campaign finance, and redistricting by nonpartisan commissions to end gerrymandering—among other issues. It claims a nationwide network of more than 625,000 members and supporters, with offices in 35 states and Washington, D.C.
But these impressive numbers mask some tough challenges the organization has faced in recent years. When Common Cause was founded, it had little company in the pro-democracy space. Today, though, the organization competes for funding and attention with a range of players, including new progressive grassroots groups, think tanks like Demos and the Brennan Center for Justice, and several campaign finance organizations. Common Cause still has a powerful brand, but it's best known among older white progressives as opposed to today's younger activists.
This is a familiar story in the nonprofit sector. Organizations founded in one era can find themselves struggling for traction in another in the face of new competitors and changing times. In some cases, they continue to draw in big donor support—think the Sierra Club or ACLU—and in other cases, they face a harder road, or even go out of business.
So how's Common Cause doing on the fundraising front these days? And what kinds of donors are standing behind the organization?
I'll get to these questions in a minute. First, though, let's emphasize the point that Common Cause's mandate feels more urgent than ever given recent events. Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) and McCutcheon v. FEC (2014) dramatically extended the capability of wealthy individuals and big business to spend as much as they want to sway elections. Meanwhile, the right to vote is under fire, including challenges to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the spread of voter ID requirements whose impact is felt more by minorities, the elderly and the disabled.
In an interview with Inside Philanthropy, Common Cause’s new president Karen Hobert Flynn broadly framed the group's agenda as standing up for ordinary citizens so they can be heard in the public square. “The kinds of issues we work on are those that directly take on power," she said. "We work to take power away from special interests and vest that with the people." Perhaps needless to say, Common Cause has been very busy in recent years at the national, state and local levels. For example, Flynn said that after Citizens United, the group helped move strong disclosure reforms in close to 20 states. Common Cause has also been deeply involved in a number of voting issues that also play out largely in the states.
As for the funding, Flynn acknowledges that the terrain has become more challenging. "One challenge is there are a lot of groups that have come into this space since Common Cause was founded, so there is competition for scarce dollars.”
Still, donations keep coming, with Common Cause reporting total revenue and support of $15.1 million for the fiscal year that ended in June 2015. This funding comes in both large and small amounts, Flynn said. “We still get most of our resources from our members and activists. We have about 67,500 donors who give over a 24-month period, and of those, 66,000 are under-$500 donors." In addition to that support, the group has hundreds of major donors who give over $1000, and their contributions make up about 20 percent of its revenue.
Foundations are also important. Flynn said that in a recent year, just over a third of Common Cause's income came from foundations, with both state and national funders making grants. National funders include MacArthur and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, while regional funders include the Joyce and Irvine foundations.
Like so many nonprofit advocacy groups these days, Common Cause has a 501(c)4 arm, and Flynn said that these kinds of activities excite a lot of donors. In fact, a significant portion of Common Cause’s small donor base contributes to its (c)4 work. “A lot of our direct mail and online giving, and some of our major donors giving, and most of our bequests tend to be (c)(4)," Flynn said.
Common Cause's long history and well-known brand are an asset when it comes to donor retention. “We are fortunate that we have a lot of people who give to Common Cause over a long period of time," Flynn said. And, of course, the perennial challenge with donors like that is always to get them to raise their giving. "Working to engage people who are loyal to Common Cause and work to move them up the ladder of giving is one of the most important things we can do, and one I don’t think we have done enough of, and one that we will be focusing on,” Flynn said.
We've often heard many nonprofit presidents make this exact same point—and same pledge. What we hear less often is anyone singing the praises of direct mail, but Flynn did just that.
“A lot of people think that direct mail is dead, and it really isn’t," she said. "Many of our members engage in giving through direct mail. As our donors get older, into the 40s and 50s, they may have given online, but they often switch to become direct mail donors, so you have to have multiple channels and ways for your donors to give."
Finally, for an organization that first became famous in the 1970s, it's no surprise that bequests are becoming an increasingly important part of Common Cause's funding picture. It pulled in $1.4 million in such income in its last fiscal year.
Flynn said: “I think it’s important to have a planned giving program, because we have donors that have been with us 40 years, so some of the investments we made many years ago have paid off in terms of bequests coming in. We have been trying to invest half of our bequests in a reserve fund so we have it around in case of economic downturn. The bequests you can never count on. You don’t know if they are going to come. They are good in one sense, but it also means you are losing members, so you have to work to replace them.”
As for the larger picture, Flynn expressed a common frustration among progressive nonprofit executives that conservative donors have greater stamina when it comes to shaping public policy. "The right has been able to get a lot of investment to roll back money in politics reform. Those investments are steady, they are substantial, and they take a long view to get to their goals. They have achieved some of their goals in terms of dismantling many of the reforms, contribution limits, pushing Citizens United and pushing independent expenditures as not corrupting, which we don’t believe. The left, on the other hand, doesn’t fund over long periods of time, and the resources are not substantial.”
Flynn might have added that as an issue area, democracy reform has never excited major individual donors the way that causes like climate change or LGBT rights have. Yet, obviously, if progressives can't reform the structures of democracy to give more power to ordinary citizens, it will be that much harder to win on any specific issues.
Flynn hopes that donors will pay more attention to what's possible in the democracy space, pointing to recent victories. “For the first time since 2010, we are seeing more proactive reforms than restrictive measures, over 400 reforms that break down barriers to voting, versus 77 restrictive measures."
She added: "we’re turning the tide."