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Democracy Alliance Dumps Progressive Organizations

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DEMOCRACY ALLIANCE
The Democracy Alliance has experienced tensions over whether to focus on an immediate political victory by supporting Democratic President Barack Obama's reelection or on long-term progressive infrastructure building. | Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The Democracy Alliance, a private network of major progressive and Democratic donors, has dropped a number of prominent organizations, according to people familiar with the group's decision.

The donor network has long faced tension over how to build a progressive movement and bring about social change, particularly over whether to focus on electing Democrats in the next cycle or building lasting infrastructure. The group has faced particularly acute friction over deciding if it should devote funds to President Obama's reelection or invest in more long-term projects.

Among those who support the creation of a progressive infrastructure, there is heavy debate over whether to fund organizations closely aligned with the Democratic Party or those that operating outside it and pressuring it to move in a more progressive direction.

The groups dropped by the Democracy Alliance tend to be those that work outside the party's structure. Groups with closer ties to the party, such as the Center for American Progress and Media Matters, retained their status with the Democracy Alliance as favored organizations.

The decision to drop certain groups was delivered to those affected last week. Among the ones axed are Robert Greenwald's Brave New Foundation, James Rucker's Citizen Engagement Lab, Melanie Sloan's Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (known as CREW), Third Way, the Center for Progressive Leadership, the Advancement Project, Democracia, Free Press and Simon Rosenberg's NDN, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Groups working on issues relating directly to people of color appear to be the most dramatically affected.

America Votes, which describes itself as a "nonpartisan organization that works to advance progressive policies," was retained, as were the Center for Community Change, Progressive Majority and the New Organizing Institute.

"Being dumped at the very time that our Koch brothers' work is coming to the fore is ironic because the biggest lesson I've learned from the Koch brothers is that funding wide and funding deep is the way to create fundamental social change," said Greenwald, whose recent documentary investigations have drawn attention to the two wealthy GOP donors who have raised at least $100 million to defeat Obama in 2012.

"What I've seen over and over again with the Koch brothers is they understand you don't just fund one element. You fund the ideas through think tanks, the activists through grassroots organizations. You fund the pundits who go on and talk about these things. You fund the electoral work," Greenwald added. "It's tragic that Democracy Alliance is cutting back on the spectrum of what's being funded at the very time that the Koch brothers and others have made clear how necessary it is to have a broad range of funding [for] different progressive organizations and institutions."

In addition to providing services to the group Color of Change, Citizen Engagement Lab incubated a host of startup organizations including Ultra Violet, Presente and Forecast the Facts. Color of Change, which deploys online activism to combat racism, is credited, along with Media Matters, with taking down Glenn Beck by urging advertisers to stop backing the Fox News host; Media Matters and Color of Change worked together on the project. CREW works to uncover corruption in Congress but has drawn attention for its work investigating for-profit colleges. Third Way is a centrist group often derided by progressives. The Advancement Project strives to fight the disenfranchisement of minority voters and the Center for Progressive Leadership tries to expand the ranks of diverse progressive leaders.

"The recent decisions were part of a natural funding cycle that all philanthropic organizations go through," an official at the Democracy Alliance said. "In addition to an evolving strategy that focuses on a smaller set of anchor organizations, we’re also recommending that donors support a broader landscape of groups. Organizations that we've recommended in the past will continue to get support -- donors know these organizations and they will continue to do good work."

But Deborah Sagner, a former member of the donor network, said that the decision was in line with the group's unfortunate drift toward supporting only groups closely allied to the Democratic Party. "I was sorry to see that the DA has continued on the trajectory away from funding independent infrastructure that induced me to leave the organization two years ago. I will say that the DA was a great idea (the need was nicely expressed by Bill Bradley in this editorial written at the time the DA was incubating), did some excellent funding of good groups, and it's really a shame that it has not been able to fulfill its promise," she wrote in an email.

While the Democracy Alliance does not give directly to progressive groups, it pulls together a network of donors to attend two annual conferences. Groups on a select list are given access to those donors and a chance to make presentations on behalf of their organization. Donors who have pledged a certain amount and then credited for their donations to listed groups.

The Democracy Alliance maintains a low profile by forbidding recipients from talking publicly about the organization. But former recipients are under no such rules.

"CREW is very appreciative of the Democracy Alliance’s past support," said CREW's head, Melanie Sloan. "Still, at a time when Americans are increasingly concerned about the corrupting influence of money in our political system, it is disappointing the group has chosen to focus on other areas."

"Nevertheless because this issue remains vital to a functioning democracy, CREW is confident there will still be broad support for our efforts to combat corruption," she added.

Greenwald, too, echoed gratitude for the support his group had received in the past. "The truth is Democracy Alliance has been incredibly helpful and they took a chance on us when there was no proof that YouTube could be a platform for social change, when it looked like it was only naked women falling down in showers," he said.

CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this report incorrectly referred to Citizen Engagement Lab as Civic Engagement Lab. The initial report also incorrectly described the relationship between the group and Color of Change. While an earlier version of this story also had incorrectly described the purpose of America Votes, it has been corrected.

This story was updated to include additional groups retained or dropped and new comments from Deborah Sagner and a Democracy Alliance official.

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