Building Organizations That Build Progressive Power (Part 2)

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET
  • Mike Lux Co-Founder, Democracy Partners

The traditional model of progressive organizations that constituted much of the national progressive community in the country over the last three decades has not worked to build a broader movement or infrastructure. These organizations, historically, did not collaborate well and did not add up to any kind of overall progressive communications echo chamber.

The defining characteristics of these kinds of organizations tended to be as follows:

-A big presence in D.C., not so much at the grassroots
-Most of their membership is through direct mail, with little real interaction other than to periodically ask for money or (occasionally) to send out a newsletter
-Where there was membership and/or strong local chapters, it tended to be concentrated in overwhelmingly Democratic districts or states, so there wasn't much ability to influence moderates in heartland districts/states around the country
-Almost always much more focused on short-term legislative battles than on longer-term movement building
-Top-down in nature, with the natural leaders making the decisions and getting very little input from their members

A collection of these kinds of groups, all operating in their own little issue silo, does not a movement make.

Here are some examples of the kind of organizations that are building real progressive power for the long haul. Most of them are relatively new, although there are a few golden oldies in the list:

1. Coalitions that actually do something as opposed to being a list of groups on a piece of paper. Too many national coalitions are literally paper-thin, existing only as letterhead organizations that co-sign statements but do little else. However, coalitions like America Votes that actually did really important and really substantive works in target states around the country in 2004 and 2006, coordinating the work at a national and targeted state level of most of the groups who do real field organizing in elections, play a huge value added to the broader progressive movement.

2. Bottom-up internet-based organizations that not only welcome but are built around feedback and interaction with their members. I am thinking here of the gold standard, of course, which is, whose philosophy of taking on the issue campaigns and organizing strategies that its membership wants them to take on is real, and it makes them powerful. I'm also thinking of amazing state-level internet-based groups like ProgressNowAction, based in Colorado. Another important example is ActBlue, which literally empowers any progressive blogger, campaign, or PAC in America to do better internet fundraising.

3. National organizations with local bases. These are oldies but goodies, but at their best, organizations that have strong local bases and a solid national umbrella that can exert power in D.C. and bring people from around the country together have real ability to build sustainable power. I'm thinking here of multi-issue groups like labor unions, but also groups like USAction and ACORN. (A side note: old school groups in this category learn how to use the strategies of internet groups in "category two" could build amazing power.)

4. Gap fillers. There are organizations, both young and old, that see a gaping hole in the progressive infrastructure and move to fill it. The classic example from the early 1980s until today has been People For the American Way, which saw the growing threat of the extreme religious right and moved to organize it, and has since taken on one project after another, from the Bork fight to the impeachment fight to election protection and dozens of others. A narrower example is Women's Voices/Women Vote, whose funders saw that one of the biggest and most progressive demographic groups in America- unmarried women- was a low turnout group and vowed to change it. Of course, my favorite group in this category is the one I founded and chair, American Family Voices, which was literally founded to take on special projects to help the broad progressive community that no one else was taking on. We were the first group to take on the arsenic in the water issue, the only group to take on Bush on his own corporate misbehavior at Harken energy, the first group to run an ad on Halliburton insider contracts, the first group to focus on the concerned women constituency: we have helped make things happen when no one else would.

Whenever I write about good organizations, I get tons of complaints about the ones I don't mention, and there are many more whose work I love. But I wanted to lay out the kinds of organizations I think have the potential to truly build progressive power for the long term, and to mention an example or two in each category to give you a sense of what I'm talking about. I would love to know what you think the best groups in America are and what makes them good. Let me know what you think...

Mike Lux is the President of American Family Voices, an issue advocacy group sometimes described as the "free safety" of the progressive movement, and consults for progressive organizations and donors through his consulting firm, Progressive Strategies L.L.C.