'The Resistance' Faces A New Question: What To Do With All That Money

Mar 26, 2017
Originally published on March 27, 2017 9:30 am

The numbers, in several cases, are astounding. 350.org, a climate action group, saw donations almost triple in the month after Donald Trump's election. Since Trump's win, Planned Parenthood told NPR it's gained over 600,000 new donors and more than 36,000 new volunteers. And the American Civil Liberties Union has raised more than $80 million since Nov. 8.

Key players in what's being called "The Resistance" — a vocal and growing progressive backlash to the Trump presidency — have been flooded with, and in some cases overwhelmed by an outpouring of money and volunteer support in the last few months. In many cases, these groups are struggling to keep up.

For instance, MoveOn.org, an anti-war group turned anti-Trump group, and Indivisible, a group that created a playbook for progressives to lobby members of Congress and disrupt congressional town halls, held a joint conference call the day after the Women's March on Washington in January. It was historic.

"We had 60,000 people join one conference call," says Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn Civic Action. "Guinness Book of World Records told us we broke the record for one conference call." (The current record for a conference call on the Guinness website is 16,972 people on a call organized by Broadnet Teleservices.)

Sandra Minuitti, vice president of marketing at Charity Navigator, a watchdog group that rates charities and nonprofits, has a name for all of this new money that groups in The Resistance have been receiving: "rage giving."

National groups may be able to more easily adapt to all this new "rage giving," but for state and local groups, some of that adjustment requires an entire reworking of an organization.

Alison Beyea, the executive director of the ACLU of Maine, says that the growth in her chapter has been astronomical. Membership has already doubled — twice. And she had to make big changes.

"I have to be honest, that initially when there was endless emails about people wanting to volunteer, there certainly was a bit of apprehension," says Beyea. "We haven't traditionally been an organization that has worked with volunteers."

But the group has since adapted, and has even given those volunteers their own day, Beyea told NPR. "We call them Team Tuesday."

Of all the groups interviewed, the ACLU's national operation has the most clear-cut plan of how it will use all of its newfound support. Besides organizing volunteers at the state and local level, the ACLU recently organized a Resistance training called "People Power" for new volunteers. And a memo on the organization's website details just how its new influx of cash will be spent, with more than half the new funds being spent in key battleground states where fights are taking place over key issues important to the ACLU. The organization also joined a school for startups in Silicon Valley called Y Combinator, to figure out some best practices for spending money wisely.

While having more money than you know what to do with can seem like the perfect problem, David Van Slyke, dean of the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University, says there is an inherent challenge: meeting the expectations of new donors and finding ways to keep them giving in the future. Some of that challenge, says Van Slyke, is remedied by specificity.

"What is it you're resisting about the president," says Van Slyke. "Is it the president himself? Is it a particular executive order? A particular appointment?"

Many donors to the so-called Resistance may find themselves aligned with some of a group's aims, but not all of them. For instance, the ACLU recently defended conservative firebrand Milo Yiannapoulus and the organization in fact, does not endorse political candidates or advocate for any particular political party.

Michael Cornfield, a professor of political management at George Washington University, says players in The Resistance can learn a lesson or two from the Tea Party, a group born out of resistance to America's previous president.

"One of the unusual features and I think it's a key to their success," Cornfeild told NPR, "is that there was no head of the Tea Party." For Cornfield, a problem arises when "you have someone or two people who think they personify the movement and their vanity creeps in."

Cornfield also says the Tea Party succeeded by focusing locally and trying to obstruct their opponents every chance they got. But he also notes that now, as the Tea Party celebrates the Republican Party's return to power, it hasn't all been a victory lap. "The Tea Party is part of an extremely uneasy majority coalition that controls this Congress and a lot of legislatures and statehouses," Cornfield said, "and they don't know what to do next."

As money continues to pile up for The Resistance, there's another question facing key players: how quickly should they spend it? The half dozen groups that spoke with NPR said their goal was to use it soon, and not worry too much about stockpiling for a later day. "People give us money today, to make a difference today and tomorrow," said Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. "I think that it's really important that we put as much wood on this fire right now as we possibly can." For Kelly Robinson, an organizer with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, that means collaborating as much as possible with like-minded groups. "It is clear that if we're going to get free," she told NPR, "we're all going to get free together."

Of course, for smaller and newer organizations involved in The Resistance, behind the waves of support there is also a bit of uncertainty. Ezra Levin is one of the founders of Indivisible, the campaign to help progressives lobby their members of Congress and engage them at town halls, Tea Party style. He says some of the group's work is being figured out on the fly.

Levin says Indivisible began as just a Google Doc, and when that crashed, he and his cofounders built a website, promising never to become an official organization, and only provide a guidebook for progressives that need it. Now Indivisible is a 501(c)4 nonprofit accepting donations and growing by the day. "What we see right now is this fierce urgency," Levin told NPR. "We're definitely building the plane while we fly it."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.