Synopsis: Interview with Lacy Serros, Community Activist Fellow at Tides, 2008-2010. Discussion of the Voter Action Fund at Tides Foundation, a collective giving vehicle for donors engaging a “constant campaign” to support civic participation in the United States. Discussion of funding strategies, structure of VAF, how to recognize impact, arguments for sustaining grassroots organizations and supporting progressive communications capacity, reflections on engaged citizenship and the philanthropic sector.

“A window, not a wall”

Since its launch in 2004, Tides’ Voter Action Fund (VAF) has granted more than $10 million in support of civic participation, voting rights, and inclusive democracy. You were hired as a community fellow in 2007. Did you have a role in the 2009 Funding Strategies?

These strategies were developed prior to my arrival at Tides; I contributed details. For the strategy “Building the New Electoral Mainstream,” I added research on What are nonprofits doing to engage youth? or What is immigration reform looking like? How are immigrants at the table – or are they not? and How many people of color came out – in droves – in 2008? Including these details in our funding strategies created a space where grantees could see that we were doing our homework; we were aware of this information, and we weren’t just like, “Oh, everybody work together and get out the vote! And then we’ll have progressive politics…”

I’m not saying that institutions do that, but it can be the perception. In the grantmaking process, you have people all levels: PhDs, people who have done the work, people who have never done the work but they’re holding a portfolio and granting out for social justice. It’s almost like there’s a wall between funding institutions and grantees – and you want it to be more like a window, or a clear glass door. My work as a community fellow was to help create a sense of “Oh! That’s what you guys do – that’s your vision, that’s your mission!” Within the frames of the VAF strategies, I could help grantees devise a strong proposal that would elevate their work in the context of, say, “Creating Inclusive Democracy.”

A lot of my job as a Community Fellow has been talking to grantees and creating a space where we can work together, and letting them know that this is the language that VAF uses. At Tides, we say “progressive.” Other funders doing similar work may not call it that; they might say, “We don’t fund activism or advocacy, we fund ‘community organizing’.” And that can be confusing for grantees. They shouldn’t be shaping their programs to fit our strategies – but if something they’re doing resonates within these frames, that’s what they need to show us. And ultimately, grants do get made.

Being able to participate in the work of this fund, I’ve learned the importance of transparency. Everyone knows that there are rules. There are things that grantees need to do to comply, in applying for a grant – and funders know that we need a report from them, to account for their work. But trust can be better cultivated, between grantees and advisors, or those who are working with donors. Clear and early insight into funders’ priorities and goals can help grantee organizations explain their work well at the outset, and account for their work in a way that is effective for funders. Framing. It’s about what organizations need to work with their trustees and their boards.

Funding for impact

Is it unusual to have a liaison between the funding institution and the grantee?

No; philanthropic advisors and program officers are tasked with understanding the work in their issue area and building strong relationships with their grantees. Their job is to be able to make the case to their trustees or their board – to say Hey, this is my recommendation – to fund this group, at this level. I know what they’re doing, I trust them. I’ve done site visits; they’re real people, they breathe. [Laughing] They do this work.

Oftentimes, these professionals can’t do this at the level they want. They have hundreds of groups; they have lots of grantees. The VAF has never had a dedicated person to answer these kinds of questions, so in a way my role has been unique. Especially in this budget year. In 2009, we took a lot of time to scrutinize the budgets, the financials that were coming in from folks: Where are they strong? Where are they not strong? Can we refer them to another funder? Are they going to close their doors in two months? I calmed people down when they didn’t understand the budget spreadsheets. I’ve had calls with people who were in tears. Funding. It’s hard. We really took the time to really see where our dollars could make the most impact. I appreciated being able to discuss with them how this funding works.

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Because Tides facilitates different funds which work differently, in accordance with donors’ wishes, grantees don’t know when a Tides fund has particular structure, or process – they don’t when there’s an advisory committee. With the VAF, the process is closed; we call you. And it’s a Collective Action Fund, not a standard Donor Advised Fund (DAF) – so there’s not just one donor, there is a collective of institutional and individual donors who pool their resources together and collectively discuss civic engagement groups and the work, where they want it to go. They played a part in developing the funding strategies. They try to make sure that their money, that they’re contributing through Tides, has direction. That’s what we provide them.

The constant campaign

What attracts donors to the VAF, to this collective vehicle?

Well first, it’s Tides! We provide donors with good client service; we know the field, and can say with confidence, “If you didn’t know about this group over here, this is really phenomenal work.” We also make sure that donors don’t have to deal with the paperwork involved with charitable donations and tax write-offs, and all that stuff that would be their responsibility, if they were to write the group a check directly. Tides Foundation is able to deal with that. It’s easier to give.

Also, it makes more of an impact when you pool your resources together. If you’re in an advisory committee structure, you can talk to your funder colleagues and say “If you put in $20,000, I’ll put in $25,000,” and it makes the pot bigger, which makes your money go further. Each individual donor or institutional funder has a different viewpoint and a different vision… collective giving is a way to bring the funds together, and then spread them back out in a way that is pretty – that paints a collective picture of what progressive civic participation and an inclusive democracy should look like.

And, people come to the VAF because it’s not just about elections. It’s a constant campaign that’s looking long-term. Yes, we fund short-term for some immediate needs; we put in lots of money for 2008 non-partisan electoral work. But people are really getting activated and mobilized about a truly inclusive democracy. They’re giving a hoot about healthcare, and giving thought to climate change when they might have never heard that term before. While we’re doing things like electoral work, the point of it is long-term. We invest to strengthen organizations, to create scenarios and situations where communities can really understand the system, create better opportunities for themselves, create solutions to the issues that they need addressed – and that, in and of itself is being looked at as valuable. We have state groups and even national groups that are looking to smaller regional groups to help build the strength of their work, and we support groups that have a presence in two or three states, or just in DC in the beltway. This mix is what civic engagement looks like, on a nationwide level. It’s a mix.

VAF has been successful in funding over $4 million in 2008 – and, more importantly, recently, over $2 million in 2009 when nonprofits were closing, and other funders were cutting their grantmaking, social justice grantmaking, and civic participation programs. (It wasn’t an election year.) We’ve been able to really ramp up our stance in this field of work, and we’ve been able to sit at the table with bigger civic engagement groups, and we’ve been able to really sustain some of our core grantee groups over the last few years. I think it’s been phenomenal.

Strengthening the roots

How does the giving work of these donors and funders come to fruition? How do they recognize impact?

Well, here’s an example. With the “Strengthening Local, State, and Regional Capacities” strategy, participation and investment has been large, maybe largest. Funders invest in this work because regional groups are working on critical ballot measures or propositions – and over the course of two years, you are going to see some kind of translation of this work into national or state-wide policy-making that brings back to court what you wanted. If, on a national level, you were hoping for a progressive politic – or hoping to see no more attacks on immigrants, or more progressive op-eds on immigration reform…well, if you’re building up the capacity of local organizations to communicate with the public and with policy makers, you’re going to see outcomes trickle up from the grassroots.

Another example is healthcare. Less than five years ago, funders started to become concerned about healthcare. I was doing healthcare policy in 2007 and we could barely get coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle, unless there was something really outlandish going on. Now it’s here, and I’ve never read so many op-eds or seen healthcare on the front pages of so many mainstream websites as I do today. I think that earlier investments are now permeating up, and in the national arena we are feeling the fuel from-the-bottom-up. While funders may know that they’re not a part of the national process, they are able to strengthen the groups dedicated to that work. Ultimately, donors want the progressive movement to go far, to go to the level that we need to transform our society into a more healthy and sustainable place. Donors are funding locally and seeing the bigger picture – in more ways than they have, maybe, ever.

In terms of work that falls within the “Framing and Communicating Progressive Values” strategy, we see success when we read strong reports and see active boycotts of radio and TV stations, when those stations are putting forth really heinous attacks on immigrants or women’s issues. I am now reading reports about immigration myths, and getting those reports out builds up the capacity of these organizations to do their work, and get more funding, and get progressive views out there. Communication. Our values are at the core of all this work that we do, but they haven’t always been at the forefront of our communication. Something that is lacking throughout the nonprofit sector, throughout all these community organizations, is the ability to communicate – to talk about their work! The proposals coming in now, over and over again these groups are proposing that what needs to be strengthened is their technology, their information systems, their presence online, their websites. Strong values are at the heart of every nonprofit, but they spend their money on people, on programs and services, not on communication. Funders are now increasing their support for technical assistance grants, and general support grants, and so organizations are now able to revitalize, to make wide-reaching communication a core part of their work. This is part of what funders, when they come to us, are looking for. The whole picture.

The VAF has also done a tremendous job supporting voting rights – addressing structural issues which make democracy real: the ability to get to a poll, the ability to have a translator, or to not wait in a line for hours and hours just to cast your vote. The “Framing and Communicating Progressive Values” strategy has been able to support multi-lingual telephone hotlines where people could report problems during the 2008 elections. It has funded the reports which make the case for why some states should have same-day registration – or universal registration – and which have disproven the integrity of voting machines.

VAF covers the whole approach; it’s the issues, it’s the people, it’s the organizations, it’s the regional effect, it’s the framing, it’s the voting rights, it’s all of this put together. That’s why it’s appealing for folks. You don’t have to just be interested in “getting out the vote.” You can be interested in reproductive justice for Asian immigrant women and girls working in nail salons in East Oakland and breathing in fumes, and within the VAF you can make the case for supporting an organization that advocates for those women. Democracy is that inclusive; voter action is that inclusive.

Stepping into philanthropy

Okay, now let’s talk about your fellowship. What led you to philanthropy?

Well, prior to my position at Tides, I was working at a public policy and advocacy institute. I was looking at health care policy at a state level that would impact the Latino Community, advocating for or against certain pieces of legislation, doing community forums, creating policy briefs…understanding on a state-wide level how policy making impacts clusters of communities. Prior to that, I did voter registration work, community organizing, door-knocking, a lot of outreach and information-sharing. When I applied for the VAF Community Activist Fellowship, I wanted to bring these experiences to infuse and strengthen philanthropy.

I knew what it was like on the nonprofit side, asking for money and not understanding what feels like the competitive nature of fundraising. Why did it feel like certain groups were being pitted against each other? Was it really happening? I really wanted to get into philanthropy to get the ins and outs, to gain understanding from a funder’s point of view.

The fact that the fellowship was housed in the VAF, and focused on increasing democratic participation, civic participation, engagement on issues, voting…the community activist fellowship just seemed like a perfect next step.

Every day, I can feel my education continuing. I read a lot of proposals. I’ve done a fair amount of activist and advocacy work, and I’ve been able to ask a lot of questions. I feel validated with my work at Tides when an ED can tell that I really understand their work because I am asking the right questions about their proposal, or I am identifying things that really need to be strengthened or clarified. And interacting with donors and clients…it’s great to get these opportunities to talk to these folks about civic participation or social justice issues, to get into their heads [laughs] and be able to take that knowledge back to folks who need it!

Can you tell about what led you to social justice work?

Yes. At the time that the shock of Propositions 187 and 209 went down, I was in school; I had to explain things to my dad. I thought, Can I just tell my father that there’s a walk-out at school and I’m going to go to it? Is he going to tell me to go to class because I just need to “stay in school”? How can I explain to him, what the implications are, of these policies? I didn’t understand why 187 happened; I didn’t know how a bill became a law, or what would happen if the state budget wasn’t balanced. I needed to figure it out, so I positioned myself to get jobs. Not everyone can do that. But that’s how I’ve transformed my frustration into curiosity, a hunger for knowledge. Being a translator – even English-to-English – between policy-advocacy speak, community organization-speak, and philanthropy-speak…this is what I bring to Tides. This is what I still strive to learn.

Now I can say to my dad, “Remember when I spoke at that rally on that issue three years ago ? Well, it’s coming up again and this time we’re funding this group in Oakland that’s helping thirteen-year-olds make media and speak to each other in their own language…” It just makes that much more sense.

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Advice for young ones?

Be inquisitive. Do your best to be resourceful; ask those around you, even if those around you are just the Internet. Try your best to learn how the process works – and understand that you won’t know everything about how the process works. Learn what you can about the system, then tell your friends and family.

Know that all these nonprofits are run by people – and those people have family and friends, and they care. When I was a community organizer, we had this big fundraiser. We all made menudo and tamales – and who was there? I brought my grandmother, I brought my dad. That’s who. I think sometimes donors don’t realize that, or funders may not understand – they just know the that work gets done. But if you talk to people, you’ll find your answers. You’ll find where the system is broken and you’ll understand. If you want to get involved, it’s just a choice. That’s all you have to do.

No one’s telling you that you have to do it forever – or for any amount of time. But it’s up to us to change it if we don’t like it. If you don’t understand, try to – and when you do, you can act on it. You can. It’s a choice that you make. It’s a choice you can make, to get involved, and no one should be able to take that choice from you.

Lacy leaves for New York City in May 2010 to join the National Urban Fellows in their work bridging the gap between city governments and minority communities.

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To learn more about the Voter Action Fund, contact Tides by email or by phone at 415 561 6400.

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