10.21 What Would You Do with $155 million?

As a fundraising consultant to small social justice nonprofits with organizational annual budgets that normally fall below $2 million, I have talked to or worked with many groups who are or have been in financial crisis. The causes for these crises are often varied and complex, from losing a major grant because a funder slashed their grantmaking due to the recession, to rising office rent and other operating costs, from poorly-supported development staff not being able to do their jobs effectively, to executive directors not knowing how to plan for the ups and downs of an unstable economy.

So when I hear news—as I do everyday, living here in California—about the extravagant spending of the major California political campaigns, I have to say I get a little peeved. Campaign finance reform seems to be an ongoing challenge in California and in our country as a whole, with money being an integral power-tool used by aspiring or incumbent politicians to win elections. I’ve been particularly appalled by Republican candidate for governor and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who has dumped $119 million of her own money into her campaign, giving her the dubious distinction of being the largest self-funded politician ever.

On the other hand, Jerry Brown has ‘only’ spent about $10 million so far—still a large amount of money to any ordinary Californian, or any of the nonprofit organizations that I work with. And in California’s senate race, the two top candidates, Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina, have raised at least $26 million for their campaigns. So all told, that’s at least $155 million that has been raised to fund candidate campaigns for only two—count ‘em—two political offices.

Something’s wrong with this picture.

Watching all these fundraising numbers get bigger and bigger while the fundraising numbers for many of the small nonprofits that I work with continue to shrink makes me wonder: What would our society look like if running for public office didn’t require raising tens of millions of dollars every election? What else could we be doing with that money? And what would candidates need to do if they didn’t rely so heavily on expensive media campaigns to influence voters and mobilize them on election day?

On the other hand, grassroots fundraising, along with old-fashioned electoral organizing, precinct by precinct, can help bring candidates from political obscurity onto the national and world stage. And ideally, this type of organizing and fundraising could make political campaigns and the candidates who run them more accountable to a large base of everyday people. We only need to look at the Presidential campaign of Barack Obama to witness how literally millions of people—more specifically, 4 million donors and 8 million volunteers—took an unlikely, slightly obscure candidate and made him one of the most powerful people in the nation, if not the world.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere—are we in our organizations doing all we can to tap the power of grassroots fundraising and organizing? And if we do, what will do with all the money that we would raise? What would you do?