Below is an excerpt of an article originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on January 19, 2023. Read the full article at the page linked below. By: Karundi Williams, Tom Perriello
The 2022 elections were dominated by precedent-setting victories and critical upsets. Across the country, large numbers of young candidates and candidates of color won elected office at every level of government, including the first Gen Z member of Congress. Voters aged 18 to 29 overwhelmingly sided with Democrats and propelled a wave of upsets from the Michigan statehouse to the Los Angeles City Council.
Now, as state legislative sessions ramp up, a new band of lawmakers begins the challenging work of delivering on campaign promises during a period of extreme division and threats to democratic institutions and office holders.
Elected state and local leaders are closest to their communities and have the greatest potential to demonstrate what effective and responsive governance looks like. This is in sharp contrast to an increasingly dysfunctional Congress, including a House of Representatives that struggled for days this month with the routine process of electing a speaker.
When national politicians fail to deliver, local officials can pick up the slack by producing innovative community-focused programs and policy to improve democracy, protect reproductive rights, and battle climate change. They can help revive trust in government, elections, and public officials, as well as make a real difference in people’s lives, especially those in underserved communities.
Unfortunately, governmental institutions don’t set up new officeholders to succeed, particularly at the local and state levels. The vast majority receive no formal training on how to do their jobs and quickly discover that the skills of campaigning for office don’t seamlessly transfer to the skills required to govern. Many, as a result, are unprepared to step into the governing arena after winning an election.
For several years, philanthropists and advocacy organizations have invested far more in building progressive power than figuring out how to hold and use that power. Millions of dollars from philanthropists’ personal checking accounts flow into key states during election years then disappear until the next campaign cycle. This boom-and-bust funding pattern is predicated on the idea that winning elections is the goal. In reality, the goal is to create and adopt policies that change lives and strengthen communities. That won’t happen if newly elected political leaders lack the tools to perform well in office.
In reality, the goal is to create and adopt policies that change lives and strengthen communities. That won’t happen if newly elected political leaders lack the tools to perform well in office.
This funding asymmetry was inevitable during a time when people of color and low-income populations had few advocates in government leadership. But as more progressive champions, including people of color, have won elections, philanthropy has failed to adapt to a new reality.
To start remedying the situation, re:power Fund, the organization Karundi leads, came together in 2019 with the State Innovation Exchange and Local Progress Impact Lab to create the Progressive Governance Academy, or PGA. Open Society Foundation-U.S., which Tom heads, and other grant makers provided initial funding for PGA — the only collaborative governance-training program in the country for progressive state and local elected officials.
Since launching, PGA has trained more than 1,300 legislators, including both new and incumbent elected officials in statehouses and city councils in pivotal states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, and Georgia. It has connected them to networks of peers and policy experts to support their continued learning and development. This includes holding training sessions in areas such as setting a realistic agenda and timeline for achieving ambitious legislative goals and how to identify and work with influential government leaders or outside groups who can help them bring policy priorities to fruition.
But now, especially with so many young and first-time candidates ascending to office, these efforts need to be significantly expanded. For every excellent candidate-training program — and more of those are also still needed — at least as many opportunities should be available to help lawmakers make the leap from candidate to government leader.
Effective government is one of the best ways for foundations and nonprofits to create change and fulfill their missions. But too many grant makers fail to make that connection and to invest accordingly.
When candidates are sworn into office, they often must navigate a complicated bureaucracy and byzantine process to achieve their policy goals. In some places, they join a new team of elected officials who share their values, but often they are all alone in seeking progressive reforms.
“Taking office amid the pandemic and for the first time felt like drinking from a fire hose,” said Vanessa Fuentes, who was elected to the Austin, Tex., City Council in 2021. Fuentes, who ran on a platform to address the city’s health care disparities and unemployment rates, received training from PGA.
Fuentes credits the program with helping her deliver on progressive policy solutions, including successfully championing a renters’ rights agenda, which protects tenants’ right to organize, and establishing a process to remedy lease violations and improve the city’s tenant-relocation program.