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Building a More Democratic Economy and Finding Political Voice

The Power of Funding Community Engagement for More Transformative and Impactful Economic Policy

Authors: Lauren Paul, Vice President of Strategic Alliances

his piece is part of Common Future’s Policy Incubator Series, where we share insights from our 12-month Policy Incubator Pilot. Insight #2: Building a more democratic economy looks like supporting deep, power-shifting community engagement. Policy funders can create outsized impacts by funding early-stage policy actors. In the absence of more engaged grassroots advocacy organizations, community organizations and early stage initiatives—such as our policy entrepreneurs—are filling critical gaps.

Change moves at the speed of trust. However, trust—especially between existing economic policy institutions and historically overlooked communities—is not so easily built. And for good reason. Over the past four decades, income inequality has risen, uninterrupted. As the cycle of disinvestment rolls onwards, everyday individuals have less and less trust in the political institutions who have done little to support them. Still, according to research conducted by Pew, a strong majority of Americans want the government to do more to lessen the gap between the rich and poor. It seems as though most Americans don’t know who to look to for support, leaving communities vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.

Unfortunately, and as I’ve written before, existing institutional power tends to prioritize surface level community engagements. Members of the Common Future community often recount how they’re lifted up as symbolic actors by the economic policy institutions who claim to represent their interests—they are very rarely given the space and power needed to actually influence key decision points. This oversight, at scale, is one of the primary reasons inequality continues to grow. The sector’s systematic deprioritization of real community engagement around economic policy is weakening our democracy. Community engagement isn’t just a box for institutions with new DEI policies to check-off. If done well, community engagement can be fundamental in strategy decisions to building real economic power for target communities. 

Systematic deprioritization of real community engagement around economic policy is weakening our democracy. 

Despite their efforts, existing grassroots organizations do not have the capacity, knowledge-base, or relationships to fill the gap in community engagement around transformative economic policy, at large. To be clear, much more support is needed for grassroots advocacy organizations to effect change; however, funders who support policy work also need to focus on supporting early stage policy actors—namely, actors who are already doing community engagement well. 

Often, these organizations and individuals do not have overtly explicit policy advocacy aims. Rather, they have deep community engagement capacities and would like to do more policy work.  Historically, policy work has been some of the least well-funded work in the nonprofit sector. Moreover, our research has shown that even those funders who DO fund policy, often don’t look to these types of organizations.

This is why we decided to launch our Policy Incubator last month: to identify and support those leaders who are filling critical gaps in the community engagement space around economic policy and bring transformative work forward. Even though we were only able to award four winners with funds and incubation support at this time, we discovered a few predominant trends around the type of leader/organization who is doing economic policy well. Our metrics of success were: racial equity, potential for structural change, and potential to build lasting power.

  1. The importance of active and deep relationships with affected communities: The most powerful community organizations we interviewed spent the majority of their time in real relationships with the communities they represented. This looked like anything from driving up and down the State of California to speak with and organize BIPOC farmers to answering calls, day and night, from folks who were inspired by their work. In comparison to other applicants, these candidates had a much deeper understanding of the issues that they were working on and had more confidence that their work would build power in the community over the long-term. 
  2. The power of identifying with the communities you serve: Applicants who personally identified with affected communities tended to bring stronger ideas and strategy to the table—with a higher likelihood of making structural impacts. So much of what makes an advocacy strategy effective is not its design—it’s the implementation plan. Across the board, the implementation strategies of those with lived experience tended to be stronger in comparison to other applicants.
  3. The strength of integrated strategic approaches: Applicants who saw policy as one lever of systems change  did not see their policy advocacy work in a vacuum—they saw how change could be made using multiple leverage points, with policy development and advocacy being one of those points. Their centering vision was community impact, not policy change for the sake of policy change.

Across the board, we found that leaders with deep and robust community relationships, lived experience, and multi-pronged approaches tended to prioritize more transformative economic solutions, with more strategic implementation plans, than other organizational leaders working in similar spaces. 

This leads us at Common Future to ask the economic policy funding space more broadly: Instead of exclusively supporting grassroots policy advocacy organizations to do community engagement, what if we, as policy funders, also funded community-minded organizations to start doing more policy?

If you’re a funder, economic research organization, or non-profit engaging in the economic policy sector, we encourage you to take a moment to reflect. If you’re interested in funding, supporting, or lifting up organizations who are doing transformative economic policy work, ask yourself: Are you prioritizing working with organizations who do deep community engagement? Where might expanding your strategy to become more inclusive of new actors also help your strategy become more robust? How does your strategy support building a more democratic economy?

As Steven Teles of Johns Hopkins and Mark Schmitt of the Roosevelt Institute put it in their message to advocacy funders: “view advocacy grantmaking as a portfolio of bets.” Let’s bet on those actors who have the best chance at restoring democratic principles, shifting power, and building lasting resilience in communities, nationwide. 

Want to learn more from our policy experiment or potentially collaborate? Reach out to to set-up a time to connect. 

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