A group of activists has set up what it’s calling a “venture fund” for state initiatives that will invest in three campaigns next cycle.
The Fairness Project, a San Francisco-based 501(c)(4), will have up to $10 million to pump into minimum wage-increase efforts in California, Maine and D.C. It’s investment is meant to be seed money that will allow the nascent local organizations to ramp up quickly.
“Often times a lot of money will come into [an initiative] very late in a cycle, which makes it more difficult for a campaign to be viable,” said Ryan Johnson, executive director of The Fairness Project. “We’re creating a model that will help seed some of these campaigns and make them more viable for potential in-state and national fundraisers.”
It’s the latest sign that the culture and tactics that grow Silicon Valley startups are catching on in the campaign industry. “The design of the organization is to be like a venture fund or a social venture fund — to be lean at the top,” said Johnson, who’s heading what is now a two-person organization. “We don’t have organizers in the states. We’re trying to make the most efficient use of resources.”
Fairness has the backing of labor, including California-based SEIU United Healthcare Workers. With minimum wage legislation stalled at the state and federal level, labor has switched it’s focus to ballot initiatives. According to Johnson, the Fairness Project could be a way to foster innovation across a spectrum of initiative campaigns pursuing similar goals.
“We really believe in the ballot-initiative process. The legislatures haven’t acted,” he said. “We feel bringing both funding and resources into that space to help make those changes happen.”
The project comes online at a time when minimum wage groups have significant momentum. Wage-raising initiatives passed successful in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota last cycle. But the issue hasn’t become a slam dunk. An effort in Portland, Maine to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 was defeated earlier this month.
Still, the challenge with initiative campaigns is that even when they are successful, passing on that knowhow to another organization is difficult. There’s generally not a lot of debriefing among the staff, consultants and volunteers after the votes are counted. Moreover, any record of strategic decision making usually goes into the shredder or the desktop trash folder.
That’s where Johnson’s hoping his organization can help. “We hope to play the role of translating the lessons learned in the 2016 cycle and sharing those lessons and trying to move forward in 2018 on another issue,” he said.
In the meantime, his organization will provide things like websites, digital services, data and analytics to the three initiative campaigns. That means the Fairness Project is following in the footsteps of groups as diverse as the National Rifle Association and the Marijuana Policy Project, according to Rick Ridder, a consultant who’s run many initiative efforts.
“These types of efforts are not new,” he said. “National expertise can be helpful in such an initiative process. But always remember, the words of Joseph Napolitan: ‘All campaigns are the same. All campaigns are different.’”
Ridder advised a national group to tread lightly with local consultants. “There should be significant local input from campaign consultants with a record of achievement in a state to apply the lessons from elsewhere appropriately,” he said.
“We’re not running these campaigns. We’re one part of the funding pie and one part of the services pie,” Johnson explained. “We wouldn’t be the right person to come to if you wanted to do paid mail in Maine. You’d talk to the initiative campaign.”