This Nonprofit Is Cultivating In-State Donors to Sustain Progressive Power in Arizona

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Arizona was one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 election. While the state had been trending purple for some time, 2020 was the first time Arizona flipped blue since Bill Clinton won it in 1996. Even then, it was the first time Arizona voted for a Democratic president since Harry Truman in 1948. For grassroots organizers, however, the result did not come as a surprise. Rather, it was the culmination of years spent building political power in the state, electoral and otherwise. 

In the months leading up to the election, Arizona, like other battleground states, saw a massive influx of both political and charitable funding, much of which came from out-of-state funders. And while many continue to see Arizona as a priority when it comes to winning national elections, relying on boom-and-bust out-of-state funding is an unsustainable model for organizers in the state. What happens to local nonprofit organizations when attention shifts away from Arizona, as it inevitably will?

One nonprofit is already preparing for this future. Instituto is a BIPOC-led “accelerator and incubator” that works to equip low-income and communities of color in Arizona with the resources and support they need to build political infrastructure and power. The group is looking to cultivate more in-state donors who will continue to back progressive work in Arizona, even when out-of-state funders’ priorities shift. 

“Though we are very grateful for the funding and it has allowed us to do very phenomenal work, we know that if we want to be doing this work long-term, if we want our communities to still be able to benefit from the work, then we have to cultivate in-state donors who have more interest in the long term, when we’re not just the hot topic of the political sphere,” said Shelley Jackson, Instituto’s newly appointed executive director.

Like a growing number of progressive power-building funds, Instituto operates through a 501(c)(3), a 501(c)(4) and a PAC, and receives the bulk of its funding from out-of-state and national donors, including Way to Win and Movement Voter Project, both of which channel donations toward grassroots organizing groups. Through 2021, Way to Win has provided Instituto’s 501(c)(3) organization with $143,000 and its 501(c)(4) with $440,000.

Way to Win has been supporting Instituto, which was founded in 2017, for years. “Way to Win is really committed to building multiracial democracy,” said Tory Gavito, executive director of Way to Win. “And when you really get to the core of how you would execute upon this vision, you have to look at places like Arizona… because of its deep, rich history, with multiracial communities, including most specifically Latino and Native, but of course, all kinds of growing communities in that region.”

In addition to cultivating in-state donors, Instituto is also launching a campaign to raise $1 million to purchase real estate to build a hub where candidates and movement leaders will be able to develop their work. The real estate will also serve as another financial asset Instituto can fall back on, should funding dry up. 

Building sustainable power

Instituto’s work has three main pillars: incubation, acceleration and fellowship opportunities. Through its incubator program, Instituto scales up advocacy and electoral campaigns in the state, as well as campaigns that focus on new approaches to community engagement. 

“We know that the people who are closest to the problem are those closest to the solution, and so we want to help those people dream up new ideas that they know will help their communities and help incubate their ideas to make them come to life,” Jackson said.

For example, through its Project Yuma, Instituto will be providing technical assistance, training and capacity-building to Rural Arizona Engagement (RAZE) and its 501(c)(4) arm, Rural Arizona Advocacy (RAZA), to help them build power and civic engagement infrastructure for organizing in Yuma County. “RAZE will actually stay there post-election to continue building community with the people who are there. So it’s not just parachuting in and out, but that the people who live there are really centered in that program,” Jackson said.

Aquí se Vota, which aims to fill the voting resource gap for Spanish speakers in Arizona, is another of Instituto’s partners.

“We know that while Arizona’s demographics are growing and the Latino and Latinx population is growing, a lot of things are still [only] in English, so a lot of resources are not accessible,” Jackson said. “A lot of it, honestly, was just voter education and answering people’s questions along the way and making sure that they had every resource possible to be able to go to the polls and vote on election day.”

Aquí se Vota also works to identify what content resonates and attracts its target demographic in order to increase voter participation in local elections by 5%. 

Through its accelerator program, Instituto is looking to build the capacity of 12 electoral and advocacy organizations that serve communities of color in Arizona. Instituto will provide administrative support to these organizations while they’re in the process of branching out on their own. 

Instituto also seeks to support Arizona’s next generation of progressive leaders by providing networking and training for new and seasoned organizers.

“We know our communities already have phenomenal leaders, and what we want to do is just accelerate their work,” Jackson said. “We do that by removing any of the barriers that they may face with trying to advance their community. We provide them with trainings, with resources, with fellowships that can really help them advance their skills, so their communities can reap the benefits sooner rather than later.”

Instituto currently offers three types of fellowships: the Monzón fellowship, Harvest fellowship, and Operations fellowship. The Monzón fellowship is a six-month program for Arizona organizers and advocates who run effective organizations and campaigns in the state. Jackson, Instituto’s executive director, was part of the inaugural cohort of the Monzón fellowship in 2019. 

“[Instituto] really carved out a role for identifying new leaders, identifying new projects, incubating that work, and then giving them capacity,” Gavito said. “Very few people actually want to dig in and think about what it takes to build leadership pipelines or think about what it takes to really give new leaders capacity… These are not always the first things that catch donors’ eyes, and yet — boy, are they critical.”

Arizona Donor Alliance

One of the organizations Instituto fiscally sponsors through its incubation program is the Arizona Donor Alliance, the first donor table in the state. It is currently an LLC, but is finalizing its tax status on the 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) sides. 

The Arizona Donor Alliance is focused on three areas of work: national donor engagement, capacity-building support for partner organizations, and in-state local donor cultivation and engagement. Like Instituto, Arizona Donor Alliance also recognizes the importance of cultivating in-state donors in order to be able to continue its other areas of work.

“Arizona is currently a swing state or shiny object to national donors, and national institutions come and give money here. But that will not always be the case,” said Korina Uribe, executive director of the Arizona Donor Alliance.

Demography does not equal destiny”

According to Instituto, 2027 will be a pivotal year for Arizona, because that’s when low-income and communities of color are estimated to become the majority of the state’s population. Instituto’s hope is that these communities will have the political power to address the issues that matter most to them.

“Demography does not equal destiny,” Jackson said. “Just because we have more Black and brown people, more BIPOC folks who are living here, does not mean we’re going to see those folks represented.” 

In order to ensure representation, Arizona organizations will need year-round, sustained support, and not just in the form of political donations. 

“I always go back to the word ‘sustain,’ because that means we’re here for the long run. And that means that we have to always be thinking ahead and thinking about the future,” Jackson said. “The moment we’re not a hot topic, we are not going to receive that funding anymore. We are already seeing that. It is getting harder to fundraise this year than it was in 2020.” 

To that end, Instituto is working on a project called Building for the Future, which will look at funding or lack thereof in 501(c)(3) spaces. Building for the Future is in the research phase, and Instituto will publish a report later this year. Instituto will also provide micro-grants to some of its partner organizations to encourage them to think about how they can create self-sustaining sources of revenue for their organizations. 

“In many ways, Arizona is at the center of the question, because we have not only these midterm elections coming up, we also have the presidential cycle and 2024, where Arizona’s electoral votes will be up for grabs,” Gavito said. “I think it’s a pivotal moment from the perspective of donors who play in both philanthropic spaces and in political spaces.”

Gavito added, “It’s hard to ignore Arizona as a place that could really be a standout model for what shifting multiracial democracy under demographic change could be.”