The following is a conversation between Billy Watterson, the Co-Founder and Board Chair of One For Democracy, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Billy Watterson, Co-founder and Board Chair of One for Democracy

Denver: One for Democracy is committed to protecting the democratic process for all Americans and ensuring the right of each citizen to have their vote counted. One of their initiatives, the One for Democracy Pledge, asks individuals and foundations to contribute at least 1% of their net worth towards this objective.

And here to tell us about this work, the impact that it has had, and what their future holds, it’s a pleasure to have with us, Billy Watterson, the co-founder and board chair of One for Democracy. 

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Billy! 

Billy: Thank you. I’m glad to be on. 

We challenged folks… to invest in our democracy. And this is the One for Democracy Pledge, which is challenging folks to give 1% of their net worth for democracy in 2020.

Denver: One for Democracy’s origins stems from early March of last year. Now, this was in New York just before the pandemic shut down the city. Tell listeners what happened there and how this all got started. 

Billy: This really stemmed out of coming into 2020, seeing a gap between the way in which folks across the board were talking about the moment that we were in. People saying things like there’s an existential crisis for our democracy. People really seem to fear that our 250-year-old democracy might not survive, or survive in the same way that it’s existed before through the course of 2020.

 And then at the same time, saying things like “This is one of our last and best chances to make progress on climate change, literally save our planet,” or these things that were so… People feeling like this was such a crisis, and then kind of seeing folks go about business as usual, maybe supporting a few candidates, but not actually investing in: How do we actually build the infrastructure of our democracy, and how do we protect our democracy in this moment?

And so, One for Democracy really came out of: How do we close the gap between those two things? How do we challenge folks to meet the urgency of their words with the urgency of their action and investment? And so, we came up with this idea of the One for Democracy Pledge. So, we challenge folks to have a new floor–not even necessarily a ceiling–but a new floor for what it meant, if you really believe that’s the crisis that we’re in, to invest in our democracy. And this is the One for Democracy Pledge, which is challenging folks to give 1% of their net worth for democracy in 2020. 

And we decided to test it. We honestly didn’t know if this was going to work or if anyone was going to do it. We were partially still even challenging the family that we worked for, Mike and Sukey Novogratz, to jump onto this. But they wanted to see others come in, too. So, we held our first dinner literally a week before everything shut down, or maybe a week and a half. And luckily, at that dinner, we had the first one or two people sign on and make really significant pledges to invest in our democracy. 

And that kind of gave us the start of some critical momentum that we then used to go out and organize their friends, organize their networks, and really try to make everyone who took the pledge feel like they were themselves a part of this effort. So, when somebody took the pledge, we said, “Thank you for making that commitment. Now, you have to do the hard part, which is in the same way we’re investing in organizers on the ground, we need you to organize. This is only part of the battle. This is the most existential crisis of our lifetimes, of your lifetime. It’s not just that donation. It’s using your time, your energy, your network, and mobilizing the same way that we’re asking folks to mobilize and work their butts off on the ground.” 

Denver: I spent my whole life fundraising and it’s never easy. But was this easier than you thought in terms of engaging wealthy individuals, or was it a slog all the way?

Billy: I’d say it was large periods of slog with moments where things kind of clicked, and it was easier than we would have hoped. 

So COVID hit, and we honestly weren’t sure if we could keep this project going. We weren’t sure. We were like, “This might be something we have to put on the shelf for now.” But luckily, we had great folks in our corner like Billy Wimsatt who runs the Movement Voter Project, kept on just reminding us in the same way we were trying to remind donors that this was what the most existential fight of our lifetime, potentially, that this was something that was going to reverberate for the rest of our lives, for our children’s lives, for our planet’s life. And kind of kept pushing us to keep going. 

And slowly but surely, we had a few folks sign on. And again, it was really those folks’ willingness to actually go out and organize themselves that made this possible. Because it’s one thing for me to go ask someone to take the pledge; it’s another thing for someone to ask their brother or to ask their best friend or to ask one of their colleagues, who they have a real relationship with. 

We talked about investing and relational organizing in terms of investing the organizers on the ground, which is really this idea of: Can you invest in the communities and people who are from the communities that you’re trying to engage… who have warm, long-term relationships with folks in that community, to organize them? And it’s proven to be far more effective than a lot of the other tactics that we use. And so, why can’t we do the same thing with donors who care about this? 

So that was really I think what started to build the momentum for us. But there were definitely long periods where it was a slog, and it was unclear if we were going to be able to build the momentum in time to really move the needle here. 

Denver: I had Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the show the other day. And she is from Harvard Business School, and she has something called Kanter’s Law. And her law is “Everything looks like a failure in the middle.” And I’m sure there was a time when you began to start to say, “I don’t know,” which is a great law. I really like it a lot. 

So, you started this in March. The election obviously was in November. How much were you able to raise before the election? 

Billy: We were able to raise about $70 million before the election. And then another, around $3 million or so; $3 million to $5 million by the end of the year to keep investing in that work. 

Denver: How does this all work? You’re telling me people have given you $70 million. Maybe $75 million by the end of the year. Where does that money go? And then how does it fulfill your mission to get the right to vote? 

Billy: So early on, we decided to build what we now call our Democracy Investment Committee, which was: rather than building our own new strategy, which often happens when a new philanthropic organization comes in — they’re like, “We got to go through a strategic planning process, come up with some brilliant new strategies”– and we didn’t want to do that. 

Denver: You didn’t have time to do that. 

Billy: We didn’t have time to do that. But also, there were already tons of smart folks who’d been working for years and years and years and years figuring out what works. And often, only seeing different parts of the elephant. Like people being deeply expert in: How do we invest in election administration?  Deeply expert in: How do we build a movement to engage folks who don’t normally vote on the ground?…  Or being deeply expert in some kind of national, democratic, structural reforms.

And our idea was: Can we bring all of these folks together around a table? And can we get some sort of consensus around: what are the proven things that don’t have enough resources right now, that if we pour gasoline on them can make a huge difference in terms of strengthening our democracy, engaging folks in our civic process, protecting the rights of voters?

And luckily, we were able to build this dream team. We had folks like Jake Matilsky, who runs the Center for Secure and Modern Elections; Billy Wimsatt, who runs the Movement Voter Project; Tory Gavito, who runs Way to Win; Nick Chedli Carter, who runs the Resilient Democracy Fund; and a handful of others, each with their own expertise that they’re bringing to the table.

And alongside that, we both built a C3 and a C4 fund that folks could invest in and started putting out both regular recommendations as well as, in some cases, when donors had something really specific that they were interested in, like, “I live in Texas. I really want to focus on protecting the rights of voters in Texas,” we get our advisory board members and help build a kind of mini-strategy for them, for how to invest their resources. 

And so, we both move money directly to our funds for folks who took the pledge and were like, “I trust you. I want to cut a check in one place, have experts move it.” And then some folks used our recommendations, and others got kind of more bespoke advising. And the idea was really: How can we meet donors where they are? And as much as possible, get folks to invest together, invest more strategically. 

But again, we didn’t have time. So how can we move the needle and how could we not have wasted resources? Because often we’re all in our separate corners investing and not talking to each other, which leads to all kinds of collateral consequences. 

Denver: Constraints can be wonderful, and not having enough time sometimes can lead to some wonderful decisions. Because if you did have enough time, you might’ve done something differently. 

The other thing that I thought you said that was really interesting, too, is that when you get these new entities together, you really got to start to do a study. And what you did is like, “No, no, no. Let’s see what we already know. Let’s bring all these people together,” and you’re going to find out about everything you need to know.  Maybe just a little tweak here and a little tweak there. 

So, you said this money goes to 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s. What’s the breakdown of that? And give us an example of the kind of organizations that have been the beneficiaries of the One for Democracy Fund. 

Billy: Right when we were really starting to move resources, we focused in on a couple of core areas. One was– this was right in the heart of COVID. And part of our initial framing to folks in this period was: In the same way that we’re having all this massive giving to respond to COVID around medical equipment, or food, or access to food, we need the same thing with our democracy because COVID was a massive disruption for our democratic process.

And so, one of our core areas was: How do we make sure that our elections can be administered at a basic level to be effective in the middle of the pandemic? So that was investing in groups like the Vote at Home Institute or Deliver My Vote, organizations that are working on: How can we make sure that people can safely access the vote? And obviously, that ended up making a massive difference because so many more people were able to vote by mail than has happened in the past. Because of that, not only did more people engage in our democratic process, but lives were saved. 

It was also: How do we make sure we can still get folks registered to vote and engaged in our civic process despite the fact that the normal ways in which we do that were massively disrupted, again, by the pandemic? Certainly, knocking on people’s doors and saying “Hey, have you registered to vote?” becomes a lot harder. People won’t open their doors.

Denver: And a lot easier, too! But it becomes a lot different.

Billy: It becomes a lot different. And so, we’ve been investing in these and we knew these amazing grassroots organizations on the ground that, again, had those warm, credible relationships. Groups like LUCHA in Arizona, who’s building for years and years relationships to turn out the voters who don’t typically vote.

And the question was: How can we both support them still to be able to alter change and continue to scale their program to engage voters? And how can we also invest in the new methods, tools, tactics of digital organizing, digital and relational organizing, so people can do that same work online? 

So that was investing in groups like PushBlack, which build credible relationships with Black Americans across the country through news, the news that’s relevant to the Black community. And then they just send simple Facebook messages saying, “Hey, have you registered to vote yet?” It makes a massive impact in getting folks to register. 

Or building tools and organizations like the Organizing Empowerment Project, which focused on: How do we train local organizations, like the ones that I mentioned, to have both the tools themselves, the technology, but also the training so that they can reach voters where they are despite the pandemic? 

The way that we move the needle on issues in a democratic society is by people engaging our civic process.

Denver: I think one of your grantees, too, was the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. Tell us about them. That’s an interesting story.

Billy: So that’s an organization really close to my heart. When I started the Galaxy Gives long before One For Democracy, one of our first major investments was in the work of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and Desmond Meade, which at the time was focused on restoring the right to vote to 1.4 million Floridians who had a felony criminal record. And they ran a successful ballot initiative in 2018 to restore that right to vote. And then coming into the 2020 election, they wanted to register, engage as many of those voters as possible. 

And at the time, the state put up all kinds of obstacles to make that really challenging. Including, they made it so you couldn’t vote if you had any outstanding fines and fees. And because we have such a Byzantine criminal justice system, everyone has fines and fees. And so, they had to run a multi-layered program of both engaging, registering, organizing the folks who could vote. And then also raising what ended up being $27 million to pay off the fines and fees for a massive number of Floridians who wouldn’t have had their civil rights restored otherwise. 

And that’s part of the beauty of this work, I think, and why should everyone invest in this work. The way that we move the needle on issues in a democratic society is by people engaging our civic process. Those 1.4 million people had previously been completely silenced. So, there was no reason to deal with the 44,000 collateral consequences that accompany any felony criminal record. But suddenly, if those 1.4 million people have a voice, legislators/politicians need to listen and try to actually help them with the issues that are destroying them and their communities.

And so, there was both this powerful opportunity to invest in engaging voters who hadn’t previously been engaged in the past, and an opportunity to hopefully, downstream, build power that will transform our justice system, transform our democratic process. Because as those folks have more power, it’s going to be harder and harder to ice them out, ice their voices out of that system.

And so, that’s something we really organized around and ultimately raised a pretty significant amount of money to help them both pay off fines and fees. And again, engage in that hard work across the state of Florida on identifying those voters, registering them, engaging them, and then also engaging their families, which is a powerful collateral consequence of that.  

Denver: Wonderful! And, Billy, one of the reasons that might be fairly close to your heart, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, is because you have done a lot of work at Galaxy Gives in the criminal justice system. Tell us at least a little bit about that and some of the outcomes you’ve been able to achieve. 

Billy: Galaxy Gives was started by Mike and Sukey Novogratz about five years ago, really with the aim of : How do we transform our justice system?  They had had the opportunity to actually go see our bail system in practice. They went and saw the barge that sits off the Bronx, and it’s full basically entirely of people who are only in jail because they can’t pay to go home by paying their cash bail. 

And that made them so infuriated that they decided to make a significant investment and started an organization called The Bail Project, which just pays people’s bail all across the country to prove there’s no reason these people need to be sitting in jail, and they could instead be home with their families. And that would have better outcomes for our society, for them, for their families, for their communities.

And so that was kind of our entry point. Right around that time, Mike and Sukey brought me on board to figure out: How can we move the needle on this issue as a whole? So that’s where we spend a lot of our time and energy, and it connects directly to this work. 

Again, a core part of our strategy is investing and building grassroots political power for those who’ve been impacted by the justice system, their families, and communities. Because again, we live in a democratic society. If their voices don’t matter, there’s no reason to change that system. There’s no reason to make our society more just than it is now.

Denver: It’s a great organization, The Bail Project. Robin’s been on the show. And it’s just one of the better-received interviews. People were so fascinated by it. 

Let me get back to One For Democracy and pooled funds. This is kind of a reasonably new concept. I really would be interested in your take about how it works in practice, and maybe some of the benefits and advantages. Because this could be groundbreaking in terms of trying to get donors to collaborate in a completely different way. So, why don’t you give us your thoughts on that and what you’ve learned. 

Billy: I think there’s a couple of different, really core advantages. Part of the way that we talk about the work we’re trying to do with One For Democracy is we actually want donors to give their power away. Because part of what’s corrupting our democratic system is actually the fact that people who have resources have so much power in the system.

And part of the beauty of a pooled fund is donors are actually giving up some of their power. They’re saying, “I’m going to trust the experts. I’m going to trust the people doing this work to invest my resources in the ways that are going to most move the needle on this important issue, versus the ways that make me feel the best.” That’s an important shift. 

So that’s one, it’s an act of giving power away, which I think is important. And then two, it’s an active: How do we collaborate more? Like I said before, if you look across any of these spaces that I talk to folks about all the time, the lack of coordination in terms of resources makes all of the work hard on the folks in the field. And if we can invest together, particularly when we have such a short time as we did in 2020, we can just move the needle a lot faster. 

Denver: You’re really, I think, connecting with donors on a completely different level, right? It’s not what they’re used to. I mean, these relationships are on a different level. Shared decisionmaking.  I guess, there are many, many things that go along with this just beyond the distribution of money to these kinds of organizations.

Billy: Absolutely.  

Denver: What were some of the challenges and pitfalls you ran into? And what advice would you have for someone who might be thinking of doing a similar type of structure for a cause that they’re particularly concerned about?  

Billy: On the challenges and pitfalls of having a pooled fund – the biggest challenge is just that people want to do their own philanthropy. So, we had a pooled fund, but actually the vast majority of the resources that we move, move directly from donors – through recommendations, through advising. Because people want that kind of tactile… people enjoy philanthropy. Understandably! And they want to be engaged in different ways. 

So really the hard part, the challenge is: Can you convince folks to buy into this model? Once you have money in a pooled fund, if you build the right process for moving the resources, and you build the right team and set of advisors that’s going to do it, it’s not that challenging. The challenging part is getting folks to buy in, to give that power away.

Denver: That’s really interesting. Billy, you know there are going to be those who are going to look at this as just another way for folks to use their wealth, to exert power and influence, and many believe in fact that a significant threat to democracy is big philanthropy. How would you respond to that?

Billy: I think the way in which we’re trying to do this directly is trying to counteract that. We live in the system that we live in. And money does have a powerful, negative influence on our democracy. And personally, it goes to what I was just talking about, which is, it becomes another means for people who already have wealth and power to cement that wealth and power more.

What we’re trying to do here is one, get folks to invest in the type of structural democracy reforms that will actually make it so that they have less power, so the aims in and of themself are trying to limit that power. And then two, we’re trying to get folks to not give to a candidate directly as often happens with people that are in democratic or political giving. They see that as like “I’m going to invest in a candidate, which also means I can give them a phone call maybe down the line.” 

Instead, not only are we one, trying to get folks to give the resources to a pooled fund, but two, we’re trying to make sure that the majority of those resources go to the organizations on the ground representing and organizing the communities that typically haven’t had that power. 

So, in some ways, again, I look at it as trying to take donors’ power and give it to the communities that have been most marginalized, so then they can have louder voices and demand that the systems that we have now change. 

Denver: I know you’re a non-partisan organization, but this is probably a partisan issue. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. Have Republicans and people on the right joined in, or is this again more Progressives and people on the left who are supporting this effort? 

Billy: It definitely is more progressive, and folks on the left that are supporting it. But we have had a group, and I would say a growing group of folks, who are disaffected from the way in which many in Republican leadership right now, are trying to suppress the voice of voters and otherwise undermine our democracy, and want to invest towards protecting and expanding them.

Part of the way we got here is that people invest in transactions in our democracy.  They invest in our democracy towards an election outcome, versus towards trying to actually make our systems work better. Trying to actually make sure that we have a flourishing, multiracial democracy where everyone’s voice – it matters equally. And that is not the investment of one year. That’s an investment of a decade, of a lifetime. 

Denver: I think that when I saw this first see the light of day, I said to myself, “What a great idea for the elections, but is it going to go beyond the election?” And the fact of the matter, it is. So in fact, you’ve just hired a new Executive Director. So, I guess my first question on that, Billy, would be: Was that always your plan? Or is it kind of the way the things unfolded in our society, where you said, “Oh no, no. Our work is not done here. It did not end in November. It needs to continue.”

Billy: It probably should have always been our plan, but what originally started it really is: How do we get folks to rise to this moment of 2020? It became pretty apparent to us the further we got into the year that these problems were not going anywhere, which we should have known beforehand. But also, I mean, seeing January 6, seeing Stop the Steal, seeing the voter suppression bills that are being passed across the country. It was so apparent that this issue, if anything, is getting worse because a lot of our basic norms have been broken. 

But even before that, we started thinking about keeping this going because part of the way we got here is that people invest in transactions in our democracy.  They invest in our democracy towards an election outcome, versus towards trying to actually make our systems work better. Trying to actually make sure that we have a flourishing, multiracial democracy where everyone’s voice – it matters equally. And that is not the investment of one year. That’s an investment of a decade, of a lifetime. And so, we saw this pledge as a potential way to get folks to think differently about how they invest in democracy. 

And so, we actually had gone back to all the folks who took the pledge, and we’re asking them not just to sign the pledge for 2022 or 2024 when there’s a major election that they’re scared about, but to sign the pledge for the next four years… to start to untether folks from this being about a single election, and to start to tie it to: How do we actually try to fix what’s wrong with our democracy? How do we try to actually engage folks in a different way? And we hope folks take this 4-year pledge and then sign on for the next 10 years. Because this is going to be a lifelong fight to actually make it so we have the democracy that I think we all want to have.

Denver: And you’ve got some big goals. I was taking a look at what you hope to be able to raise between now and 2024. What’s that amount?

Billy: We’re trying to raise $250 million. 

Denver: Wow! You think it’s going to be harder without Trump? Trump was a pretty good guy to– I’d be curious as to how you look at that.

Billy: Of course, it’s going to be harder. But I thought it was going to be a lot harder. And I think that’s been made easier by how blatant the attempts to subvert our democracy are. It’s hard after 2020. It’s hard out at the beginning of 2021 to put the blinders back on and see that our democracy is working in the way that it’s supposed to, to say that our democracy is not at risk, to say this is the system that we should be living in… It’s almost impossible for us to say that. 

Some folks are so tired from 2020 that they are not ready to start doing this again. But for the most part, folks with a little goading are ready to say, “Yes, I see this problem isn’t going anywhere. And I want to keep trying to do something about that.”

If our democracy doesn’t function, and if the people affected by that issue don’t have equal voice and power in the process, we’re not going to move the needle on any of our issues… We are not going to change any of our systems in a fundamental way that’s going to make us live in a society that we want to live in. So, we can’t pretend that we’re trying to be effective philanthropists if we are not investing in our democracy.

Denver: It would be pretty cavalier to say, “Hey, we’re going to do this for eight months. And then problem solved, wash our hands.” The world doesn’t work that way. You’re in there for the long haul. 

Finally, Billy, speak about how civic participation impacts philanthropy, and why this is important for philanthropists to consider when making their funding decisions. 

Billy: We’re actually hosting an event for foundations in the fall. And I think, particularly for foundations, it’s so easy to make this argument, that again, like Galaxy Gives, even before One For Democracy, we were investing in civic engagement.

We were investing in democracy because we live in a democracy. This is the way that we’re supposed to make progress on any of our issues. It doesn’t matter if it’s poverty or climate change or criminal justice or women empowerment. Pick your issue. If our democracy doesn’t function, and if the people affected by that issue don’t have equal voice and power in the process, we’re not going to move the needle on any of our issues. 

We’re wasting our time. We’re flushing money down the toilet. We are not going to change any of our systems in a fundamental way that’s going to make us live in a society that we want to live in. So, we can’t pretend that we’re trying to be effective philanthropists if we are not investing in our democracy.

Denver: Philanthropy is in the container, the ecosystem of our democracy, and you can’t be effective if everything in your environment is toxic. 

Billy: And just to add one point there, in fact a lot of times, you’re actually adding to the problem. Because you’re slightly alleviating the problem without changing any of the systems, which almost creates an excuse for the system to continue the way that it is. 

Denver: It’s funny you mentioned that. I had somebody on the other day and they were talking about diversity, equity and inclusion within organizations. And those organizations that have really been intentional about it very often are no better than those who have not. But they get complacent because they think they’ve done something about it. They had a training, but they’ve done studies on it, and it’s not making the impact. So, I know exactly what you’re talking about. 

So, tell us a little bit about that website and maybe what people will find if they come visit, and how they can become involved if they should be so inspired by you.

Billy: The best way to get involved is: take the pledge. Doesn’t matter whether you’re a billionaire, or you have as much money as I have, which is not a lot. Take a pledge, and invest in this work, and organize. As important as investing in this work, is organizing. 

I organize my network. I organize the people who care about me, my colleagues, et cetera, to take this pledge and start investing in our democracy, to take the pledge and organize. In the same way that we’re investing in folks to organize, we’ve got to organize our communities at every level to engage in this process because that’s how democracy works.

Denver: Take the pledge and organize. That’s my bumper sticker coming from this. I want to thank you so much for being here today, Billy. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program. 

Billy: Thank you so much.

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