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Democracy Alliance Raises Member Fees And Retools To Fight Trump

For the first time in 10 years, the leading liberal donor network is raising membership dues. The change is meant to address a “structural budget gap” and concentrate its efforts on opposing Trump, as Democrats compete for intense donor interest.

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The Democracy Alliance, a leading network of liberal donors, will increase its membership dues for the first time in 10 years and revise its “2020 Vision” strategy — part of a broader effort by the organization to both close its “structural budget gap” and shift attention to Donald Trump.

The changes were announced by chairman John Stocks in a recent letter to members of the Democracy Alliance, outlining a need for the organization to “focus less on administrative tasks, such as the collection of dues and additional contributions,” and more on the “coming crises” posed by Trump’s legislative agenda, according to a copy obtained by BuzzFeed News.

Founded in 2005, the Democracy Alliance, known as the DA, is a network of high-dollar donors and institutions that pools hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to donate to a portfolio of liberal and progressive organizations, think tanks, and public-policy groups.

In an interview, DA president Gara LaMarche confirmed the changes and detailed the underlying objectives behind each one: first, to better “sustain the basic operations of the DA”; and second, to help the DA “evolve to meet this particular moment,” focusing more than it had during Barack Obama’s two terms in office on an opposition-based political agenda.

The DA depends on yearly dues from members (called “partners”) to cover operational costs. These will rise for the first time in 10 years, bumping “Governing Partners” from $30,000 a year to $35,000, and “Institutional Partners” from $60,000 to $70,000, according to Stocks’ letter.

The DA will also start billing dues up front in January, rather than in two cycles over the course of the year, as has been customary. Partners, Stocks told board members, will be encouraged “to pay as early in the year as possible so we can have certainty about the resources available.”

LaMarche, the president, said the changes do not reflect “financial concerns” about the DA. But he acknowledged that they are meant to address what both he and Stocks’ letter described as a “structural gap” between the DA’s yearly support and “what the organization costs to run.”

As the DA has added more progressive causes to its portfolio — growing from about nine groups in 2005 to 34 in 2017 — the donor club has become more expensive to run, relying on additional gifts of up to several hundred thousand dollars from some of its wealthiest members. (Billionaires George Soros and Pat Stryker have been two strong supporters of the DA since its inception.)

These “legacy contributions,” as they’re called in DA parlance, “have always been needed to fill the DA’s structural budget gap,” said Stocks, the chair, in his memo to board members.

As outlined by Stocks, the dues hike and simplified payment structure are meant to “create a more secure DA for 2017 and beyond,” freeing staffers from “administrative tasks” and allowing the donor network to spend as much time as possible on the “enormous battles” ahead.

The DA’s hope for a “year or two” from now, said LaMarche: that if “what we're getting from the board's partners supports the organization — and that money comes in early in the year in a timely fashion, and the staff didn't have to spend too much time toward the end of the year trying to make sure the dues all came in — that we'd be a more effective organization.”

The changes come as Democratic groups across the party retool for a Trump administration they didn’t plan for or expect. One major figure in fundraising circles on the left, David Brock, hosted a closed-door conference for donors in Aventura, Fla., where strategists and elected officials led discussions on “resisting Donald Trump at every turn,” as Brock put it. (LaMarche also attended.) The operative has said he plans to build his new Democracy Matters conference into a network of donors whose contributions fund groups beyond Brock’s own, similar to the DA.

Brock said he hoped to build the network in the mold of the conservative Koch brothers, arguing that the DA has “veered away from politics,” leaving room on the left for something more “openly political.” Leaders in the DA saw Brock moving aggressively into “the DA lane,” as one Democrat close to both organizations put it. In an interview with Politico, LaMarche refuted the idea that the DA isn’t partisan or political: “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

(The DA supports a range of organizations, from public policy institutes like the Brennan Center for Justice to partisan entities such as Brock’s own media monitoring group, Media Matters.)

Some note, however, that as the DA has grown over time — building from its original group of roughly 65 high-dollar donors to a larger pool of about 120 partners, including institutions and nonpartisan foundations that count as “subscribers” — its focus has broadened beyond politics.

Since the election, the DA president has also traveled the country to meet with partners about ideas for opposing the Trump administration and the DA should “evolve to meet this particular moment,” he said. The question, LaMarche admitted, is a new one for the DA, an organization that has spent most of its existence under a Democratic president.

The “listening sessions” are still ongoing. (LaMarche spoke by phone in Boston, where he was set to meet with a group of donors there that evening.) Though he declined to elaborate on the sessions, he said partners are most concerned with building Democratic control in the states and contributing to the fight against Trump in what the party calls the resistance. State races in 2018 and 2020 will be the focus of a summit hosted by the DA in late March.

To help navigate the new political terrain, the DA has hired a new senior adviser, Archana Sahgal, who managed outreach to labor and progressive groups in the Obama White House.

Officials will also redraft the “2020 Vision” strategy they crafted before the election. The document outlines the DA’s central goals and the groups in its investment portfolio. Revisions will “hone in as much as possible on the resistance and the states,” LaMarche said, and could yield larger changes to the donor network and to the groups the organization supports.

“What the implications are for our portfolio, or the way we work, or how we raise money — those we're figuring out now,” he said. “I can't yet say how significant or radical an adjustment it will be in the way the DA operates. I do know that winning back the states and stopping whatever we can what Trump is doing really have to be the paramount priorities.”

LaMarche, now more than three years into his tenure as DA president, said he’s also worked to add transparency to a group whose processes and portfolio have long remained secret, forcing journalists to scavenge for basic information. (“I used to joke that because [conservative news site] the Washington Free Beacon took one of my strategy memos out of the garbage and published a PDF, you could be a goat herder in Tibet with access to internet and know as much about my strategy as a member of my board.”) But much about the group, including its partners, remain private, and it’s unclear if the DA would ever be a public-facing part of Democrats’ opposition.

LaMarche plans to lay out some of the DA’s plans at the donor summit in March.

Brock said he is also planning another Democracy Matters conference for the fall.

The letter from DA board chair John Stocks reads as follows:

You heard shortly before the holidays from Gara LaMarche about the DA board’s winter retreat and the steps the board and staff are taking to assess the lessons of the 2016 election. In these times, we must deal with the coming crises that the Trump Administration poses for vulnerable communities, progressive achievements, and core American institutions and values. We will also work to rebuild political power in the states, beginning all of this with our donor summit and DA conference March 22-25 in DC.

While the Board works with staff over the next few months to address the needs of this time, one thing we all agree on is that staff must focus more on the significant tasks outlined above and less on administrative tasks, such as the collection of dues and additional contributions (known as “legacy contributions”) that have always been needed to fill the DA’s structural budget gap. Even as we explore other, more permanent solutions to the DA’s sustainability, we need to act now to create a more secure DA for 2017 and beyond. So, as the Board works with staff on the longer-term picture, we have authorized three steps for 2017 and ask you to join us in taking them.

First, we will bill all Partners for their dues in January (instead of in two cycles, as has been our practice), and we strongly encourage you to pay as early in the year as possible so we can have certainty about the resources available. Payment in the first quarter is particularly important since the organization has a tax structure that allows no untaxable carry-forwards on our books, so we effectively begin each year needing to recreate our working capital for that year.

Second, we have authorized an increase in dues for all partners — an additional $5,000 for Governing Partners (from $30,000 in 2016 to $35,000 in 2017) and $10,000 for Institutional Partners (from $60,000 in 2016 to $70,000 in 2017). This is the first time that the DA has increased its dues in ten years (at which time the DA also eliminated a one-time $30,000 initiation fee for new Partners) — and is an important step we must take to ensure the stability of the DA as we move to take on new and different roles to help our Partnership and the progressive movement navigate the new environment. Inflation alone required us to make this change even as we consider other options to increase organizational stability for the future.

Third, we have also asked the staff to revise the organization’s 2020 Vision strategy considering changed political circumstances (the Board will be discussing their recommendations at our February retreat) and plan to step up the DA’s information “clearinghouse” role in the interim, relaying critical information about federal resistance and state rebuilding efforts while providing Partners with real-time information about strategic opportunities for investment.

We understand that these steps with respect to the timing and amount of dues may pose challenges for a few Partners, and we are determined not to lose Partners at this critical time, so if you have any concerns, please contact Chair John Stocks, President Gara LaMarche, Treasurer Paul Egerman or Membership Chair Keith Mestrich.

Thanks for all you are doing, and will do, to assure that we can meet the test that is before us in the coming years. We look forward to seeing you, dues paid, at the March convening to begin our effective response to the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Sincerely,

John Stocks, Board Chair

DA Board Members: Patricia Bauman, Vice-Chair

Paul Egerman, Treasurer

Weston Milliken, Secretary

Keith Mestrich, Membership Chair

David desJardins

Farhad Ebrahimi

Mary Kay Henry

Gara LaMarche

Sunita Leeds

Fran Rodgers

Susan Sandler

Rob Stein

Joe Zimlich

Ruby Cramer is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Ruby Cramer at ruby.cramer@buzzfeed.com.

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