When Venture Philanthropy Meets Organizing: A Page from Propel Capital’s Playbook

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

When Venture Philanthropy Meets Organizing: A Page from Propel Capital’s Playbook  

By Sarah Williams, Co-Founder and CEO Propel Capital

When we first started Propel Capital in 2008, we sought innovative ways to leverage capital for social impact.  We looked across sectors, considered market strategies, and wondered if we took the riskiest, first-loss position with an impact investment, could we persuade other larger pools of capital to follow on and invest in line with their values?

We did – leveraging significant investment in rural poverty alleviation and attracting new capital for a range of other impact-focused efforts. In addition to impact investing, we employed a social entrepreneurship lens to our grantmaking – which we view as early, general operating, multi-year support for a compelling strategy with strong leadership to execute. This way of thinking drew from our experiences as investors and designing large public-private partnerships between government, nonprofits, and the private sector, as well as from our own long-standing personal commitments to social impact.  Little did I know how much my early days of political organizing – campaigning for pro-choice women state representatives after restrictive abortion and health care rulings in Missouri, mobilizing students for Jesse Jackson rallies in Connecticut, poll-watching Rudy Guiliani’s intimidation tactics during his NYC mayoral challenge to David Dinkins – would inform the giving strategy of Propel Capital today.  But then again, history has seemed to repeat itself a lot lately.

In 2017, we explicitly expanded Propel’s focus to invest in organizations building progressive power.  Propel Democracy, this new $5m commitment, draws on some of the same principles that have guided our funding from the start:

  • allowing those closest to the problem flexibility to respond, pivot, and act when necessary to drive change, and

  • using capital creatively to build a more just and equitable society.  

We believe the organizations within the Propel Democracy portfolio represent creative, diverse approaches that foster the strategic experimentation and tactical collaboration required for progressive policies and electoral wins. The grants prioritize communities with historical underrepresentation in positions of political power and leadership -- recognizing that collaboration across issues, race, and class is the way to build lasting progressive power in this country.  We are also intentionally supporting both new and existing work, believing that collaboration across long-time organizers and those newly motivated to act in response to the current administration is essential for mobilizing the level of resources -- money and people -- necessary to build effective coalitions. Harnessing the surge of interest post-election with technology and creative engagement, these mobilization efforts will be the driving force behind a major progressive rebound in 2018 and beyond.  

So we can provide funds in whatever form is most strategic for our partner organizations, we structured Propel Capital as an LLC and a donor-advised fund at Impact Assets, a mission-driven non-profit financial services organization, so we have maximum flexibility to provide a range of capital – investment, philanthropic, political (c4, 527). In addition, we’re conscious of when our dollars are most useful.  Most of the 2017 Propel Democracy funds went out last spring and summer and we plan to allocate the majority of this year’s funding early in 2018.   By making bets now, not in 6 or 9 months, we hope to give these organizations time to build coalitions, test and refine strategies, and develop coordinated, strategic plans.  We know we won’t get it all right, but understand that our funds will have greater impact the sooner they are deployed.

As funders, we need to act with urgency and move resources quickly and efficiently, so organizers can get to work across at scale.  This is what so many of us have been working towards all along -- whether you think of it as venture philanthropy or call it by another name.  And with enthusiastic, creative, strategic mobilization and the potential shifting of funding dollars -- political and philanthropic -- to fuel these movements, this may be the highest leverage moment we’ve ever seen.   

For a full description of Propel Democracy, please visit: www.propelcapital.org


About Propel Capital

Propel Capital invests in bold innovators creating a just and equitable future. Through creative uses of capital, we strive to build more inclusive economies, reform the criminal justice system and expand progressive electoral power. Our partners are changemakers and purpose-driven social enterprises with the potential to transform the world. For more information about Propel Capital or Propel Democracy, visit propelcapital.org.


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