9. Lessons in patience from Stacey Abrams in Georgia

How donating now can flip more states blue in 2024

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Giving to Strangers is a newsletter for people who believe global problems require institutional, not just feel-good, solutions. Every week-ish, I share the ideas and people who are trying to make the world better, and offer a non-bogus thing that you can do to help.

There’s something weird out about the 2020 electoral map. Surrounded by a sea of red, Georgia sticks out as the only blue state in the South.

As every deer outside my window and fly in my kitchen knows, the two Georgia Senate races have gone into a runoff election. None of the Senate candidates received more than 50% of the vote, so Georgians will vote again on January 5th, 2021 to elect their Senators. Since the Senate is currently 48-50 towards Republicans, the votes of 7,233,584 people in the Peach State will determine control of the US Senate.

This isn’t a post about whether donating will tip the balance in the Georgia Senate races (but if you’re curious, I wrote a Giving to Strangers about whether you should donate to campaigns).

Rather, I want to talk about the value of investing in concerted efforts that remove structural barriers to democracy — led by dogged, brilliant people — that will pay huge dividends if we invest in them now.

Let’s look into how Stacey Abrams did this with voter registration in Georgia between 2018 and 2020, and what it means for how we should be donating.  

But first, on the Georgia Senate candidates

Here are some definitely very important details about the candidates running: 

Georgia Senate election 1

Kelly Loeffler. Republican, incumbent Senator. I hate to mention appearances but this woman looks like she is still actively in a sorority. But really, she’s married to the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange making her the richest US Senator with a “100 percent Trump voting record”. Ew.

Raphael Warnock. Democrat, pastor. Former chair of the New Georgia Project, with a badass human rights advocate ex-wife. If he’s good enough for her, he’s good enough for me.

Georgia Senate election 2

David Perdue. Republican, incumbent Senator. Former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General. Definitely golfs at Mar-a-Lago, though I can’t prove that.

Jon Ossoff. Cutehot guy-next-door Democrat with an LSE degree. Tbh this dude doesn't seem qualified, but neither was Kelly when she took office, so vote Ossoff. 

How Stacey Abrams flipped Georgia blue  

Stacey Abrams is widely credited with the huge increase in voter turnout that gave Democrats the gains they needed to force the Senate elections into runoff. Six years ago, Abrams founded The New Georgia Project (the same one Warnock led), which focuses exclusively on voter registration. After losing the Georgia gubernatorial election in 2018 because of actual voter suppression, Abrams started a huge push in Georgia to register voters, also pushing back against the state’s “exact match” system, purging of voter rolls, and closing of polling places. Along with a consortium of other organizations, Abrams’ New Georgia Project and Fair Fight nonprofits have registered 800,000 Georgians to vote since November 2018.

What’s amazing to me is the kind of character that this reveals: Abrams, after losing an election, turned around and instead of moping, registered nearly a million people to vote in Georgia, paving the way for future candidates and helping address the systemic problem that prevented her from being elected in the first place.

To do this, Abrams harnessed the shifting demographics in Georgia. Here’s the math: 

According to the Pew Research Center , more than one in three Black voters live in 2020 battleground states. Among those, Georgia had the highest share of Black voters within its electorate, 38 percent. And from 2000 to 2018, the share of Black eligible voters in Georgia increased by 5 percentage points — the largest increase of any battleground state. — Stacey Abrams blew up Georgia’s electoral map

 My GUT about the problems with donating

#1: The good stuff takes too freaking long (delayed gratification)

As a donor, the success of this voter mobilization in Georgia highlights the transformative power of organizing, and the delayed gratification inherent in the act of donating. A donation is an investment. Just like normal investing, you’re making a risky bet: that the organization you’re donating to will do what they say, and that what they do will make a difference. And the longer the delay between donation —> impact, the riskier that donation is for the donor. (this is the same reason why longer maturity bonds pay higher returns to investors than shorter maturity bonds)

Nobody wants to be the only schmuck in November 2018 donating to Fair Fight if it turns out to be a flop. But that poses a problem for nonprofits that need time to make change. So the organizations most likely enact structural change are the ones that don’t receive enough funding at the “seed stage”, when donations could be most useful.

#2: The “Too little FOMO” effect (no counterfactual)  

And, to make matters more complicated, donors rarely feel the sting of NOT taking a risk on a cause/organization. Say the org succeeds without your donation — then you’re happy (my cause worked out and I didn’t have to spend a cent!). And if the org doesn’t succeed — well, good thing I didn’t support a flop, right?

This is in contrast to regular investing, where investors see how the stock market moved even if they don’t purchase the stock (assuming it’s not a huge institutional investor whose market decisions impact the price), and feel extreme FOMO if someone’s bandwagon does well and they’re missing out. In other words, investors, unlike donors, know the counterfactual (what happened in the absence of their investment).

Some examples of muddy counterfactuals:  

  • Planned Parenthood was flooded with donations in 2016 after Trump was elected amidst concern that birth control access would be taken away. Last week, I made an appointment at a Planned Parenthood because it was the easiest, most accessible option for birth control. Would that clinic have been there for me, and others, without those donations in 2016? Would they have been able to offer the services I needed? Maybe. I have no way of knowing, so donating to PP doesn’t feel as immediate. 

  • But what about the BLM movement in early summer of 2020, when donations poured into organizations like Movement for Black Lives? I also donated to M4BL, but progress on racial justice (changing police departments and amending city budgets) is so incremental that for all I know, my donation went into a black hole. Two years from now, if the incarceration or homelessness statistics look better, it’ll be impossible for me to know if that was because of M4BL and my small support. This makes me — ye average human — unmotivated to give to M4BL again.

The answer isn’t to not donate. The answer is to pay attention to whether the organization is attempting to move structural levers, and then use charity evaluators (like GiveWell, Animal Charity Evaluators, or this newsletter? 🤔) to assess whether the organization is effectively moving those levers.

Donating means having a certain amount of trust in the organization. And trust and commitment is exactly what Stacey Abrams said made the voter registration effort in Georgia successful, and why Democrats now have a chance at the Senate:

On Stephen Colbert last weekend, Abrams spoke about how consistency was key to the success of her voter registration efforts in Georgia: 

“We built it from the ground up: we ran state legislative races, but we also invested in city council races and DA races, all the way up to the presidential race. And I think the big difference was our ability to really maintain a consistent effort. So many groups have been [getting out the vote] for a long time, but it’s feast or famine.

Which strangers might you give to?

We know that Fair Fight is a great bet in terms of democracy gained per dollar. But a donation to Fair Fight is not just about winning the Georgia Senate race. It’s about leveraging the changing demographics of America to fight back against voter suppression, thereby garnering support for democratic (and Democratic) issues and candidates down the line. Think about how good you’ll feel if you donate today, and there’s the next Georgia in 2022 or 2024. Could North Carolina flip blue? Montana? Iowa?

That’s why this week, I’m recommending a recurring donation to Fair Fight. It doesn’t have to be big: I just scheduled mine for $10 per month. Recurring donations help nonprofits plan the kind of longer term organizing and programming that is key for structural change (even though it might not feel sexy or immediate to you right now).

I’m hoping that the Democratic establishment pays attention, and will use Georgia as a blueprint for voter registration pushes across the country. Fair Fight has already started pushes in other states, including Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi:

In Kentucky the Republican governor purged 175,000 people from the voter rolls, and Fair Fight 2020 was able to help the state party file a lawsuit that allowed all of those purged voters to cast ballots in November. — Voting rights organization Fair Fight 2020 working in 17 battleground states | National Press Club

Donate here: https://secure.actblue.com/donate/fair-fight-1

Appendix: Why the Georgia races are so important

An alternative headline: Stuff I wrote that doesn’t fit in the piece but I don’t want to delete it because I like it and all the links are so informative (and took a lot of time)!

One way that I think about the importance of my acting on an issue is in terms of expected value: what is the probability that my additional dollar or action can change something (Probability) times how important the issue is (Outcome). Even a small chance that I’ll make a difference can be outweighed by a really important Outcome. You see where I’m going.  

Control of the Senate is — to be dramatic — of global existential importance in terms of Outcome. Senate control determines whether or not Democrats have a chance at passing climate legislation ; it determines whether your tattoo shop, yoga studio, or bakery can stay afloat because a Democratic stimulus bill would make more small businesses grants available; it determines the extent of the support the government extends to the people onto whose backs this economy has collapsed  — especially women, who as of September 2020, are leaving the labor force at 4x the rate of men to shoulder care responsibilities (see “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.”); it determines whether police reform legislation passes Congress, banning chokeholds and improving police oversight, and cementing wins for the BLM movement. 

If you liked this post, you might like my last post interviewing Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, where we talk about doing good. Steve Levitt framed donations as an information problem: for an outsider, it’s hard to tell whether a nonprofit is doing any good.

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