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Circling Back

The first couple of weeks of January seems to be the grace period we give each other to get our worlds back in their “everyday” operational groove.  Then we get to the days immediately following Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, or as I like to collectively call them, the time to “circle back” to all the things we left unfinished at the end of last year.  

You know those emails you’re getting with this most irritating and guilt-inducing phrase? “Dear Bethany, Just circling back.  Do you have ______ finished?”   The big undone for Progressive Multiplier is our annual strategy. Anyone who reallllllly knows me just fell out of their chair reading that.  Strategy is my thing.  It’s what I’m wired to. It’s what I’m trained to do.  It’s what sets my professional soul on fire.  And, yes, I proudly own how geeky that sounds.  But this past year, strategy is the thing I failed forward doing.

Failing forward is a requirement here at PM; just check out our values.  Our annual strategy never quite got there because our goals (aka the truth north of a good strategic plan) reflected what the pandemic “made us”.  Or what we allowed it to make us.  I’m not sure which.  

Don’t get me wrong, I’m ridiculously proud of what we’ve been.  Progressive Multiplier runs one of the best grantee partner strategic support programs in the business.  That is never going to change as long as we make grants.

Five years ago, Progressive Multiplier came on the scene boldly committed to radically scaling independent revenue generation within the progressive movement to supercharge our collective impact. Along the way, we’ve had some amazing wins as we worked with more than 150 organizations to run experiments big and small. 

The COVID pandemic created a massive shift in our work, moving us from funding experimentation for growth to helping organizations figure out how they would keep the lights on in a rapidly shifting world. At the same time, the racial justice reckoning during the summer of 2020 opened up a massive opportunity for many of our grantees to radically expand their work and they needed urgent rev gen infrastructure support to capitalize on the opportunity to bring in new supporters. As an organization, we are proud of rising to the challenge, supporting groups across the country in facing the twin crises, and emerging from them with more robust systems for revenue generation. 

At the same time, we’ve strayed from our founding focus around innovative experimentation. We’ve not created the platform for sharing those innovations as widely as we intended.  When our founder used to say PM was about “going big,” I’d quietly roll my eyes (and Phil knows I say that in the most loving and respectful way).  But I get it now.  We do need to go big.  Not in the unethical win at all costs 1990s sales slogan way.   We as a movement need to go big in a radical, anti-racist mobilization of resources to groups across the board. At Progressive Multiplier, here’s where we have not been big enough:

Rev gen infrastructure isn’t just for nascent groups: We have been fortunate to work with several groups who have seen remarkable results with their revenue generation experiments. As those projects wrapped, it seemed like there was nowhere to go but up. And yet, less than a year later, these groups were forced to lay off staff and shrink their operations. Why?! As we probed for the answer, we discovered a critical missing piece of the equation: It is not enough for our movement to figure out how to bring in the dollars. We must have the infrastructure in place to ensure we manage those dollars appropriately, from compliance to budgeting to operations and administration. We also need to ensure that fundraising isn’t just siloed away as the concern of the executive director and the fundraising department but is something that’s woven across all departments as a shared goal and commitment. For the groups we worked with, despite their gangbuster revenue generation and fundraising success, they lacked the critical revenue generation-specific infrastructure and organizational orientation to manage that money and appropriately invest in their own growth and development, leading them to squander their hard-earned resources.

Bigger innovation needs bigger investment: While we’ve seen groups have great success with small grants, we know that truly breakthrough projects–-like supporting organizations to start an LLC or trial a field canvass–require much larger investments. That's not to say that there aren't many small-scale innovations out there that will have a big impact. But for many of our partner organizations that have laid the groundwork and done the optimizations and small innovations, the next step in their growth and innovation journey necessitates much larger startup investment in order to see results. 


Breakthroughs need a louder megaphone: Every time we see an organization we work with see significant growth in their revenue generation; we consider it a win. But what if we could replicate that win across the board, with multiple organizations implementing winning strategies in order to multiply the impact? And on the flip side, when experiments fail, we also celebrate because those come with learnings that must be spread across our field. We have so much collective knowledge to share, and we’re just not getting it out to the community that can most benefit from it. Reversing this requires greater investment in Progressive Multiplier to have the technology, staff, and capacity to truly power innovation across our movement. 


Philanthropy must invest in intermediaries: This might sound a bit selfish, but we believe that intermediary organizations, like Progressive Multiplier and many of our partners, have the ability to turbo-charge our movement in unique ways due to our setup and relationships with our grantees. Unlike traditional philanthropy, we sit far closer to the organizations doing work on the ground, allowing us to hear first-hand concerns AND be more nimble in our approach and response. We are also set up to grant dollars and build communities of practice, provide specialized resources, and generally do more to ensure the success of our organizational partners. Unfortunately, philanthropy is often not set up to take advantage of cross-issue intermediary groups. That’s why we’re calling on philanthropy to truly commit to creating cross-issue, infrastructure-focused investments that allow more direct and sustainable funding of intermediary organizations. 

These challenges may feel like a lot, even as you find yourself nodding along to all or some of them (or maybe disagreeing vehemently?). But we believe that the solutions to these challenges are not just things that we must do but things that we can do. 

As we look ahead to our work in 2024 and beyond, we are eager to share ideas, solutions, and innovations that we see as the key to meeting these challenges head-on. In the meantime, we’d like to hear from you: Do you have thoughts, ideas, or reactions in response to these challenges? Do they resonate with you, or do you disagree? We’d love to hear from you – take a second to fill out this survey and share your input with us!