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Progressives are struggling to not only mobilise citizens behind movements that can effectively push back at the rising tide of right-wing populism, but also win. A move towards community financing could give them the ammunition they need, Mar Garcia Sanz writes.

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We are on the cusp of a small donor revolution in politics and civil society. 

Campaign funding, once the preserve of the state and a handful of wealthy individuals, is now increasingly shaped by grassroots payments — ranging from one-off contributions, equivalent to the price of a coffee, all the way through to regular standing orders in support of policy aims or wider social causes.

This shift, sparked by the advent of social media and other digital tools, is widening civic engagement in particular causes or politically-driven campaigns and has the added benefit of providing donor groups with swifter and more detailed feedback on the initiatives they are seeking to push.

In Europe, the harnessing of mass donor engagement, as a campaign tool, is still in relative infancy — particularly when stacked against the fundraising activity and movements of political groups in the US.

To give a sense of the scale, for 2018-2021, small donations to European party groupings accounted for less than 1% of total donations. 

By group breakdown, they represented just 11% of total receipts for the European Christian Political Movement, 2% for Renew Europe, and 1% for the European Free Alliance, the European Green Party and Identity and Democracy groups, respectively.

Across the Atlantic, the picture is significantly different. Small, single-member grassroots contributions, which are now entering their thirtieth year as a feature in political movements, today constitute up to 78% of funds in the cases of some campaigns.

The case for the US grassroots buzz

A breakthrough moment in the US arguably came in 2012, when Barack Obama collected 23,000 small-sized donations in the first 24 hours of his reelection campaign. 

This trend spiked upward, four years later, with the ground campaign of Bernie Sanders. In his run, the Vermont senator collected $1.5 million (€1.39m) in micro-donations on the first day of his campaign, before amassing a whopping $73m (€67.7m) in annual recipients from small donors.

Beyond the headline stats of each campaign, a fundamental reality came into view: donors and volunteers were not exclusively bound, or, indeed, in direct competition with one another. 

The pool for civic engagement is deeper than many thought, and small donors can be harnessed to provide fresh impetus and reach to those making phone calls, knocking on doors, or organising rallies. 

As Patrick Frank, who worked on Obama’s 2012 campaign, and who now leads the Lunda fundraising platform in Europe, put it: “It is not just about money”. When campaigns ask for donations, “they are asking for our help … to impact the world around us in positive ways.” It is about making people part of a campaign, whether they are physically there, or not.

The grassroots buzz behind the Sanders campaign exemplified the power of changing mainstream political debate via a grassroots movement. 

The tactics laid down by Sanders and other progressives including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are now being adopted widely in races of all sizes, and helping candidates and movements that, historically, may have faced funding barriers — including those fronted by women, people of colour, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and low-income Americans.

A chance to replicate this in Europe exists

These developments, in the US, reveal the opportunity that exists in Europe for comparable activity.

Ahead of a series of important ballots, including elections to the European Parliament in June, public records note that just 31 micro-donations were made to pan-European groups in the past year. 

This is an underwhelming figure, which shows just how far away European parties are from their voters. It is also true in individual member states, where, against a backdrop of growing political challenges, progressives are struggling to not only mobilise citizens behind movements that can effectively push back at the rising tide of right-wing populism, but also win.

A move towards community financing could give them the ammunition they need, in this regard, and inject a much-needed dose of democracy into our political systems.

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By encouraging small and regular donations, there is an opportunity to engage and bring more citizens into the progressive tent for the long term. 

Such a move would give parties clout in their fight with the far-right, at both a national and a wider European level, and ultimately help them shape and deliver winning campaigns across key issues, such as social justice, environmental sustainability, and economic equality.

It’s all about the buy-in

There have, already, been several cases which speak to the potential of political crowdfunding. 

In Italy, for example, the once ascendant direct-democracy Five Star Movement pushed aside their political rivals and gathered around €1m in community financing on their way to taking office in 2018; in Spain, in 2023, the breakthrough party, Sumar, which we helped support, achieved their campaign objective of raising €100,000 within a month of their launch, with donations averaging €30; and, in the UK, the Momentum movement, which sought to pull the Labour Party back towards its roots, on the political left, owed much of its success to an effective ground campaign, which saw its membership double in the space of 12 months.

The problem, as we stare towards a looming “battle of values” both within individual member states and the wider EU 27, is that this work continues to be spasmodic in nature — something that progressives will need to address if they are to see an upturn at the ballot box.

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The truth is we need to do more to engage citizens in our democracy. The energy and campaigns of the progressive left in the US show what is possible when there is widespread buy-in to a particular cause. 

We would do well to take note and integrate some of these practices into our party models here in Europe if we’re serious about building movements that can deliver positive change.

Mar Garcia Sanz is the co-director of the European Center for Digital Action (ECDA) and a former Spanish politician and political scientist. She served as the Secretary General of the European Green Party (EGP) between November 2014 and June 2022.

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