A Whole New Toolbox

November 5, 2013

                                                                                                (Photo Credit: Missouri Jobs with Justice) 

Put yourself in these shoes: you’re part of a vital statewide organization advocating progressive change. You fight for critical progressive policy solutions that will have an important impact on people’s lives across your state. And you want to take that fight where it leads, whether through direct action, like picketing, or through holding elected officials’ feet to the fire after bad votes.  But as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization you are restricted when it comes to anything considered a political campaign activity, and lobbying is strictly limited. So at the end of the day, your organization’s political power keeps hitting a ceiling.  What do you do?

You call Wellstone and get to work.

In the case of Missouri Jobs with Justice (MOJwJ), working with Wellstone meant strategically and thoughtfully starting a 501(c)(4). First the basics: Unlike a 501(c)(3), a 501(c)(4) may participate in political campaigns and elections, as long as its primary activity is the promotion of social welfare, like protecting workers’ rights, strengthening education systems, and ensuring access to the polls. Putting it another way: 501(c)(4)s can work to build progressive governing power. As our very own Movement- Building Principal Adriana Barboza puts it, “There are groups across the country thinking about building political power, and starting a (c)(4) doesn’t just give them new tools, but a whole new toolbox.”

Missouri Jobs with Justice (MOJwJ), led by Director Lara Granich, is a coalition of community, labor, student, and religious groups committed to fighting together for economic justice. And they take on these fights through direct action; members pledge to take part in at least five actions every year, from picket lines to contract rallies. After 14 years of building solidarity and helping to win some big fights, like a minimum wage campaign in 2006, they are ready to take this work to the next level, “The minimum wage campaign was our first real exercise in political power,” said Lara, “These days, we have to defend our victories, year after year. Through our work, our wins, our collaboration, it’s become clear that we have incredible potential to grow our political power. In 2012, as a 501(c)(3), we hit our lobbying limits. We want to be more aggressive. So many of our elected officials are wrong on our issues, and we want to be able to mobilize and hold their feet to the fire leading up to elections.”

So MOJwJ decided to start a 501(c)(4) and, after talking to friends, partners, and funders, they knew that one of their first steps was to call Wellstone Action,

“We knew that Wellstone would provide tremendous strategic support. We want to make new mistakes, not repeat ones that others have already made,” explained Lara with a laugh.

Starting a 501(c)(4) comes with a lot of challenges, notably recognizing what new tools you have and deciding what your organization is going to do with them. And Wellstone Action has worked with Missouri Jobs with Justice from day one, helping to visualize, from start to finish, how their organization will evolve, from defining big goals, to operationalizing their new internal structure, to making sure their (c)(3) and (c)(4) interact properly. It’s meant that the Wellstone team has led a lot of intense, facilitated conversations, while asking deep and tough questions about the group’s vision going forward.

Adriana and our trainer extraordinaire, Aaron Browning, teamed up to lead this work. Aaron has experience starting (c)(4) organizations himself, and Adriana, a lawyer, is extremely well versed in these sorts of nonprofit tax structures, and has deep experience empowering organizations to win political power the Wellstone Way. Together, they’ve proven to be a powerful team to guide and strengthen MOJwJ through this process.

As Lara said,

“Working with Wellstone Action has been really tremendous. Their wisdom about how to make this (c)(4) work has been top-notch because they recognize what we need to do to build political power. They ask the right questions before we move forward. They have opened us up to the possibilities of what we can do, immediately and in the long term. And so, with their help, we are building the mechanisms to use the (c)(4) to meet our vision and grow our organization and its power.”

Today, exactly one year before Election Day, MOJwJ will start a new chapter in their work and officially file the paperwork to add a (c)(4) to their organization. With that, they’ll have a new toolbelt at their disposal, to call out elected officials who are hurting working Missourians and to support leaders fighting for working families. Says Lara, “Right now, there’s a huge disconnect between the values of the people of Missouri, and how our representatives are voting. Thanks to our (c)(4), we’ll make it so that there are immediate public consequences for bad votes, with in-district, strategic mobilizing.”

MOJwJ’s story is not unique. Across the country, organizations are trying to build power and realizing that their (c)(3) can only take them so far. So the only question is if these organizations should go-it-alone when starting a (c)(4), or if they, too, should  give Wellstone a call. For Lara, it’s a no-brainer,

"I absolutely would recommend Wellstone to other organizations going through this process. This investment of Wellstone Action on the front end is how we got things started in the right direction. It’s an investment that is already paying off well.”

From internal reorganizing, to learning to use your new set of tools, and reimaging your organization’s power, starting a (c)(4) is complex and vital work. And at Wellstone Action, we’re here to help you take a step back, build a vision, and come together to make the (c)(4) effective for your organization – and for the improvement of people’s lives. We’re here to help, one new tax structure at a time, and together, we’re building political power the Wellstone Way.