Where I’m Donating (Besides the ACLU)

Jonathan Howard
Jan 31, 2017 · 6 min read

Some are fighting court battles at the national level. Some are doing thankless work that may pay off in the next couple years. Some are long-term, shaping an America more resistant to “alternative facts” of the future.

Given how this year is shaping up, I wanted to find non-profits that influence government policy, and work for systemic change, as opposed to (also very valuable) services. After a couple days researching with experts, friends, and online, here’s what I’ve found so far, with some rationale behind each:

Short-term: Big hitters fighting back in the courts and congress

Immigration and civil rights ACLU National is in the news, for leading the fight on the #MuslimBan. For issues that require a massive effort, I like the idea of coalescing around one major organization. If you agree, ACLU is probably the one. I’ve also seen the Counsel on American-Islamic Relations and the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee particularly active in the courts. The ACLU thinks these court cases will be fought over the course of years, so it should be ok to donate monthly here. Sustainable monthly donations are often preferred.

For emergency relief to refugees, some of the most vulnerable in this crisis, check out The International Rescue Committee.

LGBTQ LGBTQ issues have been important to me since elementary school, when my family boycotted the Boy Scouts after a local chapter upheld the official position that gay people were unfit to be scout leaders. With rumors of an anti-LGBT executive order coming soon, LGBT issues may be on your list. This is another issue that may need heavy hitters over long sustained court battles, and HumanRightsCampaign is the big one. But there are tons of more specific and more local groups you might consider.

Technology and privacy Trump also seems poised to overreach on tech and communication. His FCC chairman explicitly wants to abolish Net Neutrality, and there are early signs of plans to restrict skilled worker visas that the tech industry depends on for already-difficult hiring. I haven’t found an organization for the visa issue (other than ACLU indirectly), but the Electronic Frontier Foundation specializes in fighting in court, for privacy and the integrity of the internet, at the highest levels.

Medium-term: Investigative journalism and reintroducing logic to government

Serious journalism In week one, the Trump administration co-opted the term “fake news”, called a free press “the opposition party”, and had Sean Spicer berate the White House press corps about crowd sizes, when anyone with Google could see it was a lie. To me, it’s not about a paper on my doorstep, or even reading their articles often. It’s the knowledge I’m helping combat open antagonism of a free press. They’ll do the crucial followups on stories, even after Trump expertly moves the news cycle to other stories. It’s the foundation on which all the other organizations will take action. These efforts take time to pay off, but that again means a small, but sustainable monthly donation can do wonders.

The organizations I kept hearing when asking about investigative journalism were Mother Jones and ProPublica. They’re both independent, non-profits focused on the public interest, which offer monthly donation programs. I especially liked that ProPublica wrote up their focus areas for the year, so you can see how well they align with your interests. Mother Jones’ recent investigations are listed here. You could also fund individual reporters. Here are search results for ‘investigative journalism’ on Patreon.

This work can cost months of people’s time for a single story. Quality journalism costs money in a time when newspapers don’t have it. Consider buying an online subscription to a medium-sized newspaper in your area with beat reporters on the ground. They’re more likely to develop relationships over time that lead to big stories. The New York Times is running an entire ad campaign against “alternative facts”, and The Washington Post recently expanded its headcount. There are Kindle versions of both papers, and you can get 6 months of The Washington Post for free with Amazon Prime.

Science in government For too long now, science has been disregarded in policy. For example, ignoring climate change, Trump silencing the EPA and other critical research and data reporting agencies, or local efforts to put “2,000 year old Earth” creationism in K-12 science textbooks alongside evolution.

The National Science Foundation funds a lot of great programs, but influencing policy seemed a small portion of their efforts. The American Association for the Advancement of Science gets closer with interesting government support roles and education. But the NRDC seems singularly focused on advocating for the environment and climate science, with a holistic approach that spans government advocacy, business outreach, and experts devising evidence-based solutions to real problems facing our country.

Finally, 314Action is a relatively new group that formed to elect scientists to public office directly. With support from successful politicians, they educate scientists on what’s required to run a campaign for local office, and offer support on logistics and donor introductions.

Long-term: The 2018 election, and STEM education

Elected officials The obvious one: donate to the campaigns of elected officials who fight for what you believe in, in your district, and in swing states. Individual campaigns won’t have started yet, but you can sign up on the local or national email list of the political party of your choice. They’re planning for the 2018 midterm elections already.

Starting right now, you can call and write your elected officials. 5calls.org and DailyAction are good resources. Your elected officials have armies of polite people whose job it is to take calls and keep tallies of what constituents think on upcoming votes/issues. If calling strangers fits your personality, budget time daily or weekly to say hi. If not, try emailing.

You can find all elected officials by region — and their contact information — on USA.gov, or enter your address and get yours all at once, with the BallotPedia Elected Officials Lookup.

STEM education In a way, fostering a love of science is a vaccine against people like Trump. It’s not the subjects that matter, but the way science looks at the world, and understands what it does and doesn’t know. It builds arguments up from first principles, it’s skeptical of claims without sources or results you can’t reproduce. A healthy understanding of how to know you know something could reduce the friction inherent in parsing news stories at modern speeds.

According to the Department of Education, America is falling behind in STEM education, “ranking 29th in math and 22nd in science among industrialized nations”. It’s especially bad in districts with predominantly poor and minority communities. This moment in high school — where math gets hard, life speeds up, and half of students interested in STEM lose that interest in just four years — seems like an area of extremely high leverage for long-term change.

With that in mind, I looked at organizations that reach people in high school, offer long-term programs not just events, and particularly those who serve poorer and minority districts. I also looked at mentoring programs, since we’re so short on such role models in STEM for women and particularly people of color. I went with The Young People’s Project, which not only trains high school students in math literacy, but those students then become math tutors to elementary school kids, which solidifies their own learning, strengthens community ties, and develops leadership skills.

I also found programs that didn’t fit the criteria but still looked great.

  • MakerEd, which connects mentors and children to organize fun “maker” experiences that combine art and engineering early in life;
  • Blueprint Math Fellows, tutoring students in Oakland Unified School District;
  • The Algebra Project, which looks for systematic solutions to math literacy in under-represented minority groups;
  • Genesys Works, placing high school students in interships;
  • NACME and Code2040 , which do important work for people of color in college and the workforce;
  • We Teach Science, which connects students and mentors around the country; and
  • Rails Girls, an open source project that’s taught coding bootcamps with innumerable women and girls around the world.

For more on how to be most effective with your time and money, see Three Ways To Translate Anger to Action.

Do you have a favorite organization I missed? I’d love it if you left a comment to introduce them and the work they do. Same goes if you have a different philosophy around donations.

Jonathan Howard

Written by

Conversation beats argument. Technical founder/advisor helping startups w/growth, research & prototyping. CTO Rupie.io. Alum of Minted, Google, others.