If enough millionaires and billionaires get scared off, then the right wins, says executive director of Solidaire Network

Rajasvini Bhansali is the Executive Director of Solidaire Network and Solidare Action, a community of donor organisers mobilising critical resources to the frontlines of social justice. After participating in a panel discussion titled ‘Humanising and organising the rich’ at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation conference (June 2024), Bhansali sat down with Alliance’s Magazine editor Elaine Stabler, to discuss political homes, putting wealth to work, and the right’s fifty-year ‘concerted strategy to win the battle of ideas’.

Elaine Stabler: Could you tell me a little bit about Solidaire Network and Solidaire Action and how they work together?

Rajasvini Bhansali: Solidaire Network is a community of donors that mobilise funding quickly to the intersections of racial, climate, and gender justice. It’s one of the largest networks in the United States of progressive donors that believe in collective action to confront the unjust systems of our time. We have two priorities. First is to organise a mass base of donors that are in alignment with social movements. Second, is to accompany social movements as they contest for power. We have a theory of change: when we invest in those that have been most impacted by injustice, when we accompany them, when we work with them, when we believe in their experimentation and their capacities, we can reach large scale social transformation.

Solidaire Network and Solidaire Action are sister organisations. In the US tax code system, Solidiare Network is a 501C3 (a traditional nonprofit arm), and Solidaire Action is a 501C4, which allows people to do more political activities.

ES: One of the things you prioritise at Solidaire is moving money fast. Could you tell me what that means in practical terms?

RB: Through their own giving, Solidaire members move approximately a hundred million dollars a year. Through our pooled funds we’ve been moving approximately $20 million a year. For example, our Janisha R. Gabriel movement protection fund exists to deploy funds within 24-48 hours of receiving a secure request. It can be over the phone or email. It can literally be on a piece of paper. Anybody who’s under threat from vigilantism, from white nationalist violence, from State repression, any kind of threats to their critical work of social change, we will provide funding within a day or two. That funding can be in aid of anything from relocating to a safe space, to hiring a digital security expert to help them get their name off the internet. Or it can be to secure legal advocacy and legal representation.

Our members are great at organising each other and raising a lot of money, too. For example, when fights against oil and gas pipelines in the US have arisen (often led by climate and indigenous activists), Solidaire’s members have been some of the first to engage. From funding the fight to strategic shareholder activism, advocating and lobbying corporations or government officials to putting their bodies on the line. At the last fight in Minnesota, some Solidaire members showed up and were actually part of the frontline blockade against the pipeline.

ES: Your website claims to offer a ‘political home’ to Solidaire members. Could you explain what you mean by that? 

RB: So many donors have been told ‘you don’t really belong’. Sometimes their motivation comes from a place of guilt or unearned privilege for having excess wealth, sometimes they’re in a shame spiral perpetuated by ancestral guilt: ‘my ancestors make this wealth through colonialism, through slavery, through dispossession’, and so they feel the only thing for them to do is to write a cheque and get out of the way or work through their own shame.

What we believe is that guilt and shame is really grief. The sadness that comes with having that legacy must be worked through. We support people in our community to work through those psycho-social aspects of their wealth and to break that sense of isolation and self-flagellation. It’s important to find a community and a place of belonging and care and mutuality with others. That’s what we seek to build at Solidaire.

Our members describe us as their ‘political home’. That’s a term that’s often been used in movement building to describe a place that you belong to, either as a member, donor, partner, or collaborator. It’s a network or alliance that you feel an affinity to and develops you politically. It enables you to become more politicised, to learn more, and develop your skills. It’s also a place where you can experiment, make mistakes, fall on your face, but not feel like you’re going to be rejected or abandoned. In fact, you’ll be lifted to try again.

ES: One of the things you referenced in the panel discussion this morning was a ‘wilful right-wing attack’ on change-makers, could you explain what you mean by that and the ways you motivate people to take risks for the sake of a movement?

RB: In the United States, the right-wing forces have been consolidating and coordinating their efforts for the last 50 years. The result is a regression and retraction of our most progressive laws and policies.

I think the United States always fancied itself as not in a position to face authoritarianism or fascism in the way that we are now. But if we consider this concerted strategy from the right to win the battle of ideas, we can see how the fundamental principles of our basic human nature and planetary well-being have been polarised and weaponised.

These fundamental principles are sometimes called ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ ideas, but they include the fact that human beings deserved to be fed and clothed, to have access to healthcare and housing, to the fact that people’s dignity matters regardless of what race or class they belong to. But the right has completely demonised and criminalised migrants. They have criminalised student protestors and succeed in turning the climate crisis into a wedge issue.

The result is people who believe in these (‘liberal’) ideas and principles (many of whose ancestors faced down fascism, authoritarianism, survived the Holocaust) have a desire in their bones to see those wrongs not repeated in their lifetimes. They are working to ensure their money, whether it is hard-earned, easy-earned, inherited, or whatever, is going in service of movements for peace and justice. These principled, honourable people are under attack. They are the targets of the concerted right-wing effort so that our grassroots organisations and our movements that are already resource-strapped are further starved. If we go to the root of that evil mind, we can see the idea is to cut off the flow of supplies to the people doing the important work on the front lines. Of course, it’s a miscalculation because movements carry on resources or not, but their effectiveness and scale is impacted.

It’s a neo-McCarthyism. It’s a way to make anybody who takes a principled, honest and, courageous stand up for what’s right to feel a little afraid. The effect on donor behaviour is chilling. The increase in these attacks is designed to create a sense of fear and fragmentation, a sense that maybe it’s just not worth it, or my life shouldn’t be on the line for the work I believe in. If enough millionaires and billionaires get scared off, then the right wins.

ES: A lot of the attacks you’re identifying come from the media or the public, but I want to ask you about attacks coming from people within the same tax bracket. A lot of Solidaire’s work is about funding Black and Indigenous-led social movements. Some bad actors in philanthropy might describe that as positive discrimination. How would you respond? 

RB: So, you may have heard about the Fearless Fund case in the United States. That’s what we’re talking about when we reference a strategic, right-wing funded litigation to ensure that anything that stands for racial justice is vilified and villainised as race-based and therefore discriminatory. It fails to see the basic tenet that everybody in society does not start with an equal playing field. Our members want to right the wrongs of the past and put their wealth to work. They understand the wealth that they’ve inherited is not based on pure merit, it’s the result of design flaws in the structure that make them disproportionately rich over most of the world.

For a large donor network, Solidaire is very small at about 400 members. But imagine if 40 million or 400 million or 40 billion people in the world began to believe, ‘I am not rich because I’m deserving’, it would begin to undo the system that so many benefit from.

The attacks are rooted in a desire to keep Black and Indigenous people and movements at the bottom. It’s a backlash against growing power, against these communities that hold the key to our liberation. It’s a backlash against wanting true-lasting, durable equity.

ES: Let’s talk about ‘putting wealth to work’. Could you tell me a bit more about Solidaire’s Unity and Power fund and how are you measuring its success?

RB: We launched the Unity and Power fund in November 2023 at our annual membership gathering and in the wake of the Israeli-Palestinian war. We were hearing from progressive Jewish groups as well as Palestinian groups in the US that they were losing funding, or under attack. Motivated in part by the global uprisings against an unjust war, but also by the kind of human rights organising that is rooted in solidarity, love, justice, and peace, our members raised 2.1 million dollars in one evening for those organisations that have always been underfunded and under-resourced, but given the current political circumstances were under threat and particularly under-resourced.

Since that time, these incredible organisations have been able to bring multiracial, multi-faith coalitions together and join the global movement calling for a ceasefire. We were able to deploy the funds within six weeks. By January 2024, almost 30 organisations had been funded to carry on their important work. We were also able to move money to humanitarian aid groups in Israel and Palestine.

It’s one-time fund. It won’t be a multi-year fund because our hope is that our members will be inspired by what can be achieved when you show solidarity as a human being and when you move money quickly. We hope they will continue to fund these organisations year-on-year through their own portfolios.

ES: In 2021 Solidaire received a one-time unrestricted gift of $10 million from Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett. How have you implemented that gift into your work?

American philanthropist MacKenzie Scott

American philanthropist MacKenzie Scott

RB: The gift was a complete surprise. As most of Mackenzie Scott’s gifting goes, you just receive an email from an unknown address with a request to get in touch. At first, I thought it was spam, so I ignored it. After a few repeated requests to get in touch, I had an instinct to follow through and arrange a call – I was floored. I’ve been an executive director and a fundraiser for 25 years, for Mackenzie Scott to make a ten million dollar, one-time, unrestricted, not time bound gift to our organisation in recognition of our leadership and the important work that we’re doing…I was deeply moved.

At that time Solidaire had just started to grow in terms of our scale and impact. The gift was transformative for us. It helped us build a reserve and launch our ten-year strategy. Also, given the trends in the US, we were anticipating a retraction of racial justice funding. We knew there may be a time when we may need to tap on those monies it to continue to fund our partners.

ES: Finally, considering the conference that we’re at today, what are your hopes for the future? Not just for philanthropy as a sector, but for the future of Solidaire?

RB: By following the lead of movements and by organising a base of donors that are willing to move in this aligned, humble way, we believe it’s possible to achieve lasting, progressive power the United States. In spite of the current moment and the polycrisis, we have hope. We are enlivened by what we see our members and movement partners are doing. There is power in that synergy and coalescing this community that has a sense of purpose, focus, and accountability, that has discipline, moves with integrity, and is committed to changing the way inequality entrenches power.

Elaine Stabler is Magazine editor at Alliance. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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