Political Entrepreneurs and Return on Investment

Many a heartfelt presentation given by political entrepreneurs to impact investors ends with those being pitched saying something along these lines: "It is so wonderful that someone is focusing on that issue! Good for you!" This usually means two things: 1) Better you than me; and 2) Expect a wire from us to your needy organization in exactly never.

The problem is we reformers want potential investors to care. Care about our ideas. Care about how hard our people are working. Care about the rightness of the cause. "Support my idea," the argument goes, "because it is the right thing to do and you will feel better for it."

This reasoning is neither rigorous nor compelling. It has also led to resource deprivation in vital, but underfunded, efforts in electoral, campaign finance and fiscal reform.

Political entrepreneurs must cease arguing the moral rightness of their cause and start talking about their product offering, their sharp approach to winning, and success metrics that empirically prove return on investment. There is no sharper example of this approach than the past decade in the Freedom to Marry movement.

Until 2004, this movement and its advocates were bereft of an overarching strategy that was compelling to big donors and motivating to the next generation. They had sustained devastating losses in Congress and in statehouses across the country. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) laid the base for discrimination against same-sex couples throughout the federal government. Longtimers tell you they didn't even allow themselves to believe it possible to achieve marriage for gay men and lesbians in all 50 states. Year after year, the movement steadily gained in sophistication, but it remained ineffective in stretching for big wins.

Instead of folding, a group of political and strategic pioneers joined hands with impact investors to redesign the overall strategic plan for the same-sex marriage movement.

The movement rebranded its efforts, submerging traditional "because it's the right thing to do" equality themes. "Freedom" -- with all the muscular Americanness this word evokes -- emerged as the unifying message. The movement recruited new blood, including talented strategists and operators from national campaigns and big hitters from the right. Most important, it abandoned a failing national strategy and dove into a state-by-state approach focused on legislative, ballot initiative, legal and public education efforts.

The movement has since gathered win after win -- from Massachusetts, all the way through New York in 2011 and a clean sweep of Maine, Maryland, Washington state and Minnesota in the 2012 election cycle. In the past two months alone, New Jersey, Illinois and Hawaii have legalized same-sex marriage.

This redesigned strategy, message and execution produced steady successes -- energizing longtime advocates and attracting a fresh army of bright, sophisticated and motivated talent. This includes leaders like Evan Wolfson, whose organization Freedom to Marry is driving the "Roadmap to Victory." And Chad Griffin, who graduated from being the key architect of the struggle to oppose Proposition 8 to become the president of the Human Rights Campaign. And state-level talent like Betsy Smith, who, through 14 years of driving Equality Maine, finally saw full marriage enacted in her state last year.

State-level victory emboldened national-level efforts. This year brought the extraordinary Supreme Court triumph, including overturning California's Proposition 8 and Section 3 of DOMA, and an aggressive post-DOMA reset of federal rules ensuring that same-sex couples are being treated fairly by every part of our federal government. According to the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage in 2004. That national number has shrunk to 43 percent today. Pew also reports that 70 percent of the millennial generation (those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s), regardless of political party, support Freedom to Marry everywhere.

You could argue that this change in public opinion is just validating the Rev. Martin Luther King's theory of the moral universe bending toward justice. I think also that Americans are competitive: We like to win, and we love winners. When the Freedom to Marry movement threw off its steady diet of losing, it became the winning team. Impact investors and the American people have plenty of reasons to feel good about joining up.

Freedom to Marry reformers attest that this transformation was hard. There is no magic wand to wave over the entire reform space to convert organizations into well-funded powerhouses. Gathering more financial resources for reform in 2014 -- reducing government and economic dysfunction -- requires political entrepreneurs to evolve beyond cause-driven pitches. Reformers must adopt sharper strategies, recruit high-caliber talent, get products right for consumers, and crisply quantify the return for big investors. Only then can our organizations emerge as winners.