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DIY Dark Money

Today, we’re going to get really tactical. How can you get a seat at the political table and make the change that you think should happen. When we talk about Democracy at Disability Democracy Radio, it isn’t an abstract idea. It is a concrete strategy. You can do it… if you want.

It will take work. Our system isn’t perfect. It isn’t fair.

But you can play with the big guys. The Kochs. The NRA. AARP. The Sierra Club. And you.

It is time to talk about DIY Dark Money. Do-It Yourself Political Change.

And it starts with VIVID.

Read the show notes.

I’m your host, Steven Davis and welcome to episode 7 of Disability Democracy Radio. This weekly podcast is about practical actions that YOU can take – to make a difference in your community. The goal of Disability Democracy Radio is to accelerate the disability community revolution. Find out more at disabilitydemocracy.org.

VIVID. Voters. Volunteers. Dollars. VIVID is what you need to understand public political power.

VIVID allows you to understand other players in our political system.

VIVID is what you need to build.

Your POWER is your “VIVID Score”.

If you’ve got a lot of voters, you are going to need fewer dollars and volunteers… And if you don’t have many voters, it is going to take a lot of dollars.

Don’t have much of anything to start with, then you know what you need to build.

The biggest V is voters.

Voters can get you elected and get you thrown out… or at least make your life as a politician public leader more difficult – whether an election is on or not.

The power of voters is not surprising in a democracy, of course, But voters are tricky.

Are they “your voters”?

Suppose your community is the BMA – Bald Men of America.

There are a lot of Bald men (or getting really close like me).

But, do bald men have an issue that unites them?

Do you have a list of bald men in America or a way to reach them?

If not, you don’t really have voters.

In the disability community, we talk about being the “one in five”. That one in five Americans are disabled. Many more, actually, if you count families, friends and loved ones who are touched by disability.

But, does it matter?

In Episode 2, I talked about “The Formidible Fifth” – the potential for the disability community to exercise substantial power and the achieve major change need to achieve Disability Rights 2.0.

Let’s be clear, we aren’t there.

We have a very long way to go.

We don’t have a “list” of those voters or a reliable channel to reach them, so we can’t get our message to them effectively.

And, even though they may BE disabled, do they VOTE as if they are a community… or, more importantly, are they PERCEIVED to vote as a community?

I don’t know if it is true today, but for a long time, the power of the American Association for Retired Persons came from the perception that they could deliver a large voting bloc and that they could reach them. In fact, since I turned 50 a couple of years ago, I get an invitation to join AARP every year. They offer me deals and discounts… they certainly get money from some of us who join, but they already have my name… they know where I live.. they can reach me.

Voters first, the next part of VIVID is Volunteers. Volunteers are The power in politics. Volunteers are the big engine. If you can deliver volunteers, you’re going to get attention. Volunteers can implement actions and campaigns. They can call. They can raise money. They are your megaphone, your arms, your legs. The literal “body politic”.

While we have improving technology, there is no substitute for people.

You can think of it as the fourth rank in your organization:

One. Your voters.

Two. Your list.

Three. Your members.

Four. Your volunteers

The NRA has been very good at activating its members to pressure politicians. Though their membership isn’t massive, the organization is very good at getting the most out of its members by making it REALLY easy for their members and their list to ACT as volunteers.

Call scripts. Push button emails. Pre-populated post cards.

Easy activation.

Easy activism.

And those scripts and emails are as much about the social proof of the power of your organization, in this case the NRA, as they are about anything else.

But anyone can create call scripts. Push button emails. And send-out pre-populated post cards.

Voters (we all believe we have them). Volunteers (we’ve all recruited them at school or church or around town. Everyone has run a bake sale or at least knows what they need to do).

But, The last part of VIVID is Dollars. Dollars are powerful because they can make up for a lack of voters or volunteers. Dollars are both very flexible and very inefficient compared to Voters or Volunteers.

A recent study showed that donors were 4 times more likely to get an appointment with a actual member of Congress or their chief of staff than typical constituent. 4 times more likely than a regular voter…. Who will get handed off to some sort of other staff member.

Taking care of donors makes sense, of course. Not necessarily evil. Just ordinary social reciprocity. You give something, there is an expectation to balance the scales.

As this was an acadmeic “study”, I suspect that these weren’t large donations.

After all, the social “trade” here is pretty small. A couple of minutes of “Face Time”.

Dollars are measurable. Dollars are visible. Dollars are deliverable. As the song goes “Money makes the world go around”.

Unfortunately, It may be that we are all more afraid of asking for dollars than doing anything else.

Or afraid of other people’s dollars. Intimidated by the Koch Brothers and other billlionaires.

Now I can tell you that getting dollars may be easier than getting volunteers, but it won’t matter.

But, while you may need money to ante up to play in the political game, you don’t need a lot.

You can be a pretty big player in your local community. In my local school district in San Mateo and Foster City, school board campaigns typically cost less than $20,000 and the margins of victory are pretty small. A couple of hundred voters. There are around eleven hundred kids with disabilities in our school district. That is likely more than two thousand voters. Organize and vote as a bloc, and we could make real change happen. Raise some funds. Say, $5 each household, and we’re a major player in any campaign with a ten thousand dollar annual budget. If we can recruit just ten percent of our community as volunteers, we’re a force to be reckoned with. Our numbers are typical. This is true for disability groups everywhere.

And, as lots of billionaires have found out, you actually can’t just buy elections. Michael Bloomburg is only the latest example in a long line of rich people who have found out that you can’t buy what you want in a democracy.


Because there are two factors beyond VIVID that you need to play the DIY Dark Money game of political change. Time and Focus.

Just a reminder that you can find full episode transcripts and additional resources are available at disabilitydemocracy.org. We welcome your comments, feedback, and suggestions. You can also subscribe to our weekly newsletter there which will give you additional information and insights as well as additional information about every episode. Let us know how we can make Disability Democracy Radio more accessible and actionable for you.

Time and Focus. Focus and Time

Focus first.

Focus is reflected in every part of the VIVID equation.

Is the issue you are working on central or peripheral for the politician and public leader you are trying to influence?

Is the issue you are working on central or peripheral to your voters?

How about your volunteers?

Our group, Not Without Us, ran a postcard campaign in support of a local parcel tax for education. A lot of our early members are parents of kids with disabilities in our local school district and, as all kids with disabilities are general education students first, we thought it would be a good way to both act as a disability group AND reach out and connect with the larger parent community.

It was a mixed success.

Now The parcel tax passed. We recruited several hundred direct volunteers and indirectly probably recruited close to 800 participants in the postcard campaign. We raised funds and awareness for our group.

All. Good. Things.

But, at the time, we really didn’t have a good understanding of how to balance the intensity of the action. We had lower participation from within the special education community than we expected and, though it is hard to tell, it is unclear that we did much to raise the awareness of the issues of students with disabilities in the broader public school community.

Intensity. Focus. Your target. Your Voters. Your volunteers. Even your dollars.

Finally, the last core element of DIY Dark Money success….


When do you act. What do you want. Is there an election happening?

Is the moment right?

Will the moment last?

Do you have time? Do you need time?

If you are small, you can trade time for money to build your pool of voters, volunteers, and dollars.

Do you have the stamina to last out your opponents or can they outwait you?

I was reading an interview with a police union representative during the height for the “Defund the Police” movement in June 2020 (which already seems to be fading now in August 2020, but we’ll see). He was surprisingly candid. To paraphrase what this police union leaders said…He said that Police Oversight Boards weren’t really a problem as they started strong, but they faded pretty rapidly. Pretty quickly, it becomes hard to find volunteers and the momentum runs down.

This often the weakness of grass roots organizations and other citizen movements.

Time can be your enemy or your friend.

You need to recognize it.

You need to organize around it.

You need to be ready to play the long game… or recognize that the game will likely far outlast this action or crisis or moment.

If your interested taking the time to learn more information about organizing to making political change happen, we’re putting together an ebook and course with more details about “DIY Dark Money” at DIYDarkmoney.com or you can contact me directly at: gro.sutuohtiwtonobfsctd@evets.

We want to help you organize and make real change happen to help all of us.

This episode of Disability Democracy Radio was sponsored by Not Without Us. Not Without Us is a 501c4 mutual benefit corporation. Our goal is equality for all disabled adults and kids with disabilities. You can learn more about our work at notwithoutus.org. Our strategy is built on democratic action – through this podcast and our community at disabilitydemocracy.org, providing organizing support at diydarkmoney.com, training candidates for local office at GetElected.US, endorsing candidates, or directly working on issues.

We’d like to thank Shelley McGinity, Alisa Greene MacAvoy, for their contributions to Not Without Us. You can support Not Without Us with an annual, monthly or one-time donation at notwithoutus.org/join. If you have any questions or comments on this episode, visit disabilitydeomcracy.org – you can email us, leave a comment, or even a voice message. I’m Steven Davis and on behalf of Not Without Us, we think that democracy comes not from a vote every two years, but from the actions we can take every day.

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