Beats | September 1, 2020

Impact investors have a role to play in preventing worst-case election scenarios

Sarah Williams
Guest Author

Sarah Williams

ImpactAlpha, Sept. 1 – November is coming and hopefully the beginning of the end of the authoritarianism, oligarchy, and violence that have become increasingly normalized since January 2017.

In the past few months, the President’s tactics to undermine democracy have become more overt— from tear gassing peaceful protestors to the dismantling of the United States Postal Service infrastructure.

As impact investors, too many of us feel stuck in the face of these threats and removed from electoral politics. Failure to engage now will have real and significant consequences not only for our portfolios, but for American democracy and the future of this country.

We don’t know what the rest of 2020 will bring, but impact investors have a key part to play and we need to step into it, now.

Increasing evidence points to the fact that the election may not be decided on November 3, or even in November. Fair election advocates are preparing to fight throughout an election “season,” uncovering well-coordinated and well-funded efforts to prevent people from voting and having their vote counted, and planning for prolonged state battles over every ballot.

For impact investors, our work implicitly depends on a functioning democracy and economy. With this kind of chaos, we can no longer take the assumed factors in our impact models for granted. But if we recognize what’s at stake, impact investors can play an instrumental role in avoiding the worst-case scenarios of this election season.

First we must let go of the idea that a deep disruption in democracy cannot happen here––because it can and already is. This election season, the administration has made a concerted effort to eviscerate electoral norms and sow discontent and distrust in even the most foundational institutions, like the US Postal Service. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to limit our options for voting safely.

At Propel Capital, where I am CEO, organizations we have been supporting since 2016 are gearing up for delays, harassment, and potential violence at the polls. It is critical that impact investors recognize this threat both as individuals and as actors with the financial and social capital to thwart efforts to undermine democratic norms, before they gain momentum.

Propel Capital launches fund for civic tech and political engagement

But this crisis isn’t isolated to the election—our investments across a range of issue areas are dependent on civic trust and stability that is currently at great risk. Even beyond the fundamental right to vote, many of the issue areas impact investors work in are deeply affected by the electoral process and elected officials.

If you’ve been divesting from gun manufacturers in your portfolio, then you should track New York Attorney General Tish James’ prosecution of the National Rifle Association and how that might impact your investment strategy.

As an investor in clean energy and technology, you need elected officials who value this approach, facilitate its growth, and develop regulation that reinforces this common good, not provide no-compete contracts for their cronies to drill on public lands.

If you’ve been investing in diverse fund managers and entrepreneurs, you’ll want elected officials who address systemic racism and create more opportunities for these entrepreneurs to succeed.

Democratic norms

None of the social impact we seek across our portfolios can be realized if our country is thrown into a long, bloody fight that undermines the very tenets of our democracy.

What can we do now at this late moment when the stakes are so high? Roll up our sleeves, open our wallets, call our friends, and get ready to fight for the promise of this country through election season and beyond.

There are smart, strategic political initiatives working to ensure that the election results are fair and respected that need robust backing now more than ever (some of which we have backed through our Propel Democracy portfolio). Volunteer with and fund Fair Fight, which is working in 18 important electoral states to protect people’s right to vote. Support state-based organizing through Movement Voter Project and Way to Win, ensuring that voters get information from trusted messengers on how to make sure their vote is counted.

Fund organizations like Color of Change PAC and the Movement For Black Lives’s Electoral Justice Voter Fund that have, with others, catalyzed the largest movement in American history – 26 million people – with the kind of energy and momentum this country needs to galvanize citizens for change. Fund efforts to fight disinformation being sowed to suppress votes in Black and Latinx communities through Win Black/Pa’lante. Make phone calls and text voters from your couch through Mobilize or Sister District.

And get ready to do it again and again through January and beyond.

We do not know what will happen between now and January’s inauguration, and the scenarios that could play out are myriad. But we know that we can and must do more than watch from the sidelines and hope for the best. We must use the social and financial capital we hold as investors to protect our democratic norms in these critical months to come.

If we do not recognize the gravity of this situation—how fragile our democracy is at this moment—we do so at our own peril. The future of the just economy we have been working to build as impact investors depends on all of us taking action now more than ever. We have a unique set of tools at our disposal as impact investors. Now, until the transition is secure and complete, is the moment to deploy everything we have.

Sarah Williams is cofounder and CEO of Propel Capital, which invests in early-stage ventures and visionary leaders challenging the status quo and driving transformational change. After more than ten years of learning and partnership with over 100 entrepreneurs and change-makers, today Propel’s focus is on direct investment in early-stage impact-driven companies, building progressive power in the U.S., and improving economic outcomes and access to capital.