A Legacy of Leadership in Funding Democracy: Lisa Versaci and the State Infrastructure Fund

Lisa Versaci has been at the front lines of funding democracy work since the launch of the State Infrastructure Fund (SIF) in 2010. As the outgoing director of SIF, she has overseen the collaborative fund’s direction during a period of enormous changes in the civic engagement field, some of them initiated by SIF. Versaci and the staff and funders of SIF have also witnessed unprecedented attacks on voter participation, the pillar of a vibrant democracy, especially targeting communities of color. With her announcement that she is leaving SIF in May 2022, NEO Philanthropy conducted this interview to learn from Versaci and honor her legacy.

NEO Philanthropy: Let’s start at this moment in your long journey. You are leaving SIF, which you more or less founded. What would you say are your key milestones in this journey?

Lisa Versaci: Actually starting the fund was a significant milestone. In 2010, when we launched, national funders were not focused on the civic engagement work happening in the states where it mattered most. It was almost impossible for them to make small grants and to have the information from the ground that they needed to fund effectively. We designed SIF to make it easy for them to effectively work together to do funding directly at the state level. A model for us was the Four Freedoms Fund [Editor’s Note: another collaborative fund housed at NEO Philanthropy, working on immigration rights and justice]. So actually putting together a philanthropic structure to facilitate the flow of money to state civic engagement groups, was innovative at the time.

Another milestone was our response to the 2013 Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision that gutted the preclearance provision in the Voting Rights Act. We created the Shelby Response Fund within SIF to specifically raise money and support organizations on the front lines of that tactical afront to voting rights. It was an incredible time to be in the voter engagement/voting rights space and we were able to aggregate money quickly to support litigation and organizing efforts.

NEO: Continuing on the journey, what were other milestones?

Versaci: We soon realized this idea of supporting coordinated networks of state-based organizations doing voter engagement organizing, legal and other work, was catching on. In Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, and a number of other states, we started seeing evidence that the model worked.

With increased funding, we were able to distribute a significant amount of money to underrepresented communities. Since 2010, SIF has raised more than $160 million to support 140+ state-based and national organizations; 87% of those grantees are BIPOC-led, with priority states being in the South, Midwest, and Great Lakes regions. As national funders realized the effectiveness of this work, more funders came on board.

NEO: How did this infusion of support affect a then-fledgling SIF?

Versaci: It led to the decision to strengthen SIF’s internal capacity by hiring senior program staff who came from the field and deeply understood the needs of the communities we funded. In 2018, when SIF revised its strategic plan, we expanded our work, focusing on BIPOC communities in a more explicit way, and really going deep in the South, which we had not done before.

NEO: What other changes happened at SIF under your watch?

Versaci: The election in 2020 was really a watershed event for the country and for the State Infrastructure Fund. Between the pandemic and the highly polarizing presidential election – where amplified misinformation campaigns and explicit voter suppression and intimidation became the norm –our grantees were challenged on all levels. In November, 159 million people turned out to vote, turnout not seen in more than a century.  But we also witnessed shocking efforts to delegitimize our democratic institutions and our elections in the aftermath. SIF raised an unprecedented amount of money to support our grantees during that time. And, as 2022 ramps up, we continue to support activists facing an unprecedented and anti-democratic effort to keep power in the hands of people who do not want communities of color to vote.

NEO: What are the pieces needed in place in a philanthropic organization to move the kind of money you’re talking about and have a real impact?

Versaci:  SIF needed to ramp up our internal capacity to be able to effectively distribute the money. We had a core strategy that didn’t change, but we had to increase our capacity to be able to give out the money. We also ramped up our rapid response funding processes. Of course, we had the organizational backup of NEO Philanthropy, which houses SIF. NEO was able to process the grants and accounting for the grantees expediently. During a pandemic, groups on the ground had to modify all of their programs. That’s where the incredible program staff at SIF come in — they know what is going on in the field and how SIF could best help groups on the ground navigate COVID while confronting a wave of voter suppression and intimidation.

Page Gleason and Tanya Clay House [SIF Senior Program Officers] were in constant communication with field groups. They spearheaded the development of a technical assistance program and rapid response funding to help our grantees. All SIF staff — including operations, portfolio coordinators, and program specialists — were totally committed to making sure we were doing as much as we possibly could to keep the groups functioning and effective during such a confrontational political and pandemic time. There was the organizational part of getting the money out, but there was also the strategic and psychological part of it. People were under a huge amount of pressure and the stakes were high.

NEO:  How did you stay so focused during this challenging time?

Versaci: What kept us focused were our mission and our strategy. We believe that you have to build long-term infrastructure on the ground from election season to election season and fund it continuously so those in the field can be responsive as things change. These investments are not about getting one person or the other to win. The mainstay of SIF’s strategy is to create the machinery that promotes increased civic participation and protects voting rights while helping organizations through crises, navigate changes in the electoral environment and be responsive to rapidly changing situations. Georgia is a good example of where that played out. The horrible voter suppression and subsequent runoff in Georgia meant groups there needed more money fast to be able to do all that.  SIF was able to respond and make the right decisions in the moment. [Editor’s note: See more about Georgia below.]

NEO: In your long tenure as director, what has helped you make these critical decisions? Have there been guiding touchstones?

Versaci: A key guiding principle is following the lead of the people on the ground and valuing them, their knowledge, and instincts. I worked on the ground in Florida, Page was in Georgia and Tanya worked nationally and in the states. You quickly see that people on the ground know what’s happening in their states and know what’s going down. Sometimes in the foundation world, we think we have all the best ideas. Instead, we follow what those in the field tell us. We trust their intelligence and their strategy.

Another principle is to always use best practices. For SIF that means funding early and consistently, giving general operating support, and raising money in two-year cycles so that we can give people money when they need it to make their programs most effective.

Taking risks is a guiding principle we embrace at SIF.  SIF is good at taking on risks. We are careful that all due diligence is rigorously executed in our grantmaking.  We acknowledge and are respectful of the risk aversion of some of the foundations working with us. We also know that because we are not those foundations, we are able to take more risks.

Speaking of our funders, they are a critical factor in our decision-making. Our funders are with us every step of the way, they are integrated into strategic development and implementation, and we listen to them. A touchstone for me has always been to liberate the money and get it to the people on the ground. Our job is to facilitate getting the money out, working with people who can make the most informed decisions about where the money goes and then getting the money to them. Our decision to go big in the South was a decision made by the funders. I was blessed to have the best funders in civic engagement as part of the fund. They’re smart and they’ve done this for a long time.

NEO: Earlier you mentioned Georgia as a sort of validation of the SIF strategy. Say more about that.

Versaci:  In Georgia, the people who made the change happen were the people in the communities who were the most targeted by voter suppression tactics. We supported the effort in Georgia to increase voter participation in BIPOC communities in a big way. That was our strategy. I really wondered whether we could ever get enough scale to be able to have a significant impact with the strategy that we had. Georgia in 2020 convinced me. The Georgia runoff was about getting people to vote. And it was people we funded, who were trusted by the community, who got them out to vote. Because, as I said, if you were of one of the BIPOC communities in Georgia, you were the target of horrible intimidation and misinformation. Anti-democratic forces were mustering everything they could to work against you. But there was still an incredible outpouring of people going out to vote. It was, of course, Stacey Abrams and others urging people to vote. But in every community, at every level, these small organizations were doing the democracy work, which we supported. I realized that was a moment of “proof of concept,” where the SIF strategy of strengthening the field, funding the infrastructure, and supporting relational organizing, especially in communities of color in the South, worked. Those are the people who won that election, who went community by community telling their friends to go vote. We had to fund that.

NEO: On a personal level, what’s been especially gratifying for you about this work?

Versaci: Being able to really contribute to protecting our democracy and doing something about it. You look at politics now, especially the blatant voter intimidation, and you react, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they’re doing this!” It’s been gratifying to work with funders and brilliant staff and grantees to create a mechanism to have a very powerful impact.  SIF really is the organization that, in a comprehensive way, builds the movement and funds ligation when necessary.  As I reflect on our accomplishments at SIF I feel like I have made a significant contribution. I can look at my grandchildren and say, yes, I did something to try to better your world.

NEO:  Looking back, looking forward. What would you say to the new leadership of SIF, Erica Teasley Linnick?

Versaci: I’m more than thrilled that Erica has taken on this leadership role.  Erica has deep experience in the foundation world and in the field. She understands both. Seeing this work from both sides is a wonderful advantage for anyone coming into this role. She’s well connected and very well respected in both worlds. My advice is to continue to listen to the field and listen to the funders. Balancing those voices, ensuring everyone is heard, and keeping everyone going in the same direction is the challenge. Erica has a keen ability to make strong informed decisions, and in this work, some of those decisions will be difficult. But she’s so ready for that task. The world has changed and SIF will change now, influenced by Erica’s vision. So trust that vision and go for it because the vehicle is there to do incredible work. Be creative and take this all to the next level because we desperately need it going forward.

NEO: If you were to ask your grantees about what they thought of SIF under your leadership, what words would you most hopefully want to hear?

Versaci: I hope our grantees talk about the open and honest communications between our program staff and the groups on the ground. I actually think the SIF staff gets more credit for what I think the grantees would say. I would hope to hear that we’ve been consistent and supportive, that we understand their challenges and worked hard to meet those challenges with the resources we have to apply to their problems. I hope that they would say that we understand their work and that we are sympathetic and not judgmental.

NEO: What would you tell a donor who is considering funding democracy work, but isn’t at the table yet?

Versaci: I would say this is the time. There is an existential threat to democracy right now, and we can all see it. There is the real threat of authoritarianism. There is the de-legitimization of our core institutions. This isn’t just winning an election or losing an election. This is a fundamental assault on our democracy. I can’t call it anything less than that. It is explicit, intentional, and disruptive. My message to funders on the fence is this: There is an undeniable urgency and in your mind, you are feeling all of these things and yes, it’s true. So it’s time to step up and fund in this area, whether through SIF or elsewhere.

NEO: Why should funders come to SIF?

Versaci:  I think for new funders who don’t understand how to fund in this space, SIF is a good option because of our history, our effectiveness, and the great foundation colleagues that are around the table. It’s a great place to learn and figure this field out. It’s not the only way to do it. There are great organizations you can just fund directly. But people understand this is a critical moment. I think of climate change and democracy work as two of the most critical issues now. I would advise funders to find the vehicle they think is the most effective and that meets their goals as a funder. Find the vehicle that works best for you. And if SIF’s strategy is aligned with your goals, call SIF. We really want people to fund in this area. It’s critical right now.

NEO:  If you could summarize your legacy for us in a few sentences, what would that be?

Versaci:  I think my legacy is that I started and built this fund and brought people into it and made it happen. Not alone, we had amazing funders who were really supportive of the idea. We had NEO Philanthropy and a staff who realized the vision. My legacy is having the idea and driving it, but also bringing in all of these other actors and having them be part of it, and in the process creating their own networks that worked together to achieve a goal. Then there’s the money. I think that SIF has inspired funders to be able to put a lot more money into the states, especially on the (c)3 side, because nobody was doing this on the (c)3 side when we started. We created a way for more money to be able to go into states thoughtfully and effectively. That’s our model and we do it well.

That’s looking back. But now I’m excited about looking forward and seeing what this new configuration will be able to do with new leadership, new energy, and fresh perspectives. And so what I’m excited to see is what happens next, what will be the change built on what I and others have built. How can this move into a new future and be very relevant for the changing world we’re in?

NEO: Any last amazing moments in the journey to share?

Versaci: One of the most affirming moments was when we got the Mackenzie Scott grant [Editor’s note: In 2020, in a nod to its standing, SIF received $10 million from MacKenzie Scott’s first round of giving, funds that swiftly found their way to grassroots voter rights advocacy efforts]. This grant literally came out of the blue, we didn’t know about it until I got the call from her representative.  It meant that she had done all of this due diligence on us. She had heard of us and included us in her first round of funding as she was trying to figure out where she should put her money. When we got that grant, I felt like our work had been affirmed in the philanthropic sector. That decision was made after talking to everybody we had worked with and supported and going through a rigorous analysis of what we had done. At that point I thought, wow, we’ve proven ourselves and achieved something. It was a big affirmation.

NEO: What makes you optimistic?

Versaci: I’m optimistic when new funders come in like MacKenzie Scott, totally blowing the status quo apart in terms of philanthropy.  I’m optimistic and inspired by the young people I meet who are as crazily committed and passionate as I was at their age. Some are wonderful young leaders who are willing to run for office and fight. That makes me optimistic.  This work requires a lot of passion and commitment.  SIF supports people on the ground who have that passion and do this work against all odds because it’s what they absolutely have to do for their families, their communities, and for themselves. I have had the honor of knowing amazing people through this work.

NEO: What are you looking forward to for yourself in the near future?Versaci: I want to take a moment to reflect on what we’ve just done and consider how I want to apply what I have learned going forward. I am sure that will involve consulting but I have not yet made commitments. I am going to take some time and create space to think.

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