Blog: Crowdfunding Against Goliath

…All the way to the ballot box

In the age-old David versus Goliath battle archetype, 2013’s David has a new tool: crowdfunding.

This fall, a grassroots nonprofit in Boulder, Colorado is making headlines by wielding a familiar tool on a new frontier: crowdfunding its campaign to out-organize a major player in the coal industry that’s attempting to buy an election.

“We’re going to run a truly grassroots campaign,” said Steve Fenberg, executive director of New Era Colorado, “so it’s only fitting that we raise our funds from the grassroots as well.”

In its David versus Goliath battle, the nonprofit–New Era Colorado–has decided to up David’s chances, using the Indiegogo crowdfunding platform to raise the resources it needs to organize the city of Boulder.

By now, we’ve seen Kickstarter and Indiegogo-type platforms launch thousands of projects and products from startup companies and NGOs around the globe–but to launch a grassroots organizing campaign to defeat a national corporation at the ballot box? That much is new.

But just a week after launching its 30-day campaign, New Era Colorado is 50 percent of the way to its $40,000 goal–with no signs of losing steam anytime soon. The group engages young people in building a hands-on democracy at the state- and local-level, and is raising money to hire organizers that can recruit and train volunteers to build out the campaign.

They’re going to need a lot of organizers, because they’re battling their coal-dominated, monopoly electric utility, Xcel Energy, for control over their energy future–and Xcel has made it clear they will not go down without a fight. Two fights, actually, to date–New Era Colorado and its allies actually already won, back in 2011–but Xcel Energy is back this year, because they just can’t stand to let Boulder waltz out of their portfolio.

“We know we can’t compete dollar for dollar against Xcel’s warchest,” said Fenberg,”but we’re going to need resources so that our message breaks through their fear campaign.”

Background

For years, Boulder residents pressured their monopoly utility, Xcel Energy, the largest investor-owned, coal-dominated utility in Colorado, to provide cleaner power to no avail. In November 2011, fed up with stall tactics, Boulder voters approved two ballot measures to begin the process of “municipalizing” their energy utility, effectively taking control from Xcel and allowing the city to move to cleaner energy. The campaign was historic. Very few cities have recently taken control of their energy supply in such a manner, and never in American history had a city municipalized their energy supply explicitly to create a model for fighting global warming.

The fight wasn’t easy. Xcel poured in over $1 million in three months in their efforts to beat back the ballot measures. New Era Colorado’s team and their campaign coalition spent a mere $100,000 promoting the two measures. At the end of the day New Era’s army of organizers, interns and volunteers carried the day, registering 5,000 voters, and making 70,000 voter contacts on their way to victory.

Now, Xcel Energy stands to lose millions of dollars in profits every year. After polling potential ballot language three times in the Spring of 2013, they’ve introduced a new ballot measure, an initiative that would make Boulder’s clean energy plans nearly impossible, by masquerading it simply as a measure to reduce city government debt. The ballot would essentially kill municipalization before a new city utility could even be formed by placing too many restrictions on it and by making it impossible for the city to move forward with condemnation proceedings against Xcel Energy to begin the process of forming a city utility.

The city’s modeling has so far shown Boulder could provide cleaner energy at same or better rates than Xcel, all the while ensuring the same reliability. An independent, third-party consultant evaluated Boulder’s modeling and has verified the city has a high likelihood of success for achieving those standards, all the while potentially saving money.

This fight already has national implications. At least two other city councils—neighboring Lafayette, Colorado and even the home of Xcel Energy headquarters, Minneapolis, are studying Boulder’s municipalization policy and considering emulating it. If Xcel wins, the environment stands to lose and corporate control over both our climate and our elections stand to win.

But if the city of Boulder prevails, it creates a model for how other cities around the country can not only make decisions about their own energy future, but in the long-term, pressure the entrenched business model of huge investor owned utilities to finally change.