For This Funder Collaborative, the Road Back to Abortion Access Leads Through the States

Wisconsin state capitol in madison. Nejdet Duzen/shutterstock

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was a devastating blow to reproductive rights, but pro-choice activists and supporters aren’t packing their bags and going away — far from it. After the court ruling last June, fury over the abrupt loss of a 50-year-old constitutional right helped drive turnout for pro-choice candidates in last year’s midterms and flattened an anticipated red wave. Concern over abortion rights also appears to have boosted Democratic turnout in the recent State Supreme Court primary in Wisconsin. 

Philanthropy has also mobilized to support reproductive rights post-Dobbs, a trend IP has been following closely. Abortion funds across the country have seen record donations, including from major philanthropies, as my colleague Dawn Wolfe reported. She also highlighted a campaign to underwrite independent abortion clinics, and wrote about major faith-based groups supporting abortion rights. Meanwhile, donations to pro-choice organizations have remained high in the months since the decision, defying fears that they might wane over time. (Many critics believe philanthropy could and should have acted sooner; for more on its role in the fight for reproductive rights going forward, see this guest post by movement leaders.)

While national attention has been trained on Washington, one group of funders is keeping a sharp focus on reproductive rights at the state level — and was doing so long before the Supreme Court upended Roe v. Wade. The Collaborative for Gender and Reproductive Equity (CGRE), founded in 2018, calls itself “a unique partnership between donors who care deeply about gender and reproductive equity.” Funders in the collaborative include big names like Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, as well as a variety of other funders such as Acton Family Giving, Foundation for a Just Society, the JPB Foundation, and Monika H. Parekh P Squared Charitable Foundation. In 2021, CGRE also landed a $25 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, who has emerged — as in so many other areas — as a significant donor to know in the field of reproductive rights.

CGRE’s partners joined forces to give their individual work more clout. According to its website: “By working together and pooling funds, CGRE can be bolder, act faster and make a greater impact than any one donor can alone.” 

The funders involved in CGRE believe the fight for abortion access will ultimately be won or lost at the state and local level — and that’s where the collaborative is focusing its attention. Cristina Uribe, CGRE’s director of advocacy and judicial strategies, says that in fact, that’s where the fight has always been. “Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, the pushback against it was happening in the states: The opposition was looking for ways to limit and roll back those rights,” she said. “We have seen that increase over the last two decades; I worked on at least three parental notification measures in California in the late 1990s and early 2000s, for example. So CGRE’s strategy hasn’t changed post-Roe. The early funders recognized that this is where we need to be because state-level efforts were underinvested in and under-resourced. So when folks talk about battleground states, I always say that all the states are battlegrounds.”

Building power, strengthening capacity

CGRE’s funding strategy targets three core areas: state power-building, advancing equity through the judicial system and creating alliances. The collaborative seeks out state-level funding partners whose work aligns with these focus areas. On its website, CGRE lists four states where it’s currently working: Georgia, Michigan, New Mexico and Texas. When I spoke to Uribe recently, she added Wisconsin, Montana, Ohio and North Carolina to the list. 

Facing an increasingly conservative federal judiciary, CGRE has zeroed in on state judges. In a guest post for IP late last year, Uribe and Brook Kelly-Green of Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies explained why. “State courts hear 90% of cases in our country, and in every state, they play a substantial role in determining whether abortion restrictions will be enforced,” they wrote. “A lack of education around the importance of these races leads many voters to skip over them on the ballot or choose a candidate at random. And because of this, state court judges, and therefore candidates for the Supreme Court, are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative men making life and death decisions about abortion access. State court judges wield enormous power, so we must make sure they are operating in service of our democracy, not against it.” 

CGRE provides pooled funding for reproductive rights groups across several priorities. For its judiciary-focused funding, CGRE invests in state-level organizations working to develop proactive litigation strategies, build judicial pipelines, undertake nonpartisan civic engagement and invest in education and capacity-building. One CGRE grantee, for example, the Ohio Progressive Collaborative Education Fund, educates voters about judicial races, work that has led to the election of more judges who support gender and reproductive equity. 

In terms of state power-building, CGRE backs organizations working for gender, reproductive and racial equity. In one example, CGRE grantee partners in Michigan provided voter education that helped ensure passage last November of the state’s constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to abortion and other reproductive health services. Grantee organizations also helped build support for an amendment that increases voting access.

In choosing the organizations it works with, CGRE conducts an in-depth landscape assessment. “We ask questions like, where is abortion access at risk?” Uribe said. “And which populations are impacted? Is there already existing infrastructure?”

To support and empower its grantee partners, CGRE launched a Capacity Strengthening Initiative which supports grantee projects, leadership awards, opportunities for peer learning, and provides access to a Resource Hub to put grantees in contact with coaches, consultants and other sources of support. The initiative is available to all grantees, but emphasizes organizations led by BIPOC, transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. 

CGRE sees its support for its partners as a long-term investment. “We provide the type of multiyear general operating support that provides stability and gives people a runway to really do this work, because it takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Uribe said.

Taking it to the states

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe last June, there has been little federal action on abortion. The Biden administration is reportedly looking for ways to increase access, but avenues are limited, and include actions like boosting patient privacy protections. Meanwhile, there has been sustained activity at the state level to put even more restrictions on abortion access, but these efforts haven’t received much national media attention. Jessica Valenti highlights state-level abortion news in her informative blog, Abortion, Every Day. A few examples from a recent post: legislators in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and South Carolina are all proposing laws that would classify abortion as homicide, meaning that women who have abortions could be prosecuted for murder (and could face the death penalty, in some cases). And the group Tennessee Right to Life is fiercely opposing GOP lawmakers’ efforts to permit abortion in cases when a woman’s life is at risk. 

Uribe has seen more national funders turning their focus to the states over the last several years. The federal government is an easier target because there are fewer points of power: Congress, the executive branch, and the Supreme Court. In contrast, tackling issues state-by-state can be daunting from a resources and capacity perspective. Still, Uribe says a number of organizations are taking the plunge — not just those that focus on reproductive rights, but organizations working on voting rights, environmental justice and climate change, as well. 

CGRE often acts as a resource for funders who want to increase their state-level efforts because it has already vetted and worked with key state-based organizations. Uribe says she’s heard from more funders looking for this kind of insight since the Dobbs decision. CGRE also welcomes new funding partners.

“As more funders look to the states, we can be a place for information and resources,” she said. “We can say, ‘Oh, yes, here’s who we’re funding in New Mexico,’ or ‘Here are the organizations that are really leading this work in Michigan.’ So folks, knowing that our focus is on state-based investments and state-based power-building efforts, know they can come to us to just compare notes or take a temperature check. We’re not the only ones, but that’s a role we can play to help inform the work.” 

Uribe emphasized that CGRE doesn’t believe work on the federal level is unimportant. “It’s just that whether you’re talking about the fight for democracy, voting rights, criminal justice reform, the environment, change often originates at the state level,” she said. “And when it comes to national action around abortion rights and access, we believe the road back is through the states.”