The Sunrise Movement


Based on our research, we recommend donations to the Sunrise Movement Education Fund, which we have classified as a High-Potential organization. High-potential organizations are those which have not yet fully demonstrated their effectiveness, but which are attempting new, innovative, and promising approaches to policy change. Such organizations show important intermediate successes and effective organization and practices, and they make use of an approach backed by rigorous research and evidence. We also recommend the Sunrise Movement Education Fund’s local hubs as a volunteer opportunity for those with more time than money.

With an incoming Biden administration that has promised action on climate, we believe that the Sunrise Movement Education Fund is well-placed to ensure that climate remains a priority in the new administration and to help influence regulatory policy controllable by the executive branch. While the make-up of the 2021-2022 US Congress is unclear at the time of writing this document, we believe that the Sunrise Movement Education Fund will build support in the long term for pro-climate legislation.

Note on organizations within the Sunrise Movement

The Sunrise Movement is an umbrella term to describe three separate legal entities: the “Sunrise Movement Education Fund” is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit; the Sunrise Movement also has a 501(c)(4) arm; and there is a political action committee (PAC). Donations to the 501(c)(3) arm are tax-exempt and, therefore, the funds raised through the 501(c)(3) cannot be used to support certain political activities such as supporting candidates in an election. Funds raised through the 501(c)(4) or PAC arms have fewer restrictions on political activity. These organizations work together (described here) to achieve the Sunrise Movement’s goal of fundamentally altering the government’s climate change policies. We provide a descriptive overview of the activities and outputs of the entire Sunrise Movement in our Deep Dive on the Sunrise Movement.

Since Giving Green is part of IDinsight, which is itself a charitable, tax-exempt organization, we are only offering an opinion on the charitable activities of the Sunrise Movement Education Fund [1].

Why we recommend the Sunrise Movement Education Fund

In our document How We Determined our 2020 Research Priorities for policy change, we employed the Importance, Tractability, and Neglectedness framework to outline the reasons why we think donations to activist organizations are likely to have a high marginal impact on reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations through the mechanism of policy change. We believe that the Sunrise Movement Education Fund is one of the most effective activist organizations currently working to influence US national policy (and the only one that we currently recommend).

The Sunrise Movement has a unique approach to activism that focuses on neglected methods, specifically tying movement-building work (funded by its 501(c)3 arm) together with the direct political involvement (funded by its other entities). We believe expanding the scope of the use of these specific methods to be important. There are no other prominent organizations (that we know of) successfully tying activism to public policy in the same manner.

The complete theory of change for the Sunrise Movement is laid out in our separate Deep Dive document. At a high level, the theory of change is as follows:

Campaign building involves building a network of supporters and aligning on policy goals and strategy. Donations to the Sunrise Movement Education Fund primarily support campaign building:

Expanding their activist network

The Sunrise Movement Education Fund gains its power from its large network of youth activists, organized into regional hubs. Sunrise has built over 400 regional hubs and is consistently adding more. These hubs build local grassroots support for the Sunrise Movement and are key to it maintaining to wide and energized base. The Sunrise Movement Education Network works to expand the network of local hubs, train leaders, and fund outreach activity.

Although mainstream media coverage is only one indication of an activist movement’s strength, Sunrise has seen an amplified media presence in the last year. We analyzed coverage of the Sunrise Movement in two major, mainstream US news outlets: the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times has run a total of 92 articles in its history covering the Sunrise Movement, and 48 of these (52%) were published in 2020. The Wall Street Journal has run a total of 11 articles on the movement, and 8 of these (73%) were published in 2020. We view this an indication of the Sunrise Movement’s rising influence.

Policy consensus and promotion

The Sunrise Movement has played a central role in catalyzing agreement of a wide variety of stakeholders on a general policy framework around which to coordinate activism. This framework is generally known as “Standards, Investment, and Justice”, and aligns closely with the conclusions of the House Select Committee on Climate Change as well as the incoming Biden administration’s climate plan. Most green groups and politicians have adopted this framework. The Sunrise Movement Education Network funds the policy coordination and movement-building that is the base of its activism activities.

Non-partisan electoral activities

The Sunrise Movement Education Fund works to ensure that climate issues are salient in elections by distributing electoral scorecards focusing on climate issues and by engaging in non-partisan get-out-the-vote activities.

The Sunrise Movement Education Network’s work building support for a pro-climate agenda, providing technical assistance to government bodies, and conducting and presenting research/analysis are all activities that we view as important for advancing a pro-climate agenda.

The Sunrise Movement Education Fund’s current need for additional funds and volunteers

The Sunrise Movement saw an overall increase in funding in 2020, with revenue of roughly $8.5 million USD coming into its 501(c)(3). While this is impressive, our belief is that there is room for more funding for the Sunrise Movement Education Fund.

Activism requires large number of supporters to be effective and more funding is needed to grow the size of their activist network, giving them the power to force policy change. The Sunrise Movement Education Fund is also always looking for new volunteers to join its movement, either by joining one of its hubs or starting a new one, which requires raising additional funds.

Based on our interviews with Sunrise Movement employees, including their national-level finance team, we believe donations to the 501(c)3 Sunrise Movement Education Fund will most likely be used to support training work and empowerment programs to involve more members and ensure their work is high-quality as the organization continues to grow.

Risks to the Sunrise Movement Education Fund achieving its aims

Although we are recommending the Sunrise Movement Education Fund, we highlight a number of concerns that may hinder their effectiveness.

First, the Sunrise Movement is highly decentralized, with broad autonomy given to local hub organizations to set policies and priorities. This may lead to variable quality in the activity of individual hubs. In addition, the use of consensus-based decision-making mechanisms in some hubs may hinder the overall coherence and coordination of the movement. Conversely, autonomy may help grant flexibility to local groups in responding to priorities at the local level. Giving Green will continue monitoring the organizational structure of the Sunrise Movement and individual hubs to determine the costs and benefits of the organization structure.

Additionally, the Sunrise Movement’s explicit strategy of “polarization” includes them advocating for policies that are seen as somewhat extreme on the policy spectrum. For instance, they advocate for a rapid transition to 100% green energy and do not support working with fossil energy companies. This may turn off certain policymakers or voters, who may want to support a climate movement under different framing or policy mix. While we see this as a real concern, we think that it is too early to say how detrimental (or beneficial) this will prove for the organization. We will continue to monitor this and update our recommendation if necessary.

Despite uncertainty over whether this polarization approach will ultimately be effective in terms of enabling policy change, our recommendation of the Sunrise Movement Education Fund is inspired by our embrace of “multiple theories of change”, as outlined in our Approach to Policy Recommendations document. Giving Green also recommends organizations that are quite different from the Sunrise Movement Education Fund, such as the Clean Air Task Force, who take a more technocratic approach to policy change. By recommending top organizations that employ different approaches, we hedge against the possibility that one of these approaches proves less successful for whatever reason. Since it is unclear which tactics will ultimately be successful in shaping green legislation, we want to give donors the option to support evidence-backed organizations taking different approaches.

[1] As a non-partisan 501(c)3, we do not analyse or recommend political activities and, therefore, do not provide an opinion on the activities of the Sunrise Movement that are funded by their 501(c)(4) or PAC entities. Further information about the Sunrise Movement’s activities can be found on their website, which includes descriptions of activities funded by all of the Sunrise Movement’s legal entities.