The Sunrise Movement: Deep Dive

2021-11 Sunrise Deep Dive
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In this document, we provide a close look of the Sunrise Movement, including its context, tactics and activities, and theory of change. We also provide an overview of Sunrise’s budget and funding needs, and we describe a quantitative cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) model that assesses the organization’s marginal impact. Although Giving Green only considers recommendations for 501(c)3 nonprofits in the United States, we describe our research findings on the activities and outputs of the Sunrise Movement as a whole, which includes contributions from three separate legal entities (which has 501(c)(3), 501(c)(4), and PAC branches).

Since forming in 2017, the Sunrise Movement has been the primary organizer and driver of climate-focused activism in the United States. Sunrise first gained prominence with its attention-grabbing engineered confrontations between youth activists and elected officials in 2018 and 2019. In the lead up to the 2020 elections, Sunrise’s voter outreach efforts reached more than 8 million voters, contributing to the largest youth voter turnout in U.S. history. Sunrise’s original strategy was oriented around building a movement that would ensure climate policies were passed once a favorable political environment was presented. In 2021, with a Democratic trifecta in the House, Senate, and presidency, and major climate legislation being debated in Congress, they are essentially at the end of this initial strategy.

In 2021, Sunrise has been publicly fighting for federal climate legislation - while Sunrise’s initial demands are far from being met, significant climate provisions have been passed in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). As of this writing, it is mobilizing members in a final push to pressure the Senate to pass a more ambitious climate program as part of the Build Back Better Act (also known as the budget reconciliation bill). Internally, they are undergoing both planned and unanticipated restructuring. They are engaging in a year-long process of “frontloading” to determine their strategy in 2022 and beyond, as well as addressing internal critiques and growing pains raised by members over the past year.

By developing our own theory of change for Sunrise and assessing it against the available literature, we conclude that much of Sunrise’s approach has been grounded in evidence. It has a broadly systematic structure and strategy, has attracted much media attention and public support, pushed key Democrats to endorse a Green New Deal, and worked with progressive representatives to prioritize climate policy in the key spending bills of 2021. We assess the assumptions underpinning our theory of change in detail in section 5.

Climate has been a top priority for Democrats in 2021, and we attribute much of that to Sunrise’s work mobilizing the public and pressuring politicians in 2020. Our cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) shows that Sunrise’s work until now has likely been extremely cost-effective, contributing to a ton of CO2 removed for each $0.22 spent.

However, we have concerns about Sunrise’s need for additional funding and its lack of clear strategy beyond 2021. Sunrise’s budget grew explosively from just $50,000 in 2017 to $15 million in 2020 and 2021. This kind of rapid growth can strain any organization, and it appears that Sunrise is no different, as 2021 was a year of internal friction in the Movement. Also aside from some advocacy work on climate legislation this fall, we did not see Sunrise engaging in the kinds of mass organizing and mobilizing activities that we anticipated from them. Further, we have yet to see Sunrise’s strategy going forward, so it is unclear how Sunrise plans to adapt, grow, and absorb additional funding in the future.

In sum, Sunrise has helped propel climate to the forefront of American politics, but its future is unclear. Based on Sunrise’s prior record of success and our model of cost-effectiveness, we are optimistic that they have the potential to drive political changes that lead to more ambitious US federal legislation on climate. However, we are concerned by their rapid growth, internal discord, and lack of clear strategy for the future. While we are hopeful that Sunrise will address these challenges through its current strategy discussion and move forward stronger, we will not know the outcome of this process until at least Q1 of 2022. Because we are unsure of the Sunrise Movement’s future plans, we have decided not to recommend the Sunrise Movement Education Fund as a top charity for the 2021 Giving Season. When we can better assess its recent impact and its future strategy, we look forward to reviewing the Sunrise Movement Education Fund again.