Defending Civil Liberties for Generations to Come

Defending Civil Liberties for Generations to Come

Five years ago, in response to an unprecedented assault on civil liberties by the Bush administration that made a mockery of the Constitution and the rule of law through such practices as torture, indefinite detention, and illegal government spying, the American Civil Liberties Union launched the largest fundraising campaign on behalf of civil rights and liberties in American history. The Leading Freedom Forward campaign was designed to bolster the ACLU's civil liberties infrastructure nationwide and create a framework for safeguarding freedom for years to come.

When we launched the campaign, we could not foresee the momentous events that were about to roil the nation's economic and political landscape. But as those events unfolded, we asked ourselves some tough questions: Would our supporters stand by us through the economic downturn? What would happen when a new president who campaigned on the promise of restoring civil liberties was elected? Would everyone just pack their bags and go home, thinking the fight to reclaim our basic freedoms had been won?

We are thrilled to announce today that the Leading Freedom Forward campaign has overcome these challenges by far surpassing its original goal of $250 million. The astounding success of the campaign demonstrates the power of actively engaging donors in support of long-term goals that transcend short-term needs. Over the past five years we have raised more than $407 million, including $157 million in cash gifts and over $250 million in planned gifts. At the same time, the campaign has been an unprecedented effort to build the ACLU's infrastructure by increasing funding to key state affiliates nationwide, enhancing the organization's advocacy capabilities, and securing both current and future donations to provide for long-term sustainability.

With the election of President Obama, we were cautiously optimistic about the prospect of having a president in office who supported the rule of law. We knew better than to entrust the future of civil liberties to just one person, however, or even to just one branch of government. We needed the resources to repair the damage done during the previous eight years and also to hold the new administration to the same standards as we had its predecessor.

At the start of the campaign, we realized that many core issues play out on the state level, regardless of who holds power in Washington, and that it was essential our affiliates across the country were strong enough to engage in and shape debates on issues such as reproductive freedom, same-sex marriage, freedom of religion and belief, freedom of speech and expression, racial profiling, voting rights, drug law reform, prisoners' rights, and immigrants' rights.

With this in mind, the centerpiece of the Leading Freedom Forward campaign became the Strategic Affiliate Initiative. SAI was created to invest in states where civil liberties were most threatened and opportunities outweighed the local resources. These included Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Montana, Mississippi, Michigan, eastern Missouri, Tennessee, and Arizona. Thanks to SAI, we've been able to take on issues such as challenging the draconian immigration laws in Arizona that opened the door to racial profiling, promoting domestic partnership rights for same-sex couples in Montana, and standing up for minority voting rights in Florida.

This approach has struck a chord with our supporters, who were able to appreciate the long-term benefits of investing in a robust civil liberties infrastructure. The Leading Freedom Forward campaign has not only enhanced the way our affiliates operate, it has also attracted the largest gifts the ACLU has ever received including gifts from younger, newly minted philanthropists who were engaging for the first time with a campaign of this type.

In addition to the participation of younger donors, many longtime supporters contributed gifts that were the biggest they had ever given, to any organization. Realizing that no battle for civil liberties stays won, donors included planned gifts to the ACLU in their wills and families joined together to make multi-generational gifts so that the struggle to ensure civil liberties in America will continue for decades to come.

As an organization, we were not immune to the turmoil of recent years. These included challenges related to the economy as well as the election cycle. Thanks to the Leading Freedom Forward campaign, however, supporters at all levels stepped up to fill funding gaps, and we were able to weather the storm.

By strategically investing in our affiliates, we are in a position today to move beyond short-term political crises and ensure that the defense of civil liberties extends beyond our lifetimes. Over the next decade, we plan to use the resources from this extraordinarily successful campaign to increase our investment in ACLU affiliates across the country that are working to defend and extend civil liberties now and in the future. Thanks to the success of the Leading Freedom Forward campaign, we are extraordinarily well positioned to seize the moment, to fight vigorously to restore our constitutional rights, and to reaffirm the proposition that America honors and respects freedom for all.

Donna McKay is the director of institutional advancement and special projects for the American Civil Liberties Union.