Building Power: Advancing Gender Equity and Balance through 360 Degree Support

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Sarah Preston

There is no doubt that working in politics is a science. But running for office as a woman is truly an art form. Lillian’s List grapples with both the science and art in running for office in an effort to ensure that North Carolina’s government reflects our communities and state. Women make up 54% of the electorate, but only 26% of the North Carolina General Assembly – largely because the structure of campaigning and serving was built to benefit men and without women in mind. Lillian’s List is focused on identifying emerging women leaders, recruiting them to run for office, training candidates and their staff, and helping them fundraise for their campaigns. Our model of 360 -degree support is disrupting current power structures and having an impact at all levels of government.

A Legacy of Collective Power

Lillian’s List has a 22- year legacy that began with a group of women in the Raleigh Durham International Airport food court. These women knew that women were underrepresented in state government and that reproductive freedom was under attack. They knew that by combining forces across North Carolina, women could have a real impact in competitive elections throughout North Carolina. Their initial strategy was simple, teach women “the power of the purse” so that women could express collective power through contributions to candidates. As a volunteer run organization for its first 10 years, they listened and understood the need to be flexible as Lillian’s List evolved. Over the course of our 22- year history, new needs came to light, and Lillian’s List has always tried to find ways to stretch and meet those needs. 

360 Degrees of Support

Research shows that women are recruited to run for office by political parties and others in the political establishment at a lower rate than men and that it takes on average seven asks for a woman to agree to run.  One of the primary reasons women cite for why they don’t run for office is the negative political atmosphere. These facts have led Lillian’s List to move beyond its initial candidate fundraising model, to establish a nonprofit that could focus on recruiting and training progressive women who are champions of reproductive freedom and gender equity to run for elected office. 

The model still includes fundraising and creation of a sisterhood of support, but we have moved from a small network of devoted volunteers to a network of nearly 10,000 women and men across the state. Lillian’s List has continued to work with our membership to help “scout” for candidates, using data to help identify seats where progressive women could win and identifying emerging women leaders. Our scouts and staff recruit these women to run and connect them with our training and staffing resources and other groups  that exist to support them. Once in a legislative race, we evaluate candidates and provide those running strong campaigns with our unique 360- degree support that includes training, fundraising, individual consultation and support for campaign staff. 

Changing the Face of Power

This model works. Not only do we develop the necessary relationships with women across the state to identify and encourage them to run for office, but Lillian’s List candidates win. We have officially endorsed over 120 women seeking elected office at the legislative and Council of State level, and 60% of them have won their seats. Every single one of the pro-choice women currently serving in the legislature is a Lillian’s List candidate. This doesn’t just benefit women. It benefits every one of us – we know that women policy-makers sponsor more legislation on a wider range of topics than their male counterparts. They also bring to the forefront issues that may be overlooked otherwise. What’s more, women sponsored legislation passes at a higher rate than that of their male colleagues. As we begin to see majority women governing bodies in some places across the state and country, the research is also showing that party affiliation is subsumed by gender affiliation, meaning that when women are in charge, they work in a more bipartisan manner to get things done. The effect on democracy of having more women in office is profound, which is why we are looking to 2020 with 16 trainings planned a across the state and an emerging slate of inspiring leaders ready to take the next step and run for elected office.

Win or lose, women should be encouraged to run for office and have the support to make it positive experience when they do so. Lillian’s List was established to counter the structural barriers that often diminished women’s fundraising abilities. Since 1997, we have added a recruiting arm to make sure progressive women are being encouraged to run in the ways needed to overcome the historic exclusion of women in the political process. The reality is that when facing these structural barriers, women, who have long been underrepresented in positions of power, need personalized support. Our 360 degree model allows us to be flexible and tailor our support to what each woman needs when preparing to run for office. Nobody knows our candidates like Lillian’s List. Some women may jump right in and need very little, while others take advantage of everything we offer. The important thing is, we stick with them from the time they start to consider running right through their last day in office. It is this relationship and our knowledge of our candidates’ needs that allows us to effectively help them claim their own power, overcome the barriers in front of them, and have a successful and positive experience campaigning and serving in office. 


Sarah Preston joined Lillian’s List after almost a decade as the Policy Director at the American Civil Liberties Union of NC. Sarah has served as the Executive Director for Lillian’s List Action Fund since 2016, expanding candidate recruitment and training offerings and doubling the number of trained potential pro-choice, progressive women candidates Lillian’s List has impacted. Her experience interning for the only female member of the Democratic Senate Caucus in Iowa cemented her commitment to promoting women in leadership positions and politics. 

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