Editor’s Note: This is the third part in a series on women-founded and -led organizations working to expand female political representation in the U.S. by recruiting, training and funding women candidates.
Ask Erin Vilardi what drives her, and she’ll point you to her Twitter bio, which reads: “Making women powerful. Keeping democracy healthy and local.”
Vilardi is the founder of VoteRunLead, a nonpartisan national organization that offers live and online training sessions to rally and prepare women of all political stripes to run for elected office, especially local offices. Her goal is singular: to increase female representation in U.S. government.
Today, women hold fewer than a quarter of elected offices, though they are 52 percent of the country’s population. Not only is this low level of female involvement troubling in a representative democracy, advocates like Vilardi argue, it robs the country of governing talent. Indeed, studies show that women politicians are more productive — women legislators literally pass more bills — and are more likely to work cooperatively to solve problems.
“I really believe if women ran the world, it would be a five-times better place — and that’s a low estimate,” Vilardi says.
Which is why Vilardi has made it her mission to get more women into leadership roles in the U.S. It’s a bipartisan mission for both personal and philosophical reasons, she says. “I am not comfortable with women’s issues, a feminist agenda or gender-balanced leadership being something that is only a liberal thing,” she says. “That’s dangerous for our country, for our future and for women.”
Providing a Confidence Boost
One-third of women who attend VoteRunLead trainings don’t identify with a political party (roughly in line with today’s independent voter registrations). Many of the training sessions are held in-person — this year, it’s planning a 10-city national tour with a dozen events. But because it aims to boost female representation at scale, it also leans heavily on technology. It will hold about eight online trainings for would-be candidates this year, each involving six weekly live online events. It also offers an e-book and many other online resources on its website, and hosts Facebook groups for alumnae.
The organization has dubbed its training sessions “Run As You Are” in a nod to a key challenge that VoteRunLead and all of its peers, partisan and not, say they face: a yawning “confidence gap” among women considering running for office, compared to male hopefuls.
Women often harbor doubts about whether they are sufficiently qualified, even if they have better resumes than their male competitors. So the “Run As You Are” slogan is designed to communicate that “you have all the skills and talents you need,” Vilardi says. The training sessions are simply meant to shore up a few areas, so you feel prepared. “People have made it faux-complicated to keep people out,” she adds.
Candidate training sessions can be important in giving women a necessary bump in confidence, says Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which is the founding partner of Ready to Run, a state-based network that also offers nonpartisan training.
For women, “there’s a piece there that’s just about taking the class,” Walsh says. Often, they don’t need as much time to get up to speed as they think they do. And what they do need is help seeing that they do have the skills, experience and contact lists needed to run successfully.
To provide that confidence boost, VoteRunLead training focuses on the initial steps of a candidacy, such as building political capital, helping participants figure out what office to run for, and creating “a resilient candidate and person” who’s able to manage the stresses of the campaign trail.
Trainees leave with an individualized campaign plan, Vilardi says, whether they’re running for town council from their kitchen with $10,000 and a husband for a campaign manager or they’re eyeing a legislature seat in a big state and need to raise $100,000, hire a staff and build local party relationships.
Moving Women from Voting to Running and Leading
Vilardi first started VoteRunLead in 2004 as an initiative within The White House Project, a women’s leadership program to advance female power in society, all the way up to the presidency. That group was founded in 1998 by Marie C. Wilson, a former president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and Barbara Lee, a philanthropist focused on lifting women’s representation in American politics and art. Vilardi says about Wilson: “I consider her like my political mother. She’s a force.”
Back in the early 2000s in the political arena, “women’s power was all in the women’s vote,” Vilardi says, which by then was larger than the male vote. “We needed to translate the vote into running and leading.” In 2005, VoteRunLead held its first candidate training sessions, eventually opening offices in five regions and training 15,000 women over 8 years.
Then, after Wilson decided to step away from the White House Project in 2013, VoteRunLead spun out on its own, relaunching in September 2014 with Vilardi at the helm. During its first 3 years, it has trained another 10,000 women in the nuts and bolts of running for office.
The independent VoteRunLead is a more digital incarnation. Vilardi had taken a year abroad to do leadership consulting and had become inspired by the online activism of young women involved in the Arab Spring. “Technology was allowing women to have a voice that we weren’t capturing here in the U.S.,” she says. The internet and social media, she believed, could also expand the movement to bring more American women into politics, increasing training opportunities and providing new support communities for former participants.
Like other organizations working to get more women elected, VoteRunLead has seen a surge in interest in its programs since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, particularly among left-leaning women. More than 10,000 women have signed up with VoteRunLead to run for office during the last year, as a longstanding challenge of tepid female ambition has fallen away, Vilardi says. Women are now raising their hands — and with urgency — and she predicts many crowded primaries in 2018.
“A lot of women are going to run, a lot of women are going to lose,” she says. But when the dust settles, “I think we’re going to see some more remarkable firsts around women of color and really unique stories.” And she expects many male-dominated local bodies to be shaken up by a woman or two.
The Rush to Accommodate New Demand
Women are jumping in for three reasons, Vilardi says: They are angry that a well-qualified woman lost to a less-qualified man, which is “the story of their careers.” They look at Russian interference in the election and Hillary Clinton’s loss, despite winning the popular vote, and see U.S. democracy under siege. Or they see their big issue on the agenda — whether it’s public education, immigration or climate change — and want a say.
VoteRunLead has hurried to accommodate the increased demand. It has already delivered training to nearly 3,000 women, including 571 at in-person events, so far this year. Another 200 women from all 50 states will gather this weekend in Minneapolis for a national training event. It has set a new goal to reach 30,000 more women by 2020.
Before the election, two-thirds of trainees were working on 5-year plans to run for office, Vilardi says. But today, 60 percent plan to run between now and 2020. The quickened timelines, she says, are being aided by easy-to-use online fundraising tools, such as Crowdpac; voters’ embrace of outsider candidates; and an upwelling of local activism, including the Indivisible groups.
To take advantage of the moment, VoteRunLead has been adding staff and aims to double in size next year, Vilardi says. That will require more fundraising; the nonprofit runs on an approximately even split between three funding sources, foundations, individual donors and corporate sponsors, such as Target and Coke, that like its nonpartisan mission.
VoteRunLead is helping create a coalition of eight women’s civic groups that aim to work “smarter” together, across race and party, to boost female representation in 2018. One of the groups is She Should Run, a nonpartisan organization that encourages and recruits women to run for office. “There’s a lovely hand off that’s going to start between our two groups,” Vilardi says.
Amid the surge in activity primarily among progressives, Vilardi says VoteRunLead is considering starting a program specifically for Republican women, who increasingly appear to have different needs. “There’s a small minority of them, and they are not being supported by the party as it is right now,” she says. “We have to look at how we bring along moderate Republican women and not just assume that everybody is going back to a supportive community.”
Whether Democrats, Republicans or independents, she sees a growing pool of women who want to bring all of their talents to bear and work together to solve real problems. Many are questioning for the first time who is representing them in the state house or city council. And increasingly, Vilardi says, they’re concluding that: “Unless he’s doing something remarkable, it’s probably time for him to go.”