Blog home

America’s foundations can grant democracy room to breathe

By Bradford K. Smith
January 20, 2021

A person at the end of a line holds a small U.S. flag

If you’re like me, you have been reading and listening nonstop to make sense out the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Amidst all the confusion, there is one thing I know for sure: foundations have a unique role to play in helping us find our future. But first, rather than add my own amateur analysis to the mix, I will let the three quotes below speak to the perilous historical moment American democracy is traversing.

When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. … Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.
—Timothy Snyder, New York Times, 1/9/21

The left has everything: the media, organizations, the government. We have to organize if we’re going to fight back and be heard. … This country was founded on revolution. If they’re going to take every legitimate means from us, and we can’t even express ourselves on the internet, we won’t even be able to speak freely, what is America for? I'd rather die as a 57-year-old woman than live under oppression.
—Lisa Eisenhart, Capitol demonstrator, 1/6/21

Racial reaction is a powerful, elemental force in American politics; it has also perhaps never been weaker than it is today. The goons who stormed the Capitol yesterday are a pathetic echo of the southern “Redeemers.”
—Adam Serwer, The Atlantic

The country is beyond polarized. Here’s where foundations come in. Two years ago, I had the privilege of sharing the stage with the scholar Larry Diamond on a panel about philanthropy and democracy. After a depressing slog through the imperiled democracies of Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, and the United States, it was up to me to convince the audience at the Global Philanthropy Forum that there was something philanthropy could do about it. After I finished, Larry observed that foundations could help democracies find something they so desperately need: “Room to breathe.”

Why foundations? Money, convening power, and knowledge give philanthropic foundations enormous influence and underlie their unique position in our socioeconomic ecosystem. Endowed by a wealthy family or individual, foundations are blissfully free from the kinds of pressures that drive short-term behavior in other sectors. They don't have to raise money from venture capitalists, the financial markets, or other foundations. They never awake to the terrifying news that that their business is threatened by a new competitor. And they don't have to kiss babies in order to garner votes. Like grizzly bears, lions, and tigers, foundations have no natural predators. In a fast-moving, hyper-partisan, conspiracy-fed world, foundations have the resources and ability to slow things down enough so there is time to reflect and chart a course for the future.

In fact, for some time now, foundations large and small have been supporting long-term efforts to improve the rules, processes, performance, and access required for democracy to deliver on its promise to the American people. Fortunately, they had the foresight to support the creation of a free, public data platform by Candid, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, to learn more about their own work and that of every other foundation that has made democracy grants. Based on the wealth of information contained therein, I wanted to share some advice on how foundations can help our fragile democracy find that desperately needed room to breathe, now and in the future.

Don’t stop at creating a special fund

2020 was the year of the big fund in philanthropy. Corporations, foundations, and celebrities created special funds in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd. As I write, Candid has been able to track $22.4 billion in funding related to coronavirus and $12.4 billion for racial equity, much of which came in pledges of $100 million or more. The threat to democracy in America is like both crises: like the coronavirus, it effects the entire society (and world). Like systemic racism, it is rooted deeply in American history. It is hard to predict if the storming of the Capitol will become the same kind of triggering event as the police killing of George Floyd, yet should philanthropists decide to create special funds, they should be prepared to stick it out for a decade or more. It took a long time to get American democracy to where it is today, and few of its maladies will be cured overnight.

Be prepared to take risks (but know you won’t be alone)

Many foundations mistakenly believe that they can’t engage in “political” activity. In truth, the IRS restrictions relate specifically to lobbying and partisan voter registration and campaigns but leave ample room to engage in research, policy analysis and recommendations, “get-out-the-vote” campaigns, and many other activities. The risks are much more likely to be reputational than legal. In our scorched-earth political climate there is precious little neutral ground on which to stand. To the extent that democracy is about the distribution of power, your grantees’ positions on issues like voting and judicial selection are likely to be attacked as being your own, especially if they are perceived as being effective.

Nonetheless, the facts are on your side. Since 2011, more than 13,000 American foundations have made grants totaling close to $10 billion to improve how our democratic system functions. Those grants range from employee contributions as small as $10 up to grants as large as $150 million. They come from a range of foundations, some of whose views on democracy trend more progressive, others who trend more conservative. The number of foundations involved, and their diversity, protects any one foundation deciding to take the plunge into funding work on democracy. Historically, it has proven virtually impossible to legislate against the (small “p”) political funding of any one set of foundations without affecting the entire sector (although there have been attempts to do so).

Let data be your guide

The data contained in Foundation Funding for American Democracy provides a road map with which to chart your funding journey. The largest volume of foundation grants has supported “civic participation” ($2.5 billion), “government rules and performance” ($2.3 billion), and the role of media ($2 billion). Far less has gone toward “campaigns, elections, and voting” ($692 million). Interestingly, when we were developing this data tool at Foundation Center (a Candid predecessor) in 2014, there were long debates about whether to include “media” as a category. Knowing what we know today about the role of media, social and otherwise, in politics, to omit it would have been foolhardy.

Where is that money going? A fair portion goes to larger, well-known organizations that focus broadly on a national agenda, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Bipartisan Policy Center, or the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. Interested in more local efforts in battleground states? Grants have gone to such organizations as Mi Famila Vota Education Fund in Arizona and State Voices in Michigan. With all eyes focused on the Congress, perhaps you want to understand the cohort of foundations and grantees working on issues of legislative branch performance? Network maps like the one below explore the connections.

A vast network of of foundations and grantees work on issues of legislative branch performance

Funding work to combat systemic racism? Keep going.

The events surrounding the storming of the U.S. Capitol were shot through with the conspicuous presence of racist symbols, acts, and speech. Commentators have drawn a sharp contrast between the heavy, almost militarized presence faced by Black Lives Matter protestors this summer and the lack of security that allowed an overwhelmingly white crowd to invade the Capitol on January 6. As noted above, corporations, foundations, and celebrities pledged billions of dollars to combat systemic racism following the police killing of George Floyd. Though they may not think of it in these terms, this is also democracy funding. Racism is a river running deep through the history of American democracy as successive generations have struggled over who has the right to vote, how, when, and under what circumstances. The United States is on a path to become a majority-minority nation by the year 2045. Helping our multinational polity fully realize its immense potential is job #1 for democracy funders.

Get advice from those that have been doing this for years

Last, but certainly not least, the learning curve on democracy funding is steep, so do your homework and reach out for advice before taking the plunge. Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy makes it easy to find foundations that have been doing this for years. Among those with the longest track record are the Ford, Hewlett, Rockefeller Brothers, Templeton, Knight, and Pete Peterson foundations, together with The Democracy Fund. But there are many more. Sift through the data by subject, state, grant size, or other criteria to discover the funding patterns. Then reach out to select funders to learn firsthand about their own experiences. Democracy funding is hard work, in which change is slow and incremental. Those who have been at it for years have learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t, and would welcome the opportunity to have new funders enter the arena.

Postscript

I started writing this blog days after the events of January 6 and find myself finishing it in the spirit of hope that traditionally marks inauguration day. This troubling, tumultuous, contentious, and frightening transition of power has severely tested America’s oft-asserted claim of being the greatest democracy on earth. The nation and our system of government needs room to breathe. Philanthropy has a vital role to play, and foundations can help American democracy deliver on its promise to the American people, and to the world.

Tags: U.S. democracy; Foundations and grantmaking