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Funder collaboratives are key to a vibrant, just, and inclusive democracy 

A group of diverse individuals from Unidos Minnesota.

Every day, it seems we see yet another sign of our democracy in decline. The ongoing erosion of democratic norms and institutions disproportionately harms BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and immigrant communities, who are underrepresented at the polls and in the halls of power. In the face of extremist violence and escalating threats, it can be difficult, if not overwhelming, to contemplate what we as funders can do to protect and sustain American democracy.  

One answer is funder collaboratives. A research brief from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Bridgespan Group, and Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation identifies collaborative funds as key to strengthening our democracy and promoting a vibrant, just, and inclusive future. Here I’ll share insights into how a constituency-led collaborative fund helps strengthen grassroots movements, as well as considerations for funders in investing in frontline communities, civic engagement, and efforts to fight disinformation. 

The power of funder collaboratives 

As NEO Philanthropy’s vice president of the Four Freedoms Fund, I lead a national funder collaborative committed to building the power and capacity of the immigrant justice movement. What advantages do funder collaboratives offer, and how do they help strengthen democracy?  

First, like many collaborative funds, our team brings to this work our lived experience, substantive expertise, and deep relationships and trust with the people on the ground. Each staff member is an immigrant and/or person of color, reflecting the communities we serve. A number of us spent decades organizing and advocating for immigrant rights prior to joining the philanthropic sector. 

Second, as a constituency-led collaborative fund, we act as champions for our communities within philanthropy—driving resources directly and effectively to grassroots organizations on the frontlines of change. In other words, we’ve been practicing trust-based philanthropy long before the phrase was coined. Since the Four Freedoms Fund was launched in 2003, we’ve raised more than $280 million in support of immigrant-led organizations. The vast majority of our grantee organizations are led by immigrants (62%), BIPOC (79%), and cisgender women, transgender, or nonbinary individuals (75%). 

Third, funder collaboratives act as bridge builders between funders and community-based groups—identifying organizations often not on the radar of national funders and individual donors, aggregating movement-wide trends on emerging threats and opportunities, and pooling resources for greater impact and lasting change. 

The impact of investing in an immigrant-led grassroots movement 

Data, evidence-based research, and countless anecdotes affirm how ongoing investment in frontline communities can turn the tide on the erosion of democratic norms. Across the country, our grantees are mobilizing newly naturalized citizens to exercise their right to vote. These “New Americans”—whose population has grown by 7.7 million over the last decade—represent a potentially powerful voting bloc. State by state, immigrant-led organizations are securing major victories and making it possible for millions of immigrants to make a living, access health care, attend college, and become full and active participants in their communities. 

In Arizona, a grassroots movement of immigrant activists defied the odds by organizing their communities, mobilizing record-breaking numbers of New American voters, raising the state’s minimum wage, winning tuition equity for undocumented students, and transforming the state’s politics. In Virginia, voters ousted Culpeper County’s anti-immigrant sheriff, and Sheriffs for Trusting Communities and local partners ended an agreement requiring local police to act as immigration enforcement agents. 

Toward a just and inclusive democracy 

As funders consider how to promote and sustain a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy, here are three essential ingredients:   

1. Invest in BIPOC, immigrant, and frontline communities. For historically disenfranchised communities, the fragility of our democracy is not a mere abstraction, but a very real fight for the future of this country and our place in it. Centering the leadership of people most directly experiencing inequities is not only essential for promoting a truly inclusive democracy, but also an opportunity to move power and resources to those who have the most at stake and who can create lasting change. 

2. Support grassroots organizing and year-round civic engagement. As we saw in the Georgia senatorial runoff election in 2021, sustained, long-term funding that builds the capacity of 501(c)(3) grassroots organizations drives democratic participation and turnout far better than last-minute campaign contributions. Investing in civic engagement grounded in organizing is essential for building community, civil society, and the practice of democracy—particularly within communities that have been historically marginalized and excluded from the democratic process. 

3. Combat disinformation and hate. Increasingly, the spread of disinformation poses an existential threat to our democracy. Disinformation about immigrants paints vulnerable migrants as the enemy, reinforces racial resentments, and deepens polarization—all of which frays the social fabric. Investing in efforts to counter extremist rhetoric and “inoculate” audiences against false narratives is critical for greater social cohesion and a functioning democracy. The Democracy Funders Network offers a guide for addressing disinformation

By pooling resources together in a constituency-led collaborative fund, funders have the opportunity to bolster grassroots social movements and democracy itself. The time to invest in our collective future is now. 

Photo credit: Unidos MN


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