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Philanthropy and U.S. democracy since 2016

By Sarina Dayal (she, they)
October 26, 2020

Five people voting

History has shown that presidential election years can equate to big giving years for some nonprofits. In particular, organizations whose agendas counter those of the winning candidate can end up receiving a drastic spike in giving. For example, the ACLU, National Immigration Law Center, and Planned Parenthood received a flood of donations in the days following the 2016 election.

Looking at Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, Candid’s free, non-partisan resource that tracks philanthropic support for U.S. democracy, we see that foundation support nationwide for democracy-related projects jumped 24 percent from 2015 to 2016, to $1.2 billion—and this figure has only continued to grow, totaling $1.3 billion in 2017 and $1.8 billion in 2018. This steady increase indicates continued growth of democracy funding year over year rather than a spike every four years. (Grants that meet Candid’s criteria are included in the platform regardless of whether a grantmaker identifies as a “democracy funder,” and grants are not designated with political affiliation.)

Although the law prohibits foundations from engaging in partisan campaigning, there is plenty of room for foundations to engage with democracy in other ways, such as encouraging civic participation; improving how government functions at the national, state, and local levels; and supporting fair journalism. We know that 2016 was an exceptionally divisive political year, and that this divide has only intensified since. We also know, mostly anecdotally, that the political landscape has had an impact on the way some funders work. In fact, Inside Philanthropy has dedicated a whole section to tracking the impact of our current administration on the sector, “Trump Effect,” highlighting how the response from foundations has been a combination of business as usual and radical shifts.

But turning back to the data, how has charitable giving for democracy really changed since the last presidential election? And how can nonprofits and funders alike use this information? Regardless of where you land on the increasingly polarized political spectrum, there is much to understand about the flow of philanthropic dollars to democracy-related activities, and the opportunities that exist to get involved.

Since 2017, funders have invested a total of $3.7 billion* in U.S. democracy working across four categories: campaigns and elections, civic participation, government, and media. When considering that the 2020 election is predicted to cost $11 billion alone, the amount of funding coming from philanthropy may seem meager, but it's still a serious sum.

The largest categories of giving fall under civic participation and government, which average about 32 and 31 percent of total democracy funding, respectively. Funding for efforts related to media infrastructure and access account for 24 percent of total dollars. Perhaps surprisingly, funding for campaigns, elections, and voting is the smallest of the four major categories tracked on the site, averaging at just 8 percent of total funding**. Comparing the ratios in each of these categories to the years prior, there has not been much change in the proportion of funding going to each of these areas.

Funders and the issues

Although funders don’t tend to radically shift their giving priorities, they are likely to respond to great political, economic, or social change and have proven so through their giving to major issues of the time. They have done so on several issues since the 2016 election. Let’s look at three: immigration, media, and health care.

Immigration reform
There is almost an even split between the top two funders in this area, which also support opposing approaches to the issue. The Colcom Foundation has awarded $31.8 million since 2017 to support organizations working for stronger immigration policy and tighter border control, including Federation for American Immigration Reform and Immigration Reform Law Institute. Over the same period, Silicon Valley Community Foundation has made similar-sized grants totaling $33 million to influential pro-immigration groups, including National Immigration Forum and Fwd.US.

Media fact-checking of political claims
In 2017, the Knight Foundation awarded $1.1 million to Duke University to accelerate innovation in the practice of fact-checking to reduce the spread of misinformation. The Social Science Research Council received a $1 million grant in 2018 from the Hewlett Foundation to support research on how digital disinformation is affecting political polarization and undermining U.S. democracy, and what can be done about it. And just this year, WhatsApp donated $1 million to the Poynter Institute's International Fact-checking Network to support coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, a key issue for this election season.

Health care policy
Policy and demographic changes over the last few years have shown how funders have been playing a role in what rules get adopted and how they are implemented. The Ed Uihlein Family Foundation awarded $1.2 million over 2017-2018 to the Foundation for Government Accountability to partner with state and federal policymakers, equipping them with ideas and research to replace what they see as failed health and welfare programs nationwide. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities received a $2 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation this year to increase the capacity of state-based advocates working with state officials to make it easier for more eligible individuals to enroll and stay enrolled in Medicaid.

Closing thoughts

There are many more examples of how funders have a hand in shaping our democracy, from voting access to the function of our courts. In the case of the 2016 election, political values appeared to motivate many donors to give—but despite how crucial public policy can be to a foundation’s ability to achieve its mission, many funders are still apprehensive about entering the political fray. In fact, funding for policy, advocacy, and systems reform has dropped from 20 percent of overall democracy funding in 2013-2016 to 11 percent in 2017-2020. (There are also restrictions on the types of political activity foundations can engage in.)

Despite a seemingly unchanged big picture, it’s evident that dollars flow in accordance with the issues and values of the moment, and we should expect the same after the 2020 election season. Fundraisers can look at whether elections in the past have triggered donations to their organizations and how their organizations’ narratives might align with current and potential supporters. And for funders, there is an appropriate role for philanthropy to be a positive force within a democracy. There are funder advocacy collaboratives to join, plus affinity groups such as Democracy Funders Network and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement working to maximize philanthropy’s impact on civic life. Just last week, both organizations circulated a call for funders to get involved in upholding democracy and ensuring a safe and peaceful election.

At a time when misinformation is actively challenging democratic principles, transparent and detailed information on how foundations are supporting efforts to strengthen democracy in the U.S. is especially important. We encourage funders to share their data with us and take the opportunity to provide detailed descriptions of their work, not only to promote transparency in the field but also to serve as a resource for others who might learn from your work and be more effective in their own democracy-related funding.

Finally, there are countless nonpartisan opportunities for both funders and grantseekers to participate in our democracy. Organizations can give employees paid time off on election day, notify employees about voter registration deadlines, and provide support and protective gear for voters and poll workers.

This analysis was made possible by my colleagues Supriya Kumar and Anna Koob.

*Total based on data from 2017-2020. Data for 2019 and 2020 is incomplete.
**Grants can be counted in multiple categories.

Tags: U.S. democracy