Directions in Philanthropic Support for U.S. Democracy

December 27, 2023   King Laughlin

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It seems like hardly a day goes by when we aren’t told that “U.S. democracy is at a crossroads.” The nation’s leaders and citizens are struggling to grapple with evolving concepts about democracy and the best ways to protect many of our most cherished ideals.  But with a little less than a year until the next presidential election, a typical high-water mark for celebrating democracy-in-action, what is philanthropy doing to support democracy?

It turns out a lot.  By most measurements, funding for U.S. democracy is on the rise, pumping millions of dollars from the private sector every year into a variety of initiatives and causes.  The increase is in part fueled by an alarming public perception of the state of our democracy.  One survey found that 55 percent of respondents thought democracy is weak, and a startling 68 percent said it is getting weaker.   Accordingly, Candid’s Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy data tool shows that more than $15 billion has been invested by institutional foundations since 2011.

Diversification of Philanthropy for US Democracy

But like partisan politics funding for U.S. democracy is becoming increasingly fragmented. A recent report issued by Inside Philanthropy noted that “democracy funding is one of the areas of philanthropy that is harder to delineate clearly.  Support for democracy-related areas is tough to track, in part because of definitional challenges.”  Giving to a whole host of categories of U.S. democracy, such as campaigns and elections, government performance, civic participation, and media and journalistic integrity, has exploded the definition of democracy philanthropy.

Of particular note, the category of civic engagement has become by far the biggest area of democracy funding.  This form of funding focuses on grassroots-level get-out-the-vote, voter registration, voter education efforts, and, more recently, immigration rights.  Similarly, funding for media, with a goal of ensuring vibrant, independent local journalism, has significantly increased in recent years.  Press Forward, a $500 million initiative supported by many of the nation’s largest institutional foundations, is one example.  This comes at an important moment when, according to Candid data, funding for open government and transparency accounts for less than 2 percent of all democracy funding since 2011.

This is a good development – citizens are more involved in nurturing democracy.  “When philanthropy strengthens the capacity for citizens to work collectively for the public good,” according to the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, “philanthropy strengthens democracy.”

Challenges and Concerns to Overcome

But this also raises some important concerns.  First, there is less available funding for and investment in improving the functioning of macro-institutions of democracy such as the three branches of government.  Funding for legislative studies, for example, has been declining over the past few years, and traditional funders of Congressional performance are now putting their resources elsewhere within democracy.

Secondly, and perhaps more concerning, is the fact that newer dimensions of democracy funding focus on organizations that advocate for voting rights, voting access, electoral reform, and diversity of the electorate.  Many of these efforts are designed to elect certain candidates to public office.  But what happens next is that those candidates at every level come into legislative systems that are often described as “broken, dysfunctional, and overly partisan.”

How to Strengthen Philanthropy for U.S. Democracy

Instead, there should be a greater emphasis among democratic funders on a more holistic approach; namely, continue to raise the bar for civic engagement and revitalized journalism, but follow up that good work by investing in much-needed systems upgrades so that incoming and future representatives have the benefit of working within deliberative bodies that are set up to achieve successful legislative outcomes. Without legislative reform, democracy funding poured into election cycles is hollow.  And without philanthropic support at this level, Congress and other legislatures simply can’t modernize.

One of the biggest challenges to funding for U.S. democracy is the perceived boom-and-bust cycles of “election philanthropy.”  Funders tend to ramp up their efforts around elections, and this overshadows the needs for sustained, long-term funding for improving legislative performance.  Democracy is weaker as a result.  With the next presidential election around the corner, funders of U.S. democracy may want to consider investments that support raising the bar for the systems that support our democracy.