It's Time for More Foundations to Fund Democracy - Here's How

Thursday, December 10, 2020

It's Time for More Foundations to Fund Democracy - Here's How
By: Stephen Heintz, President and CEO, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Co-Chair, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

The missions and priorities of America’s nearly 120,000 foundations are as diverse as the country itself, yet here is one thing all in common: each suffers when our democracy fails. Imagine a world where funders see and nurture the connective tissue between democratic practice and the myriad causes that they support. We could accomplish so much more.

Over the past decade, American foundations have spent less than two percent of their total grantmaking dollars on efforts to advance democracy reform, construed broadly. “Democracy funders,” a small minority of the foundation sector, support efforts such as expanding access to the ballot, strengthening government, encouraging civic participation, and restoring local journalism. 

Shortly before the recent election, I had the enormous pleasure of joining democracy expert and RBF trustee Heather McGhee for a wide-ranging conversation hosted by Philanthropy New York about the state of our democracy and the role of philanthropy in shaping its future. I was heartened to see that, in addition to traditional democracy funders, the PNY foundation members on the call also represented issues such as the environment, healthcare, and education – among the leading priorities for the other 98 percent of foundations’ grantmaking dollars. 

The “non-democracy funders” joined the call because they are coming to see what democracy funders and advocates have long known: Given the importance of a functioning democracy to almost everything else that foundations care about, our sector’s indifference to democracy reform is profoundly self-sabotaging. For funders who are new to the democracy space, the “why” of funding reform is becoming increasingly clear. The question is – how? 

Our Common Purpose, the final report of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, can help. The report offers a diverse menu of entry points for foundations interested in exploring the democracy world but who don’t yet know where to begin.  

The Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship was convened by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2018 to address the widespread sense that our constitutional democracy is in crisis. To understand that crisis, and chart a path toward a solution, the Commission conducted nearly 50 listening sessions across the country with Americans from diverse demographic and political backgrounds. Their hopes, fears, frustrations, and aspirations offered the most important input to the commission’s work and final report. 

The recommendations of Our Common Purpose are based on a theory of change that links political institutions, civil society, and civic culture within a single virtuous cycle. Touching on each of these areas of democratic life, the 31 recommendations include: 
  • Expanding the House of Representatives (and therefore the Electoral College) by at least 50 members
  • Eliminating life terms on the Supreme Court in favor of 18-year term limits and regular appointments, with one justice appointed per session of Congress
  • Policies to empower voters, including changing federal election day to Veterans Day, universal automatic voter registration, and paid voter orientation
  • A public interest mandate for social media platforms and policies to support local journalism
  • A National Trust for Civic Infrastructure to scale up social, civic, and democratic infrastructure that supports bridging opportunities
  • A universal expectation of national service and a dramatic expansion of paid service opportunities

The Commission’s goal is to make significant progress on each of these recommendations by 2026, the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The work of implementation will require a “whole-of-society” effort that brings together policymakers on the federal, state, and local levels; academic institutions and research centers; business leaders; ordinary citizens; and, of course, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector.

If your foundation works outside of the democracy space, the first step is learning: Review the recommendations from the report and identify one that speaks to your mission and priorities. Get to know some of the nonprofit organizations championing the recommendation. Consider funding one.

Does your foundation focus on healthcare? Surely healthcare policy would stand to gain from a campaign finance landscape that makes it harder for special interests, including pharmaceutical companies, to exercise an outsized influence on policymaking. An education agenda would be served through robust local journalism that reports on school board decisions. And since two-thirds of Americans support more robust federal action on climate,  environment and climate funders would benefit from innovative mechanisms that make Congress more responsive to their constituents. 

In the election that concluded three weeks after my Philanthropy New York conversation with Heather McGhee, almost 160 million Americans turned out to vote – a level of civic engagement not seen for over a century. The historic turnout despite the pandemic underscores Americans’ hunger for democratic reinvention. The constitutional crisis threatened by an incumbent president who refuses to recognize his electoral loss confirms the urgent need. 

Americans voted for democracy. Now it’s time for foundations to do the same.
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