Philanthropy Must Prioritize Democracy Beyond Election Day

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Philanthropy Must Prioritize Democracy Beyond Election Day
By: Scott Moyer, President, Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation and William Watterson, Director, Galaxy Gives, the Novogratz Family Philanthropy. This article was originally published by Inside Philanthropy on  October 29, 2020.

As the world grapples with several compounding crises, foundations and philanthropy are finding their place in the response, working alongside government, nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Dollars are flowing like never before into racial justice work. Funding models are evolving rapidly to respond to a pandemic that can feel never-ending. Wildfires, floods and species extinctions are increasing the urgency of climate action to prevent ecological collapse. Other challenges include widening economic inequality, increasing rates of gun violence, and a healthcare system that costs too much and does not provide adequate care to most people.

A common thread runs through each of these challenges: the health of our democracy and the ability for historically underrepresented populations to have a voice in the democratic process so their needs are considered and addressed. Even as we see stories splash across the news about funding for nonpartisan civic engagement, too many of us in philanthropy still fail to connect the work of our foundations with the work of protecting democracy. 

Civic engagement shapes the conditions that influence key issue areas in philanthropy. We represent foundations with distinct institutional goals. The Langeloth Foundation pursues safe and healthy communities and criminal justice reform and Galaxy Gives is maximizing opportunity for all people by taking down barriers created by structural poverty, oppression and racism. Yet both of us recognize that non-partisan support for democratic participation is a key strategy to meeting our goals. 

In order to move the needle on these issues, we need our democracy to work for those most impacted by an inequitable system. Even with the best programs and strategies in the world, philanthropy cannot hope to make lasting, systemic changes without a functioning democracy and a government that is responsive to all of its citizens. Fundamental change in a democracy happens when participants gather and demand it at the ballot box, in the streets and in the halls of power. Supporting non-partisan civic engagement now and after the election is not secondary to or adjacent to existing program areas. It is a prerequisite without which our other efforts would amount to little more than stop-gaps and quick fixes. If the philanthropic community is to meet this moment in history and make a lasting impact, we need to broaden the lens through which we view our role and act on every possible opportunity. 

Both of our foundations come to this work from different starting points and our approaches are similarly distinct. Galaxy Gives concluded that funding civic participation was critical to meeting its goals through a process of deep engagement with grantees and seeing what worked on the ground. The criminal justice leaders they supported told them the path to progress was about building grassroots political power for those most impacted by mass incarceration—and they were right. Investments focused on these levers of change yielded both increased democratic participation and the largest impact on criminal justice reform outcomes. In response to these findings, Galaxy Gives not only supported these efforts directly, but it also led the creation of the One for Democracy pledge, encouraging philanthropists to commit 1% of their wealth to supporting community organizers and strengthening our democracy. So far, pledgers have committed $63 million of the campaign’s $100 million goal.

At the Langeloth Foundation, we began to fund civic participation efforts early in 2020. The foundation’s leadership decided to make this commitment after the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, but had disproportionately large impacts on underrepresented populations. Moving in this direction required the foundation’s staff and board to learn more about the linkages between civic participation and health outcomes for communities and individuals and the many ways that democracy influences our core issue areas. We were especially grateful for the guidance of others who were more established in the space, such as the Wallace Global Fund, whose advice and insights were invaluable. The pandemic endangered the health and safety of voters, and reduced voter participation would lead to a policymaking process that would be even less responsive to the needs of historically underrepresented communities. Ultimately, the foundation came to see the threat to these communities as so great that it used $20 million of its $88 million endowment to fund civic participation in the 2020 election cycle.

We commend our many peers who have stepped up to make funding commitments in support of democracy. We must keep that momentum going, building critical infrastructure that engages people in civil society moving forward. While this election is almost over, the need for increased civic participation remains.

We are calling on our colleagues in philanthropy to join us in considering how civic participation impacts their philanthropic goals and to include these considerations as they make funding decisions. Elections are far from the only way for people to engage in civil society, but our progress will be limited if our democracy funding is narrowly focused in election cycles. True civic engagement ensures that government officials hear and respond to the voices of those they serve in and out of election years, ensuring that the public builds power that goes beyond the electoral process. 

Drawing the indirect theory of change from civic participation to your organization’s goals requires nuance and willingness to push outside a narrow field of vision. However, failing to fully address how civic engagement impacts the needs of all communities will mean that we fail to make lasting progress with these communities. When we look at the systemic issues our foundations seek to address, this reality is unavoidable; gun violence, health disparities in prisons and ecological collapse are all areas where the populations worst impacted are shut out of conversations at every level, in large part because of their identities. Foundations cannot simply act as the voice for these communities—that, too, undermines their autonomy and power. Instead, philanthropy should facilitate and fund the removal of constraints that hinder full civic participation so that the communities we seek to support can express their own demands in their own words. 

If it is not immediately obvious how civic engagement and participation further your unique goals, we, our grantees, and other experts stand ready to help you think through these complexities. The solutions we seek in philanthropy are nothing more than a Band-Aid if not underpinned by deep, structural changes. Supporting civic participation and engagement builds a stronger foundation for the specific issues our organizations care about and helps to ensure that the progress we make has impact for generations to come. 

Scott Moyer is the president of the Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation, where he has driven the shift in the foundation’s grantmaking from a health foundation with a medically-focused model to a public health and social justice foundation focusing on criminal justice reform and community violence prevention. He received his Master of Public Health from the University of Medicine and Dentistry, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

William Watterson is director of Galaxy Gives, the Novogratz Family Philanthropy. He has previously worked for the Rhode Island Office of Innovation, leading the State’s Digital Equity Initiatives. Billy is the founder and current board member of Beat the Streets Providence, and sits on the board of One Community LLC.