Friday, October 4, 2019
In its October 1st edition, The Chronicle of Philanthropy published Can Philanthropy Save Democracy? -- an interesting read. The number of grant organizations that are funding efforts to strengthen the democratic process is on the rise. According to the article, "Foundation support nationwide for democracy projects jumped 34 percent in 2017, to $553 million, according to Candid, which tracks grant-maker activity. Those are the most recent figures available, but all signs suggest that spending is on the rise." As the article points out, these efforts have no political or ideological limitations or consensus for that matter; donors are as varied as George Soros and Charles Koch.
The bi-partisan Democracy Fund, which supports a wide assortment of democracy efforts, was created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar in 2014 "to help ensure that the American people come first in our democracy." Its president, Joe Goldman, believes philanthropic organizations and individuals have a mandate to reverse the "weakening of important American institutions." While large donors and foundations have traditionally steered clear of political involvement, Goldman opines that the landscape is evolving:
Historically it was perfectly appropriate for some funders to say, "Look, my role is technocratic. My role is to stay out of politics" . . . But there are points in time when the threats are such that we all need to stand up for our values. Our democracy has gone through many challenging periods, but we are definitely in a crisis point. People recognize we are in a bad spot. . . A lot rides on the outcome. . .
Whether you care about the environment, housing, or the national debt, these issues are all fundamentally affected by the degree to which our political system is healthy and functioning.
As part of this uptick in funding, Omidyar has more than tripled the Democracy Fund's annual grant-making budget to $50 million.
Believing that a "strong philanthropic response to something new and worrisome going on in America" as a result of the 2016 election cycle, Protect Democracy was created by former White House lawyers under President Obama. Protect Democracy's website describes itself as a "nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting attacks, from at home and abroad, on our right to free, fair, and fully informed self-government." The organization's budget has grown from a meager $400,000 to over $10 million annually. One of its co-founders, Ian Bassin, explained the need for such nonprofits as Protect Democracy:
A lot of work has gone into things like gerrymandering, voting rights, and campaign finance. . . There hasn’t been nearly as much time thinking about how we make sure that our fundamental system of checks and balances is strong and able to withstand modern autocratic movements. We need to make sure we’re spending resources there as well.
The Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and other established grantmaking organizations have stepped up their funding of efforts to strengthen democracy. According to the article, Ford’s "democracy budget" is about $25 million a year, recently committing an additional $5 million to support accurate census efforts. Carnegie anticipates making $7 million in grants supporting voting rights and related issues in its current fiscal year, an increase of $5.2 million over the prior year. The article reports that increased funding has also focused on strengthening journalism to boost democracy; funders including The Knight Foundation, The Hewlett Foundation, The MacArthur Foundation, and Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist).