The Other Money in Politics: How Philanthropic Dollars Shape Elections

With another presidential campaign season under way, we're hearing again about the mega-donors and Super PACs that fuel modern politics. But this isn't the only stream of money that influences how elections unfold in the U.S.; philanthropic dollars also play a key role, with foundations supporting a range of activities that affect how our democracy functions and what happens at the polls.

Understanding the flow of these grants isn't just helpful for nonprofits hoping to get a piece of the pie. It's also super-useful for journalists or others keen to see how foundations — which, by law, must be nonpartisan — are deploying funds in ways that can sway electoral outcomes.

Let's take the area of voter education, registration, and turnout as an example. It's no secret that who turns out to vote, and where, can make a big difference in determining which candidates win on Election Day. If more African Americans turn out in swing states like Florida or North Carolina, for instance, that's good news for Democrats. If the electorate tilts toward older and white voters, Republicans stand to gain.

Campaigns and Super PACs spend mightily to shape who votes. But what have foundations been doing? Well, Foundation Center's newly launched Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool offers some answers to that question.

Consider the state of Florida, a fiercely contested battleground in both presidential and off-year elections. Drilling into the data, where grantmaking can be easily segmented by the populations served, we find that five funders have given over a half-million dollars in grants in recent years to seven groups that work with "ethnic and racial groups" on voter education, registration, and turnout. For example, the Florida New Majority Education Fund pulled in $200,000 in grant money from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Proteus Fund in 2012 and 2013. Casey has described this group as working to "increase the voting and political power of marginalized and excluded constituencies toward an inclusive, equitable, and just Florida." Historically, these constituencies have supported Democrats at election time.

Other Florida groups that have received money for voting work, according to the database, include the Farmworker Association of Florida and Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast.

Moving to another swing state, North Carolina, we find a similar pattern: Nearly a half-million dollars in grants have been made in recent years for voting work with racial and ethnic groups. The biggest recipient, here, was Democracy North Carolina, which has lately been at the forefront of efforts to defend voting rights amid a legislative push in that state to restrict the franchise in ways that research has found tends to reduce turnout among African Americans, Latinos, and young people.

Speaking of efforts to restrict the franchise, it's important to note that not all grantmakers in the democracy space have sought to make voting more accessible by historically marginalized groups. Some have supported work to require voter identification at the polls and to roll back measures such as early voting and same-day registration, which advocates have pressed for in many states as a way to expand and diversify the electorate.

In North Carolina, the John William Pope Foundation has long been known for its support of tougher voting rules that it says are needed to protect against voter fraud. What exactly has this entailed? The data shows 61 grants totaling more than $2.4 million by the foundation in North Carolina since 2011 that relate to democracy issues.

The Pope Foundation — controlled by Republican activist Art Pope — has been one of the top funders in the democracy space in recent years in North Carolina. But two other funders have given more: the Triad Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. Other big funders of democracy work in the state include the Z. Smith Reynolds and Ford foundations.

There are a lot more examples we could dig into to illustrate how funders are shaping voting work at the state level in ways that can and do affect electoral outcomes. All this grantmaking is officially nonpartisan and perfectly legal, but little of it is actually impartial.

And herein lies an important truth about how money influences America's democracy. Yes, there is a vast and swollen river of cash flowing into political campaigns. But another, separate tributary of philanthropic money related to elections has also been growing. In fact, Foundation Center reports that funders have made grants totaling nearly $300 million since 2011 specifically for work in support of campaigns, elections, and voting.

That amount is nothing compared to the more than $6 billion that political contributors gave in the 2012 election cycle alone. But it's still serious money that deserves close scrutiny.

This post was originally written for a series of posts about U.S. democracy and civil society featured on the Foundation Center's PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day, and beyond.