Inside the Madison Initiative: Here's How Hewlett Is Taking on Polarization

A few weeks ago, I wrote a critique of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's new $50 million "Madison Initiative" to rescue American democracy from the "mischief of faction." The director of that effort, Daniel Stid, then wrote a response to my article which we ran here

While we love kicking around big ideas at IP, we know what's really on the minds of a lot of our readers: Pulling in grants. So I recently spoke to Stid about just how that fifty million dollar pie is being divvied up and what, exactly, is the strategy behind the check writing.  

In short: Who's getting money, and why? 

Let's start with the strategy behind Hewlett's effort, which strikes me as a great example of an "emergent model" of philanthropy. There are no rigid milestones or metrics or predictive models here. Rather, Hewlett's plan is to engage in three years of exploratory funding of work that could point the way to more moderates getting elected, reduced gridlock in Congress, and more constructive public engagement in civic life. 

Or not, as Hewlett's leaders readily admit. 

"We're dealing with an incredibly complicated system of systems," Stid says, keenly aware of just how sprawling and daunting this new project is, even for a foundation with an $8.6 billion endowment. The effort is exploratory because "it’s not obvious what the intervention points are."

The Madison Initiative is the brainchild of Hewlett CEO Larry Kramer, who came to the foundation two years ago from Stanford Law School and a long academic career thinking about law, governance, and democracy.

Related: Larry's Kramer's Hewlett Foundation Has a Brain. Does It Have a Heart, Too?

Kramer pushed the new initiative, his biggest yet, out of a fear that American democracy was on a path to failure and, as a practical matter, because gridlocked government is stopping the foundation from moving its agenda. 

But it's Stid, a political scientist turned consultant that Kramer recruited to Hewlett last year, who has taken point in operationalizing the effort. 

The Plan: Spread Betting

One key decision Kramer and Stid made early on was to place lots of small bets on promising work, as opposed to investing heavily in one or two strategies. "We don’t believe there are silver bullets," Stid says.

In mapping out the initiative, the foundation has avoided what Stid calls an "if only" mentality. If only gerrymandering could be ended. If only people stopped watching Fox and MSNBC. If only Senate rules were changed. 

Stid calls the grantmaking strategy for the Madison Initiative "spread betting." Money is not only going into four baskets—elections and campaigns, congressional reform, media and civic engagement, and "democracy infrastructure"—it's being spread around within those areas. 

As well, Hewlett has made a number of big grants to "anchor grantees" doing cross-cutting work, the largest of which is a $1.5 million two-year grant to Brookings for a democracy initiative led by Elaine Kamarck which is grappling with many of the same questions that Hewlett is focused on. The Bipartisan Policy Center is another anchor grantee looking at a range of issues, and its big picture report from earlier this year, "Governing in a Polarized America," includes a number of recommendations that Stid sees as promising. 

All told, Hewlett has already made about $11 million in grants for the Madison Initiative, and Stid shared with me a list of grants as of August 1. Let's take a closer look at where the foundation's money is going.  

Elections & Campaigns

The electoral system is said to fuel polarization in various ways: By empowering the most partisan voters in low-turnout primaries; by allowing heavy campaign spending by ideologically-driven independent groups; and, of course, by the drawing of congressional districts that ensure one-party dominance. What's more, obstacles to voting and narrow ballot choices lead many less partisan Americans to sit on the sidelines at elections. 

Stid is making grants that address all these problems. For example, Hewlett has given $350,000 to two political scientists at Yale, Alan Gerber and Greg Huber, for experimental research to "test whether and how it is possible to increase turnout in primary elections so the primary electorate is more representative of the general electorate." A grant for similar work went to a pair of scholars at the University of California at San Diego. If this initial work pans out, it could point the way to a broader agenda for research and reform. 

Another early grant, for $300,000, went to Fair Vote, a group that's been working in the trenches for years to push for instant runoff voting, proportional representation, and other reforms it believes would create a more competitive and representative electoral system.

But the biggest grants so far in this basket have been for campaign finance work. Hewlett has given $600,000 to the National Institute for Money in State Politics, $500,000 to the Campaign Legal Center, and $200,00 to the Campaign Finance Institute.

These grants have been for general operating support, and Stid is quick to admit that he doesn't know what the solution will be to big money pouring into elections from the extreme poles. But he does know that dealing with this money must be part of any broader solution, and so Hewlett is working to bolster campaign finance groups. 

A final area of grantmaking in this basket aims to modernize and improve U.S. election administration, so voting involves fewer hassles. While less money has gone out the door for this work so far, Stid sees a clear set of solutions that can make a difference—those laid out earlier this year in the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration


Beyond the problem of who's getting elected to Congress, gridlock on Capitol Hill stems from the way that hyper-partisanship has infected everything the institution does, including the most routine matters.

Hewlett's grantmaking seeks to improve Congress in two main ways: First, by rebuilding what Stid calls the "scaffolding of bipartisan connections" and, second, fixing the rules of lawmaking to limit abusive practices and enable Congress to operate more effectively. 

One group Stid is supporting is the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which runs the Working Group for a Working Congress, an effort that brings together congressional members of both parties to hash out reforms that can improve how Congress works.

Two other grantees, Brookings and George Mason University, are specifically focusing on how to improve the congressional budgeting process, while a grant to the Project on Government Oversight supports work to train members of Congress on how to oversee the executive branch in a professional fashion. 

One especially intriguing grant is the $400,000 that Hewlett has given to the New America Foundation to explore "transpartisan" policymaking. Basically the idea here is to find ways around gridlock by bringing together unusual coalitions "of strange bedfellows from left and right," as Stid has written. The way that libertarians and progressives are joining forces to challenge criminal justice policies is a prime example of transpartisanship. 

Civic Engagement and Media

The Balkanization of media and the overall decline of civic life nearly always gets some share of blame for today's polarization, and Hewlett is looking to support groups that can increase the supply of unbiased information, as well as the public demand for such information, and engage Americans in political life in creative new ways. 

On the news and information front, grantees include the Investigative News Network, the American Press Institute, and Maplight. On civic engagement, Hewlett has given grants to two groups working on leadership development among millennials. Another grant supports work by the opinion researcher Steven Kull to "test whether it is possible to harness new technology and methods of engagement to give citizens a greater voice and connection with their federal legislators, thereby improving the quality of representation in Congress."

Again, Stid says openly that he doesn't know what solutions might work in this area, and is having conversations with different kinds of groups, including those in the deliberative democracy space. The Madison Initiative, remember, remains a work in progress. 

Democracy Infrastructure

Larry Kramer spent his career in academia, and Stid describes himself as a "lapsed academic," so it's no surprise that their bag of goodies has included some nice money for scholars. 

Specifically, Hewlett is keen on building up the field of democracy, with the goal of creating a stronger, more cohesive sphere of experts and knowledge. Hewlett was among the foundations that helped support the Foundation Center's recent work mapping what funders are doing in the democracy space, but its biggest grant so far has been $500,000 the Social Science Research Center for support of a new program, "Anxieties of Democracy." 

The idea behind the grant to SSRC, which is led by Ira Katznelson, is to broaden out work on democracy to allow more systemic and holistic thinking about its challenges, tapping a wider range of perspectives both from the U.S. and globally. Stid sees such work as a crucial effort to "lead social science away from the technical approach to democracy" that's become dominant. 


Hewlett is spreading its bets all right, and a lot of grants have yet to be made. Stid wouldn't say who's going to get money next, but it seems likely that many organizations will get funding beyond the three-dozen or so that have already received grants this year. This is a three-year exploration and by my math, Hewlett is set to give away another $39 million between now and 2017.

What happens in 2017? That's when Larry Kramer and Hewlett's board decide whether to put bigger money behind a longer term effort. 

When I spoke to Kramer earlier this month, he said he couldn't predict whether this effort would pan out and lead to a larger commitment. But he stressed that he is "absolutely hopeful" that the Madison Initiative will produce enough promising results from its first exploratory phase to justify an effort that, realistically, Kramer said could take "twenty or thirty years."

Of course, plenty of people, including myself, are less optimistic that Hewlett will get anywhere with this kind of work as long as the Republican Party is domimated by right-wing ideologues. As Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann have written, "When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges."

My own guess is that polarization will wane naturally, as the GOP pays the price for extremism and is forced back toward the center.  

In the meantime, now's a great moment for what Daniel Stid calls "partisans for representative democracy" to hit up the Hewlett Foundation for a grant. 

Stid can be reached at