Amid Civic Fears, a Democracy Funders Network Is Going Strong

Questions about the health of U.S. democracy, and especially its electoral system, have been front and center in the wake of a presidential contest influenced by Russian hacking and fake news—and which was won by the candidate who received fewer votes. Most recently, the Trump administration's new commission on election integrity, set up after repeated claims by the president of widespread voter fraud, has generated controversy by requesting voting data from the states. Many critics believe the group's real aim is to suppress voter turnout among minority and low-income Americans. 

There's a long history of philanthropy's involvement in democracy issues and to veteran funders in this space, such grantmaking feels more urgent than ever. Beyond all the issues that surround voting, other matters that funders care about include campaign financing, redistricting, civic education, immigration and naturalization, and deliberative democracy. Two years ago, the Foundation Center rolled out a new database that documented the extraordinary scope and diversity of grantmaking on U.S. democracy. 

One place where democracy funders come together is the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP). Founded in 1983 by a cadre of grantmakers interested in boosting voter registration (including activist funder Richard Boone), FCCP embraces a big-tent network oriented toward equity and the enfranchisement of underrepresented communities. Over the years, its chairs and co-chairs have included some of the most well-known grantmakers in the democracy space, such as Geri Mannion, of the Carnegie Corporation, and Michele Lord of NEO Philanthropy. It's currently co-chaired by Connie Malloy of the Irvine Foundation and Steve Cole-Schwartz of the Partnership Funds.

In the era of Trump, a forum like FCCP seems particularly timely. But according to FCCP’s executive director Eric Marshall, who leads a small staff, a longer view is necessary. “[FCCP seeks to provide] space and context to understand the landscape we’re currently in. It’s not just about Trump, but also about how we got here. In some sectors, actors have looked to erode confidence in the ability of our democracy to function. That has led to apathy, low turnout.”

Through gerrymandering, negative politicking, and the weakening of democratic norms—as well as outright voter suppression—Marshall argues that the cracks in America’s democratic foundation may be widening. But the news here is not all bad, or about apathy amid an authoritarian drift. “On the flip side, there’s a lot of energy in the country. People who haven’t engaged in the past are making their voices heard.” 

Over its long history, FCCP has embraced varied priorities, including expanding voter registration and participation, campaign finance reform, experimenting with new approaches to civic engagement, and ensuring accurate census data. Those priorities remain, but FCCP’s current work goes beyond specific issues. Similar to other affinity groups we’ve covered, it’s been thinking more holistically about harnessing a network of talent, knowledge and resources to empower communities and nonprofits from the ground up. 


Says Marshall, “Civic engagement is local. People are best reached by nonprofit organizations that are rooted in that community year-round. National organizations do good work, but if you’re not based in that community, there’s only so much you can do.”

The local level is also where the intersectionality of different funding priorities, often discussed in airy terms in philanthropy circles, plays out in concrete ways. Engaged citizens and activists rarely think about only a single issue at a time. They tend to be concerned by a range of issues that affect their community. And right now, more funder affinity groups want to encourage this broader perspective by helping their members connect with one another and funders in the other spaces to advance change. “Breaking down silos” might be a nonprofit sector cliche, but it’s becoming de rigueur for funder affinity groups.

FCCP is somewhat unique among funder networks in that its core issue, civic engagement, underpins the landscape of almost every other issue. According to Marshall, money in politics is a good example of a democracy challenge that affects a wide array of issues—and creates the possibility for new kinds of alliances, including ones that cross ideological boundaries. “There’s opportunity for alignment around shared values and fairness, as well as the dangers of lobbying and special interests.” Marshall cites a fair judiciary as another issue that can draw a range of people together. I would add that redistricting is a third area that can animate players who have a range of concerns and views—and yet are united in a desire to reform a system that contributes to polarization and legislative gridlock. Indeed, this issue has lately drawn in some new funders who defy easy ideological labels, such as the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. (LJAF is not a member of the FCCP.)

So who’s in the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation? FCCP counts 70+ member organizations, and a list is available here. There’s a liberal bent, it’s true, but given the group’s focus on marginalized communities that's hardly surprising.

Looking ahead, the U.S. census is an important focus for FCCP, with much work to be done between now and 2020. Historically, census counts have tended to miss people from poor and marginalized communities, with negative results in political representation and the apportionment of government assistance. And with the Trump administration in charge of things this time around, there are fears that the census could go worse than usual. FCCP has a Funder's Census Initiative that's working to get ahead of the curve, here, and "achieve a democracy where everyone is counted so everybody counts." In the lead-up to the 2010 census, FCI says it helped mobilize $34 million in philanthropic support for work in this area. It wouldn't be surprising to see funders step forward with larger sums for the 2020 census, given today's political climate. 

Another long-term effort by FCCP is to ensure more steady support for voter participation work, an area that Marshall says is plagued by big gyrations of funding linked to the electoral cycle. As presidential contests approach, there's usually a surge in grantmaking to increase civic participation or engage disenfranchised communities. But those resources tend to dry up after the polls close, and according to Marshall, funding gaps can impair community organizations as they undertake the ongoing work of engaging people in democratic life and building power. Downswings in funding can also mean losing good leaders and staff.

One way FCCP is addressing this challenge is through its State Infrastructure Funders Table (SIFT), which was launched in 2010 to get funders to better collaborate and align their efforts to "build the democratic infrastructure that can strengthen civic participation and win real change in people’s lives."