A Funders Group Brings a Wide-Angle Lens to Democracy Issues

 A town meeting in vermont. Photo: Erika J Mitchell/shutterstock

A town meeting in vermont. Photo: Erika J Mitchell/shutterstock

Philanthropy in the United States has long been concerned with democracy: how to protect it, understand it and make it work better. Whether or not American democracy is truly “under threat” these days, funders in this space are feeling the urgency of the moment. In a recent piece, we profiled the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), a key affinity group of mostly progressive civic engagement funders.  

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is another funder affinity group working on issues of democracy and civic engagement. Unlike FCCP, which began with a focus on voter registration and elections, PACE got its start in the world of volunteer engagement and community service. Both groups now embrace a wider range of issues, and PACE’s Executive Director Kristen Cambell sees their work as complementary. 

Whereas FCCP’s focus is “deep”—how to coordinate philanthropy to empower marginalized communities on the ground—Cambell characterizes her organization’s work as broad. “People look to PACE for the wider-angle lens on the perspectives folks bring to this work. Our members are ideologically diverse, and there’s a focus on the thematic elements of democracy.”

In addition to left-leaning funders and lots of centrist foundations, PACE’s membership includes a few conservative and libertarian funders. A full list of PACE members is posted here. Major funders like Ford, Hewlett, Gates, Mott, and Kellogg are all members of PACE. While some PACE members have actively sounded the alarm about threats that a Trump presidency poses to democracy, most others have avoided openly siding with a progressive "resistance" that warns of tyranny. 

In January, shortly before the inauguration, Cambell sent out an update to all PACE members that never mentioned Trump by name and said only that this is a "critical moment in time for our country’s civic and community life." Cambell outlined several strategic questions to frame some of PACE's work in the next two years, including: "How can philanthropy create spaces for people to come together around complex and divisive issues?" and "How can philanthropy invest in information and education that prepares people for active civic participation and sustains their involvement over time?"

Both those questions are obviously timely for funders in the wake of an election that revealed bitter fissures among Americans and was marked by the viral spread of misinformation.

Over recent months, PACE’s members have debated how to respond to the changed political landscape. Straight out of a member meeting held this week, PACE’s funders want to get a better idea of American democracy’s true strengths and weak points. As they make grantmaking decisions, they want to know “what’s a feature and what’s a bug when it comes to what we’re experiencing right now,” Cambell says. “According to one member, there are a lot of issues parading as history that are actually nostalgia.”

At the same time, Cambell believes Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency is a “symptom, not the disease,” and that the underlying issues have been present in this country for a long time. “The founders anticipated the possibility of tyranny, and those protections have been holding. But that doesn't mean they’ll hold in the future.”

Cambell stresses the high stakes of work on democracy and civic engagement, since these issues underpin almost every issue out there. One of PACE's members, the Hewlett Foundation, has made this exact point in explaining its big investment over the past several years in work aimed at reducing polarization, especially in Congress. If political leaders can't compromise and key democratic institutions become dysfunctional, all the goals that funders are working for will become harder to achieve.

It's worth noting that the folks over at FCCP see things differently, pointing to efforts by some actors that "have looked to erode confidence in the ability of our democracy to function," as FCCP Executive Director Eric Marshall put it. Outright attacks on civic engagement in recent years include growing voter suppression efforts and gerrymandering. At IP, we've criticized Hewlett's democracy work for an evenhanded approach that doesn't acknowledge the role that a more extremist Republican Party has played since the mid-1990s in undermining key democratic norms. Mitch McConnell's refusal to hold a vote on President Obama's Supreme Court pick, Judge Merrick Garland, is just the latest example of that. 

RelatedWhy Won't Foundations Like Hewlett Just Stand Up and Fight for Their Values?

It's hard to avoid the question of who's to blame for the erosion of civic life in debates about philanthropy and democracy. That question can be hard to answer in a big tent setting that is ideologically diverse, although there are certainly areas where agreement can be found among funders with different perspectives and PACE is a place where such conversations can happen. 

One debate among PACE members right now is about communications and messaging. Cambell says funders are still trying to figure out when they should speak out directly and when they should equip their grantees to do so. As a related aside, some funders have focused their pro-democracy giving on strengthening the fourth estate—these are heady days for nonprofit news

Civic education and youth engagement is another key place where this all plays out. This September, PACE is partnering with a number of organizations, including the Carnegie Corporation, the Hewlett Foundation and the McCormick Foundation on a summit to discuss how to reinvigorate civic learning in the U.S. And we’ve recently covered the Rappaport Family Foundation’s new round of grants to spur civic engagement among community college students. Rappaport is a member of PACE. 

For a top-level overview of how philanthropy supports democracy in the U.S., as well as the dollar amounts involved, check out the Foundation Center’s handy database that tracks funding in this area. 

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