Betting on Demographics: Behind a New Push to Engage Young Voters

Photo:  Burlingham/shutterstock

Photo:  Burlingham/shutterstock

If more young people turned out to vote, Donald Trump might not have won the 2016 election. Just 37 percent of voters age 18 to 29 supported Trump, compared to 55 percent who went for Hillary Clinton. At the same time, though, over 20 million citizens in this age group didn't vote in an election that hinged on tiny margins in a few key states. 

Hypotheticals aside, hand wringing over lackluster civic engagement from the younger generation isn’t new. But what is new this year is a sense of urgency prompting some funders to redouble their efforts on voter engagement, campaign finance, and civic education.

In an interview with IP earlier this year, Eric Marshall, who heads the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), pointed to widening cracks in America’s democratic foundation. Leading up to the Trump presidency, factors like gerrymandering, negative politicking and creeping authoritarianism have fueled voter apathy; young voters are often called apathetic. “On the flip side,” Marshall said, “there’s a lot of energy in the country. People who haven’t engaged in the past are making their voices heard.”

    Among those newly energized by Trump's victory are large numbers of young people, and not just millennials. An even younger cohort of digital natives sometimes dubbed “Generation Z” is rapidly approaching voting age. Some are there already. That fact hasn’t been lost on the funders behind a new campaign that promises to “create a community of leaders and lifelong advocates for critical issues affecting vulnerable populations.” Hosted by DoSomething.org, the effort focuses on civic education and action among millennials and those younger still, “an untapped market” that many political organizations have yet to engage. 

    Behind the campaign is $8.6 million from three funders: the Omidyar Network, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and the MacArthur Foundation. Omidyar and Hoffman put in $4 million apiece, with MacArthur picking up the remaining $600,000. The donations fund an engagement campaign called “18 in '18,” targeting young people who will be eligible to vote in the 2018 midterms. The money will also help DoSomething improve its digital platform.

    It's not surprising to to see civic-minded funders from the tech world throwing support to DoSomething right now—especially these funders. Hoffman is a longtime friend to the organization and serves on the board. The Omidyar Network has made several major grants to DoSomething in the past. The nonprofit, which got its start in 1993 as a project of actor Andrew Shue, has become a media-savvy digital booster of youth-oriented social change campaigns. DoSomething has partnered with a host of major corporations over the years, including Google, Coca Cola, H&M, 3M, CVS and JetBlue. 

    A glance at DoSomething’s cornucopia of campaigns highlights the fact that civic engagement—whether it’s voting, activism or volunteerism—deeply impacts almost every other issue out there. Of course, that's long been a recurring mantra of democracy funders trying to mobilize more of their grantmaking peers to give in this area. If people aren't engaged in civic life and if our electoral system isn't responsive, the logic goes, it doesn't matter what causes you're funding: Everyone is going to face a tougher road to impact. 

    With its broad membership of 5.5 million young people, DoSomething.org has a very different profile from many of the democracy reform groups that often pull in grants to revitalize civic life. This is a group with boots on the ground, or at least phones in the hand, with a history of engaging a cohort that's often baffled the older philanthropoids who tend to cut the checks for democracy work. 

    As we’ve seen with efforts to politically mobilize Latinos, bringing new groups to the table is one way left-leaning funders are pushing against the older, whiter tilt of the American electorate. In this case, DoSomething doesn't just have an eye on young voters; it has an eye on teenagers who will be voters by the time the mid-terms roll around next year—which is what that "18 in '18" initiative is all about. The goal isn't just to get people to vote, but to care and to get in the habit of, well, doing something. As DoSomething said in a press release, “under 18 is the critical time in teens’ lives when they’re developing and solidifying their identity, priorities, and values.” 

    Mobilizing legions of soon-to-be voters against Trump (and the Republican Congress) is surely on the minds of at least two of the three donors making these tax-deductible gifts to a nonpartisan 501(c)(3). Pierre Omidyar has been one of the President’s most vocal billionaire critics. We’ve reported on the many ways Omidyar has opposed Trumpism, whether it's through anti-hate funding, nonprofit journalism, truth-in-media campaigns or “civic tech.” Hoffman may be nearly as zealous about opposing the president and has been ramping up various forms of anti-Trump giving.  

    Both Hoffman and Omidyar got fantastically rich as an entrepreneurs in the private sector. And until recently, people didn't tend to think of either of these guys as partisan warriors or even as especially progressive. But Trump's rise has mobilized lots of people to engage in new ways, including in Silicon Valley—which has been repulsed from the start by Trump's unique combination of retrograde sensibilities and perceived stupidity. 

      While we've covered Omidyar a lot at IP, Hoffman is more of a newcomer to philanthropy, including giving to sway public policy. He's an interesting figure to watch right now. Not long ago, we reported that Hoffman is the main backer of MIT Lab’s Disobedience Award, a contest he co-founded. The competition recently recognized a pair of scientists who exposed dangerous levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water. 

      The MacArthur Foundation, meanwhile, has a long history of funding civic engagement efforts. To increase voter engagement, MacArthur has at times joined liberal stalwarts like Ford and Open Society to fund organizations like Voto Latino. It has also backed efforts to study the politics of minority youth, as well as to reform the voting process through groups like Common Cause. And much more beyond that. 

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