Philanthropy as If Democracy Really Mattered
June 05, 2014
Philanthropy could have far greater impact if government worked better. That's the conclusion of a recent survey of more than two hundred foundation leaders by the Center for Effective Philanthropy. According to the report based on the survey, "Foundation CEOs believe the greatest barriers to their foundations' ability to make more progress are issues external to foundations — particularly the current government policy environment and economic climate."
The more than 86,000 independent foundations in the United States make some $54 billion in grants every year in a wide range of areas, including education, health, environment, and the arts. Though rightfully proud of their accomplishments, the leaders of those foundations are far from satisfied. With a mandate to serve the public good, they want their foundations to have greater impact, and that requires the kinds of policies and government action needed to scale the many worthy programs piloted with philanthropic dollars.
Fortunately, foundation leaders are doing something about their frustration. Since 2011, more than one thousand American foundations have granted nearly $1.4 billion to organizations working to help American democracy live up to its promise. These data are displayed in Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, a new interactive data platform developed by Foundation Center with support from eight of America's leading funders: the Rita Allen Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Omidyar Network's Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The JPB Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The platform defines what "democracy funding" means for philanthropy, establishes a baseline for such funding, and allows users to quickly grasp, in terms of both major trends and detail, who is funding what and where, across the nation.
- Campaign and Election Processes
- Governing Institutions and Processes
- Information and Media
- Public Engagement and Voting
Each major category is further broken down into sub-categories such as "Election Systems and Administration" and "Redistricting," while additional filters enable users to explore the different approaches used by foundations, as well as the geographic and population focus of their grants. This "data architecture" was developed by Foundation Center researchers working closely with program staff from the eight supporting foundations, additional foundations, and key affinity groups like the Funders' Committee for Civic Participation and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement. Grants were coded by the foundations themselves, and Foundation Center staff looked at grant descriptions and recipient organizations to determine the purpose of each grant. This labor-intensive process bridges the diverse program structures and terminology of multiple foundations to produce a coherent overview of funding for democracy in America.
What about partisan politics? Foundations are prohibited from engaging in certain types of political activity (like partisan voter registration and lobbying) under IRS regulations. Foundation Center itself is a nonpartisan, non-membership organization that strives to be an unbiased source of independent information on philanthropy. The new data platform includes information about foundations, grants, and grantees that some might be tempted to identify as progressive, liberal, libertarian, or conservative. Such labels are deliberately omitted from the platform, however, in an attempt to produce as complete a picture of democracy funding as possible.
As institutions that use private wealth for public good, foundations occupy a unique and privileged position in American society. What's more, they have supported democracy-promotion activities abroad for decades, and it is entirely appropriate they do so at home. While they possess only a fraction of the resources of government, their independence allows them to take risks, experiment, and pursue long-term strategies in a way that makes their dollars extremely valuable. The health of our democracy matters for foundations, as it does for all of us. We invite you to explore Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy and see for yourself why philanthropy is such a vital part of the American experiment.
Brad Smith is the president of Foundation Center.