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Beyond Money: Foundations Can Create Change by Building Communities

December 01, 2015

In the opening words of a famous political science textbook from decades ago, democracy is about "who gets what, when and why." We can apply the same question to the work of foundations and the nonprofits, universities, and agencies that together work to strengthen American democracy: Who gets what? Foundation Center's mapping of funding for democracy in the U.S. is one innovative way to answer that question.

The world of foundations and the work they fund has for too long been shrouded in obscurity. While many foundations boast a commitment to transparency and release lists of their own grants, it has been far too difficult to see who funds an entire field, or understand how a foundation-backed policy idea made it onto the agenda. Given that foundations can be at least as influential as big political donors, driving policy initiatives such as charter schools and health reform, there should be resources that open up the sector to journalists and activists, as well as grantseekers interested in understanding the often mysterious question of who got what.

But that's only part of the question. Even the most complete list of grantees and grant dollar amounts tells us only so much about the work and the vision: What does restoring American democracy mean, in practice? Can this mapping resource help answer that question?

Foundations do more than just give money to worthy projects. At their best, they make at least two other vital contributions: They help build a community — that is, the whole network of sustainable, adaptive organizations, from research projects to grassroots activists, that can further a cause — and they create connections, across issues and communities, in order to make each one stronger and more vibrant. So in looking at the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool, I wanted to ask those questions: Where have foundations built strong communities around democracy issues? And have they created the kinds of connections — between, for example, nonprofit journalism and efforts to reduce the role of money in politics — that strengthen these communities and the cause?

Schmitt_blog_image

The "constellations" section of the tool doesn't fully answer these questions — to do so would require much deeper analysis and for foundations to provide more complete and plain-English descriptions of the "why" of their grantmaking — but it provides some useful clues. For example, one can see a distinct community of organizations working on election administration and access-to-the-ballot issues — a relatively small number of sizable organizations, with reliable support over several years, often in the form of general-support grants. Closely aligned to these core groups is a larger group of smaller organizations focused on a single state or a particular constituency. (This community would be even larger if the substantial and central contribution to the field made by the Pew Charitable Trusts were included. While grants to its elections project from other foundations are listed, its self-financed work is not.) It is probably no accident that despite the partisan acrimony over voting and significant setbacks to the voting rights movement, there has been significant progress and consensus on ideas such as early voting, online voter registration, and other aspects of election reform.

In a 2013 article in Democracy, Nick Penniman and Ian Simmons argued that the $45 million a year that foundations and other donors were investing in efforts to reform the role of money in politics was too little, and that if they wanted to advance progress on the causes they care about, individual and institutional philanthropists ought to commit one percent of total private giving, or $3 billion annually, to causes such as fixing the corrosive role of money in politics. This tool extends the point made by Penniman and Simmons to show that not only is total funding for campaign reform inadequate to the challenge, the community engaged in that effort is diffuse, the core organizations comprising that community are hard to identify, and the grants awarded in support of that cause are relatively small and often for specific projects rather than general support.

Moreover, in neither case does there seem to be much connection to other issues of democracy or to efforts such as improving journalism or civic education. Each of these issues, such as funding for innovations in public service journalism or for the Newseum in Washington, D.C., seems to attract a unique set of funders who do little or no giving for other democracy issues.

Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy is not the definitive answer to the questions about how funding works and whether it has built effective communities around democracy issues. To really see foundation funding for democracy and how it has worked requires a deeper investigation and the kind of real journalistic scrutiny that foundations rarely get. But much like the databases we rely on to understand the influence of money in democracy, this tool is a start and provides valuable clues and an outline for those who want to follow the money.

Headshot_mark_schmittMark Schmitt directs the political reform program and is director of studies at New America, an independent think tank and civic enterprise. He is a former editor of The American Prospect and has been a program director at the Open Society Foundations and worked on Capitol Hill. Follow him on Twitter at @mschmitt9.

This is the tenth and final post in a series about U.S. democracy and civil society that was featured here on PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day in November, and beyond.

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