Philanthropy as if Democracy Really Mattered
October 19, 2016
I've been doing quite a bit of traveling overseas recently, and everywhere I go people seem to be scratching their heads at the U.S. presidential election. Living through it day-to-day via television and radio is challenging enough, but trying to explain it in a rational way to people who know little about the United States but somehow expect more from the self-proclaimed "greatest nation on earth" is close to impossible.
Fortunately, I head an organization in a sector, philanthropy, that is trying to do something to "fix" American democracy. That work has nothing to do with the candidates of the moment, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and everything to do with the system that produces, funds, promotes, nominates, and elects candidates for national office. Even better, that work can be explored in depth through Foundation Center's Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, a data visualization platform for funders, nonprofits, journalists, and anyone interested in understanding philanthropy's role in supporting and improving U.S. democracy. Produced with the support of a group of foundations — Carnegie, Hewlett, Rita Allen, JPB, MacArthur, Open Society, Rockefeller Brothers, and the Democracy Fund (a creation of Omidyar Network), among them — the platform captures more than $3 billion in foundation grants made since 2011 and is refreshingly free from the rhetoric, factoids, and outright lies that have dominated news coverage of this election cycle. It focuses, instead, on important structural issues such as campaign finance, civic participation, open government initiatives, and journalism education and training.
Here are a few examples of what you can find there:
- A $1.2 million grant by the Ford Foundation to Voto Latino "to partner with Rock the Vote on a social media-based civic engagement program aimed at increasing democratic participation by Latino youth in the southwestern United States."
- An $825,000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation to Code for America Labs "to broaden engagement of underrepresented groups in public decision making through Code for America fellowships in three California cities."
- A $50,000 grant from the CS Fund to the National Security Archive Fund in support of "the Open Government and Accountability Program and its audits exposing and challenging the performance gap between FOIA and classification policy reforms and their implementation."
- A $25,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation to the Campaign Finance Institute "to analyze public financing alternatives for election campaigns at the state level."
The foundation and grants data captured on the site represent a spectrum of strategies designed to help the democratic process in this country live up to our lofty ideals. They also represent the best of philanthropy: foundations using their unique freedom and flexibility to tackle long-term challenges that markets are ill equipped to address or solve. If democracy is the operating system of American society, it badly needs an upgrade, and a growing number of foundations are doing something about it.
Before the passions of tonight's debate overwhelm rational discussion, and even after those passions have subsided, spend some time on Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy — or explore our infographic series — and be uplifted by the fact that while others are just talking about the state of U.S. democracy, philanthropy is doing something to improve it.
Brad Smith is president of Foundation Center. In his last post, he addressed the topic of foundation transparency.