16 posts categorized "U.S. Democracy"

What Is at Stake, and Why Philanthropy Must Respond

July 19, 2017

WhatsAtStake240In the months since the 2016 presidential election, philanthropy has begun to respond energetically to real and perceived threats to longstanding American principles of justice, equality, and fairness. Yet more is needed to counter policies and actions that undermine democratic norms, roll back essential safety-net protections, and shrink or destroy government programs essential to the health of the nation and the planet.

For the nonprofit world, the election of Donald Trump as president has raised the stakes in ways the two of us have never seen. Most nonprofits have missions that address inequality, injustice, and fairness in some way or another, whether it’s providing services to poor people and others in need, working to protect and extend civil and human rights, promoting environmental and animal protections, advancing equal opportunity, or enriching arts and culture for all.

We strongly believe these values — and the nonprofit work informed by them — are in jeopardy. And whether Donald Trump is the proximate cause of that danger or merely a catalyst for the expression of years of pent-up frustration, we cannot ignore the problem.

Whether or not you applaud Trump’s campaign promise to "drain the Washington swamp" or Sen. Bernie Sanders calls to fix a "rigged" system, it is painfully clear that many Americans have developed a deep-seated distrust of government and politicians. The populist wave of resentment unleashed by Trump’s election is a manifestation of that disillusionment and anger.

Trump understands that Americans want change, that they want to see the system shaken up in a way that forces politicians to listen to their concerns. But his actions, more often than not, are directly contrary to his words. By not divesting himself of his business interests before taking office, Trump has ensured that his many conflicts of interest (and those of his family) are fair game for watchdog groups and the press. His refusal to release his tax returns and his decision to shut down a website showing who has visited the White House make a mockery of his "draining the swamp" mantra and transparency in government. His condemnation of leaks and willingness to undermine administration officials with his words and tweets, as well as to divulge secrets to the nation's adversaries, has sown fear and confusion where clarity and energy on behalf of the American people are needed.

In this and so many other ways, the Trump presidency threatens our notions of a mature, functioning democracy. Too often, his actions seem impulsive and irrational, not reasoned and well thought out, a presidency where "alternative facts" are aggressively promoted and the press is derided as "enemies of the people." Trump himself is a president who takes criticism personally and responds in a vindictive, illiberal manner, weakening our democracy by attacking judges, civil servants, public leaders, and anyone else who questions his veracity and truthfulness.

Indeed, the only predictable thing about Trump is his unpredictably. He was enthusiastically for the House bill to repeal and replace Obamacare before he decided it was "mean"; he was for a cybersecurity agreement with Russia and then wasn't; he intimated that there might be White House tapes of his meetings with former FBI director James Comey before revealing he made the whole thing up.

Trump's willingness to play fast and loose with the facts also means that top White House officials and spokespersons are regularly contradicted by his utterances. And the "Who’s on first?" quality of the administration's communications cuts both ways, as the president's tweets and statements are frequently contradicted by top administration officials.

Americans tend to view their presidents as role models. We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, to see the president's personal style ­— his shabby, bullying treatment of women and Muslims, his vulgar tweets, his regular incitements to violence ­— being copied by young people and even other politicians.

The combination of Trump’s impulsive personality and worst tendencies can lead to disastrous results, as in the case of his so-called election integrity commission. The commission had its genesis in an alternative Trumpian belief that Hillary Clinton's three-million popular vote margin was the result of millions of fraudulently cast votes — a claim no political scientist or voting expert believes. But the damage has been done: the commission has sown distrust in the soundness of our election system and may even, as many have noted, be an attempt to institutionalize voter suppression efforts in America.

Already forty-four states have said they will not comply with all or parts of the commission's request for sensitive voter data. Faced with legal challenges to the effort, the operational head of the commission, Kris Kobach — a former Kansas secretary of state with a history of voter disenfranchisement — has tabled the commission’s data collection request until the courts make a determination on its legality and the commission meets for the first time. Meanwhile, real issues such as making our voting machines and elections systems safe from foreign and domestic cybersecurity attacks go unattended.

Against this backdrop, a key question for the nonprofit sector is how to raise and talk about these concerns without appearing to be partisan. Some in the sector even worry that raising such issues will make them the bullseye of the next Trump tweet. To which we say, if nonprofits don't raise these issues, who will? And what are the long-term consequences of silence and inaction?

In other words, this isn't an issue of partisan politics. It's a question of values. It's a question of democracy.

Encouragingly, many nonprofits and funders have stepped up their game. Since the election, individual contributions to important organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood have soared. Foundations have made emergency grants to address issues like hate speech, strengthen protections for a free press, address election reforms (including the census and redistricting), and support greater government oversight and accountability.

Despite these and other efforts, political scientists Kristin Goss and Jeffrey Berry argue that not enough is being done by foundations to "reorient their giving — and their public voice — in a sustained way to counter threats to a high-functioning, civil, and inclusive democracy." We agree, but also recognize that much has already been initiated by organized philanthropy.

The core problem for foundations, however, is that they mostly fund single issues as opposed to cross-cutting themes such as strengthening democracy. Foundation Center has developed a database to track democracy spending, and it reveals that roughly 1.5 percent of foundation grants, or $754 million out of a total of $52 billion awarded in grants in 2014, was spent on democracy issues. Because some types of grants might not have been captured for one reason or another, let’s add an extra 0.5 percent to the figure.

But even 2 percent of foundation giving is not enough to fund the activities needed to protect the democratic norms and institutions we take for granted. There needs to be a concerted campaign to at least double this figure to 4 percent for democracy organizing, advocacy, and related policy and infrastructure work.

Yes, foundation leaders and program officers are faced with growing needs in most of their program areas, but — especially at this critical moment — dedicating resources to strengthening democracy is a fundamental investment that simply cannot be ignored.

Headshot_gary_bass_mark_rosenman (002)Every foundation — local, state, regional, national — has a stake in this. Whether you fund the arts, human services, the environment or education, each is embedded in a political culture that, for the most part, values civility, inclusivity, transparency, and accountability — and requires an effective government, an engaged citizenry, and a healthy democracy. To lose that — to give in to partisanship, incivility, and authoritarianism – would be a tragedy of the very first order. We can't let that happen.

Gary D. Bass is executive director of Bauman Foundation and an affiliated professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Mark Rosenman is a professor emeritus at Union Institute & University.

[Infographic] How Is Philanthropy Engaging With Legislatures?

November 12, 2016

This week's infographic — the third in our series highlighting Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy — couldn't be more timely. Legislatures, at the federal, state and local levels, are where elected officials write the laws and pass the bills that establish the rules by which we live, work, and play. They are to democracy what the heart is to the human body, the beating, messy source of its vitality and dynamism. 

At the same time, they are, as Tocqueville noted, the American political institution "most easily swayed by the will of the majority," subject, by design, "not only to the general convictions, but even to the daily passions, of their constituents....[N]othing prevents them from accomplishing their wishes with celerity and with irresistible power, and they are supplied with new representatives every year. That is to say, the circumstances which contribute most powerfully to democratic instability, and which admit of the free application of caprice to the most important objects, are here in full operation."

Without well-functioning legislatures, in other words, democracy ossifies and eventually becomes something else. Oligarchy. Monarchy. Autocracy.

In the five years, since Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, many have worried that certain critical democratic functions of legislatures are being undermined by an infusion of vast sums of money into federal, state, and local elections — money that often is used to create and distribute political advertising designed to appeal to and stoke voters' anger, fears, and suspicion. As the infographic below highlights, it's a concern many in philanthropy, on both sides of the political aisle, share. In response, philanthropy has dedicated considerable resources in recent years to educating policy makers on a range of issues, including economic and community development, health care, and the environment. 

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Most Popular PhilanTopic Posts (October 2016)

November 02, 2016

Seven... Seven more days of this dumpster fire of an election before (with a little luck) we can all get back to our lives and routines. If that seems like an eternity, may we suggest spending some of it on the great reads below you all voted to the top of our most popular posts list for October. And don't forget to cast your vote, along with the hundreds who already have, in our Clinton/Trump-themed poll of the week....

What did you read/watch/listen to in September that made you pause, made you think, made you hopeful? Feel free to share with our readers in the comments section below. Or drop us a line at mfn@foundationcenter.org.

[Infographic] Who's Financing the Campaign Finance Conversation?

October 25, 2016

"If policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy...."

Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, political scientists

"The reality is we that have a corrupt campaign finance system which separates the American people's needs and desires from what Congress is doing. So to my mind, what we have got to do is wage a political revolution where millions of people have given up on the political process, stand up and fight back, demand the government that represents us and not just a handful of campaign contributors...."

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT)

"Legislative action will never bring genuine campaign-finance reform. Consultants will prove endlessly inventive in gaming whatever system the reformers can devise so as to give their candidate an edge and allow the power of massive money to be felt. But reform laws will become irrelevant and redundant as the Internet replaces the special-interest fat cats as the best way to raise money and takes the place of TV as the most effective way to get votes...."

— Dick Morris, author/political consultant

"There are two things that are important in politics: Money, and I can't remember what the second one is..."

— Mark Hanna, Gilded Age fixer/politician

______

Complaints about the influence of money in politics have been around since....well, forever. In ancient Rome, campaigning for political office was expensive, and bribery — both direct and indirect — was common. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, money more or less disappeared from Europe, but with its return in the Middle Ages, the connection between money and politics reemerged with a vengeance, leading no less a personage than Lorenzo the Magnificent, Machiavelli's patron, to adopt as his motto: "Money to get the power, power to keep the money."

America's founders had conflicting views about the role of money in politics. In 1787, Madison conceded "that the chief danger in a republic was the likelihood that a majority of poor men would pass laws that penalized the rich and undermined the nation’s stability," while Thomas Jefferson, thirty years later, declared that the "end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations (sic)." In the 1830s, a period of growing factionalization in American politics, Alexis de Tocqueville was surprised to find that "the wealthy classes of United States society stand entirely outside politics and that wealth, far from being an advantage, has become a real source of unpopularity and an obstacle to the achievement of power." One Gilded Age and three-quarters of a century later, President Teddy Roosevelt found it necessary to declare that "laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes."

In our own time, the post-Watergate zeal for tougher campaign finance laws has given way to a post-Citizens United environment in which corporations and associations are accorded the same right to political speech as individuals and most limits on money in politics, corporate or otherwise, have been obliterated.

With the quid-pro-quo nature of politics more evident than ever and public trust in government at close to all-time lows, organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice, with the support of foundations across the country, are working to advance reforms that would reduce the influence of corporations and individual mega-donors in our politics and give "ordinary voters a far louder voice." As the infographic below shows, foundation funding for those efforts totaled nearly $94 million from 2011 to 2016 and included grants from established national funders like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, as well as newer funders such as Omidyar Network, the philanthropic vehicle created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

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Philanthropy as if Democracy Really Mattered

October 19, 2016

Infographic-foundation-funding-for-democracyI'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:

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[Infographic] How Foundations Get Out the Vote

September 17, 2016

In a commentary for PND written shortly after the 2014 midterm elections, Ruth Holton-Hodson, a former director of public policy at the California Wellness Foundation, suggested that the one area that has an impact "on every one of the issues progressives hold dear... [is] the public's understanding of and participation in our democracy." Holton-Hodson further noted that while "Citizens United and other recent court cases...have given corporations and billionaires a huge advantage in terms of buying a government that is responsive to their needs...money isn't the most powerful tool in our democratic toolkit. Voting is. Corporations can't vote (yet), and billionaires only have one vote, just like you and me."

Although Holton-Hodson's message continues to be ignored by too many Americans — in recent years, only 40 percent of the voting eligible population has bothered to vote in midterm elections, a number that jumps to 60 percent in presidential election years — it is not, as this week's infographic suggests, because U.S. foundations have ignored the issue. Indeed, since 2011, foundations have made grants totaling more than $3 billion in support of U.S. democracy.

Now, anyone who has been discouraged, if not troubled, by the bluster and sound-bite superficiality of this election season could be forgiven for thinking that that may not have been money well spent. But as Holton-Hodson notes, fixing our democratic infrastructure and, by extension, our democracy is a long-term project. And foundations interested in the success of that project need "to take a page from the conservative playbook and fund the work so desperately needed to strengthen that infrastructure so that everyone who can vote and wants to vote is able to vote." It is, she adds, "the only way to ensure that we have a government willing to support and implement policies that meet the education, health, and welfare needs of all Americans."

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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

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How Foundations Are Supporting Voting Rights

November 24, 2015

The last five years have seen a tug-of-war over the future of our democracy. At odds are forces that want to restrict access to political participation and others who seek to open it in hopes of increasing the number of Americans who cast ballots. After the 2010 election, the war on voting rights intensified with the adoption of laws that curbed participation through voter ID laws in a number of states and cutbacks on early voting opportunities in others. The Supreme Court further complicated the picture by putting money over people in its Citizens United decision and dealing a blow to the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, which made it easier for states to engage in voter suppression tactics impacting voters of color. At the same time, while some states were rolling back the clock on voting rights and democracy, others were pushing through reforms such as online and same-day voter registration aimed at modernizing their voting systems.

As the battle rages on, nonprofits, think tanks, and universities have received substantial funding from foundations in support of their efforts to advance democracy in America. Foundation Center's new tool, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, indicates that foundations made grants of almost $299 million between 2011 and 2014 in the campaigns, elections, and voting category, which includes support for implementation, research, reform, and/or mobilizations efforts related to campaign finance, election administration, redistricting, voting access, as well as voter registration, education, and turnout. More than half those grant dollars went for voter registration, education, and turnout initiatives, and, as one might expect, the annual total spiked in 2012, a presidential election year, as did funding for voting rights efforts.

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Taking Civic Engagement to the Next Level

November 17, 2015

Several years ago, a colleague applied for a position at a large foundation that had just launched a democracy program. Ten minutes into the interview, he was told that because of his lack of experience in campaign finance reform and voter participation, he wasn't qualified. Mystified, he replied that he had more than two decades of democracy experience that was about as direct you could get: working with thousands of people in communities to address the same kinds of issues being debated in the halls of Congress.

Luckily he got the job. Still, it underscores how the millions of dollars many foundations have poured into get-out-the vote and electoral reform efforts are often seen as a proxy for democracy. Today, this work is still a top priority for foundations, with almost $300 million going to 738 organizations over the last few years that fall under the “campaigns, elections, and voting” category in Foundation Center's new Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool.

That makes sense. Voting is the cornerstone of American democracy. It's a concrete action that people can take to civically engage, and it's measurable.

But what happens after the votes are counted? There's mountains of evidence showing that Americans continue to opt out of the political system; in 2014 alone, voter turnout for the midterm elections was the lowest it has been in any election cycle since World War II.

It's easy to wag a finger at the disengaged and call them "cynical." What's harder is accepting the idea that this "cynicism" represents legitimate frustration over what many Americans see as a broken system that hasn't invited them to participate in meaningful ways. And even when they do engage, many people feel their voice counts for little. As a result, more and more Americans are turning away from traditional political systems and embracing activities where they think they can make at least a small difference such as volunteering, "clicktivism," and charitable giving.

The good news is that foundations appear to be increasing their support for broader civic participation, seeing it as important as elections and voting in defining what constitutes a robust democracy. Indeed, according to the center's database, civic participation receives the majority of democracy-related funding, with more than $853 million in grants made since 2011.

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A Look at Three States and the Role of Civic Participation Funders

November 10, 2015

Picture an America where democracy is vibrant because every eligible voter can exercise their right to have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. Where policy makers at every level reflect the interests of the communities they lead, and justice and fairness rule the day. This is the vision of my organization, the Funders' Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), home to a national network of grantmakers committed to making democracy work for everyone.

At FCCP's recently concluded annual convening, discussions centered on the need for philanthropy to make long-term, sustainable investments in people-of-color-led organizations and in supporting engagement outside normal election cycles and independent of electoral calendars. Doing this effectively requires a deeper understanding of the groups and dynamics in local communities, funding that goes beyond three-year cycles, robust state-based funding infrastructure supported by national foundations, and a shared vision and understanding of the long-term measures needed to achieve these goals.

So, what does data have to do with this? Conversations at the convening elevated (among other things) the need to use democracy funding data to inform smarter grantmaking decisions that amplify the effectiveness of limited civic participation dollars. Indeed, a look inside the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool uncovers some important lessons for grantmakers.

The data paints an interesting picture of three states — Arizona, California, and Texas — that share some common elements but are characterized by widely differing philanthropic landscapes. First, none of them is considered a political battleground state. They also comprise three of the top six states with the largest Latino population, a rapidly growing demographic whose voter-participation rates lag behind that of white voters.

A closer look at the data reveals the disparities. Funding for nonpartisan civic participation activities in California significantly outpaces funding for those types of activities in Texas and Arizona. And though Texas edges out Arizona in total dollars contributed in support of civic participation efforts, it has four times the population of Arizona. Thus Texas clearly falls to the bottom in terms of philanthropic investments in a healthy democracy.

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Voter Turnout: A Linchpin of American Democracy

November 03, 2015

Voter turnout in the last midterm election was embarrassing, hitting the lowest levels since World War II, while statements like "the game is rigged" and "why bother" could be heard in conversations around the country.

But it does matter. It matters to the effectiveness of our democracy if the majority of people stay home on Election Day. And it matters to the future of our democracy if most Americans think of government as an inefficient "other" rather than something we create.

While running an organization focused on engaging young people in politics, I was privileged to be able to travel the world and speak with other organizational and state leaders on the topic of democracy. Those trips never failed to remind me that, in the U.S., we are lucky to have a robust nonprofit sector with nongovernmental and nonpartisan organizations dedicated to promoting the health of the country and democracy, as well as an equally robust foundation community that supports them. Collaboration among foundations supporting democracy-focused work in the U.S., combined with creative and rigorously evaluated work by nonprofits, is a critical part of solving the crisis that faces our nation as citizens stop participating and give up on — rather than try to improve — the government we have created over the last two hundred and twenty-eight years.

So, I was struck by the data I turned up when searching Foundation Center's Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool. For example, funding for the entire category of "Campaigns, Elections, and Voting" lagged far behind funding in any other category, making up only 8 percent of the total funding for U.S. democracy in 2011 and 14 percent in 2012. The three other main categories (Media, Government, and Civic Participation) comprising the U.S. democracy funding landscape (as defined by the tool) received 41 percent, 30 percent, and 31 percent of funds, respectively, in 2011 and similar percentages in 2012. And this was during a presidential election cycle. (Note: grants may support democracy work in more than one area; therefore, totals for the major areas of activity exceed 100 percent.)

Heather_charts_image

Break it down further and you find:

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Philanthropic Dollars Also Shape Electoral Outcomes: Here's How…

October 27, 2015

With another presidential campaign season under way, we're again hearing a lot about the mega donors and Super PACs that fuel modern politics. But this isn't the only stream of money that influences how elections unfold in the U.S.; philanthropic dollars also play a key role, with foundations supporting a range of activities that affect how our democracy functions and what happens at the polls.

Understanding the flow of these grants isn't just helpful for nonprofits hoping to get a piece of the pie. It's also super useful for journalists or others keen to see how foundations — which, by law must be nonpartisan — are deploying funds in ways that can sway electoral outcomes.

Let's take the area of voter education, registration, and turnout as an example. It's no secret that who turns out to vote, and where, can make a big difference in determining which candidates win on Election Day. If more African Americans turn out in swing states like Florida or North Carolina, for instance, that's good news for Democrats. If the electorate tilts toward older and white voters, Republicans stand to gain.

Screenshot_Callahan_1

Campaigns and Super PACs spend mightily to shape who votes. But what have foundations been doing? Well, Foundation Center's newly launched Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool offers some answers to that question.

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Building a Strong Money-in-Politics Reform Movement

October 20, 2015

Democracy requires constant vigilance. Too often, however, our liberty is taken for granted. Unless we vehemently protect it, democracy will perish.

Teddy Roosevelt recognized this better than most. He was, of course, a complicated leader with a mixed legacy, but in his time he saw clearly what you and I see clearly today: that the ability of our elected officials to govern effectively is compromised by a rigged system, and that it is our responsibility to fix it when necessary.

Although the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United has further compromised the system, it is inaccurate to blame the status quo exclusively on the court's ruling. The massive, sprawling system of political money and influence-peddling that increasingly paralyzes Washington and state capitals has been mushrooming out of control for forty years.

The result is quietly but profoundly devastating. On the spectrum that exists between democracy and oligarchy, where would you place America? My friend Mark McKinnon, who many know as George W. Bush's former communications director, recently commented: "Our system is an oligarchy." And poll after poll show that Americans agree.

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Funding the Voter Participation Spectrum

October 13, 2015

The fiercely contested American presidential election of 2000 laid bare the different ways in which voters can be disenfranchised: faulty voting machines, poor ballot design, uncounted ballots, and needless barriers to voter registration, to name a few. And, of course, the winner of the election wasn't determined by ballot but by the U.S. Supreme Court a month after the election itself.

In the decade and a half since, voting rights advocates, funders, and various elected officials have promoted reforms that make it easier to register and cast a ballot. These well-intentioned actors are operating under a classic economic theory: if we lower the costs associated with a transaction (i.e., voting), more people will avail themselves of it. But is it that simple? My research supports the theory — new, more accessible ways to register and vote do indeed have a positive impact on voter participation, but only to a point. And election reform is only one step in a continuum of activities that must take place if voter participation is to increase, especially among current non-voters.

Putting this into action requires a new way of thinking about funding. More than ever, it means we need to think about increasing voter turnout as a coordinated process — with the passage of inclusive, pro-voter reform as just one step in that process, not the ending point. The crucial steps that funders and the organizations they fund must be aware of and integrate into a holistic strategy if they hope to really boost turnout include:

  • Researching the most effective reforms and activities for increasing participation;
  • Educating voters and organizations about why voting is important and how it relates to issues that affect them, the voting process, and the availability of new methods of participation (i.e., early voting) and how to make use of them;
  • Organizing and mobilizing people at the state and local level to actively take advantage of new, more accessible voting options;
  • Pursuing legal strategies to ensure that the right to vote is upheld in every jurisdiction; and
  • Sustaining voter engagement into the future as younger generations reach voting age.

What's more, these steps cannot be treated as discrete activities by those interested in promoting and advancing voting rights, including funders.

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To Strengthen Democracy in America, Think Tech

October 06, 2015

A decade-and-a-half into the digital century, the vast majority of large foundations concerned with strengthening American democracy don't seem to get tech. According to the new Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool recently launched by Foundation Center, out of a total of 18,446 grants awarded since 2011 by more than 1,300 funders focused on the broad range of issues and efforts related to democracy, just 962 have been focused on technology.

What's more, that represents only $215 million out of a total of $2.435 billion awarded to study and/or reform campaigns, elections, and voting systems; expand civic participation; research or upgrade government performance; and/or study the workings of the media and improve public access to media. The Foundation Center tool also reveals that the universe of foundations making technology-related grants is much smaller, at 186, than the overall funder pool, as is the recipient base.

Tech_constellations_image

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