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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.

Four years ago, when I began working to reduce the influence of money in politics, one of the many gaps I recognized in the reform movement was the lack of any real cohesion or coordination among groups working on the issue.

When I spoke to people in the media and on the Hill, they all said it was unclear where the reform community stood. Some groups were working to promote transparency with respect to campaign contributions and spending, while others were working for public financing of elections, and still others for ethics and lobbying reforms that would limit influence-based legislation and promote evidence-based legislation. Seldom, though, were these discrete priorities articulated as part of a broader, more coherent vision or strategy. The well-intentioned efforts of different groups working to address the pernicious effects of unfettered money in our political system created a sense of confusion. Similarly, foundation officers and philanthropists interested in supporting reform efforts were uncertain where their support would make the most impact.

To encourage participation, I knew we had to develop a roadmap for reform that most, if not all, in the community could stand behind.

One of our earliest projects was developing messaging which melded all the solutions to the money-in-politics problem into a single agenda — a gold standard, if you will — that could be easily explained to non-wonks outside the Beltway.

While the reform movement is still young and has yet to realize its full potential, we are in significantly better position today to effect change than we were a few short years ago.

Foundation Center's powerful new tool, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, is likely to lead to further collaboration. Within minutes of using the platform, I was exploring several innovative features that make it easy to identify organizations and foundations working on money-in-politics reform.

The Map feature instantly pulled up all the groups and funders working on the issue in a given city. Using the tool, I confirmed that foundations in New York and California have contributed the most to campaign finance reform efforts ($19.9 million and $17.6 million, respectively) since 2011. To my surprise, however, I discovered that support from California foundations has not grown in the years since, as has been the case with New York foundations. There was a momentary spike in 2011 (likely due to the backlash to Citizens United), but since then support has not grown on a year-over-year basis.


With the development of the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy platform, though, nonprofits can now turn to 2011 and re-engage foundations that supported this work then and report on the growing impact of their efforts. The ability to track trends like these is helpful when developing a fundraising strategy and will enable organizations to efficiently target potential funders and maximize their fundraising efforts.

What's more, the ease with which the tool enables users to discover other grantees emerging in a given field, from one year to the next, should boost efficiency in the nonprofit sphere. In the past, I would have to sift through hundreds of 990s from foundations to learn which groups they support, while Foundation Center's tool can pull this information up in seconds. This clear and simple collection of grantees will make it much easier for members of any reform effort to find potential partner organizations.

As a member of a growing movement, I’m excited about Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy and am sure it will prove to be a great resource for the sector and the money-in-politics reform movement – not least because it will help us build the base of support for the movement. And as that base grows larger and more diverse, politicians will have no choice but to address the fraying state of our political system.

Headshot_Nick Penniman-300dpiNick Penniman is the executive director of Issue One, a national, nonpartisan organization that works to reduce the undue influence of money in politics. He is, in addition, the former executive director of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, the founder of the American News Project, publisher of the Washington Monthly, DC director of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, an associate editor of American Prospect magazine, and director of the Alliance for Democracy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Penniman.

This is the fourth in a series of ten posts about U.S. democracy and civil society that will be featured here on PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day, and beyond.

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