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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.

California Funder Relationships: Interconnected


Texas Funder Relationships: Disparate


The constellation views above illustrate the high degree of interconnected relationships among funders in California and, conversely, the disparate funding landscape in Texas.


The fact that Arizona and Texas lag California in terms of civic participation funding isn't surprising. But the lessons California can provide for state and national funders is important. In 2010, a group of ten California-based funders banded together to form a collaborative called the California Civic Participation Funders. Its members mutually prioritize enhancing participation in civic life among traditionally underrepresented communities and are in alignment about focusing their collective work in four counties. They also share a common goal of leaving infrastructure intact outside of election cycles, establishing partnerships with community-based organizations, and identifying ways to foster collaborative funding opportunities. As we see in the network map of California above, collaborative philanthropic partnerships like this can lead to a more coordinated and impactful funding landscape.

This joint effort has been highly successful. In its first two years, the network gave a combined $1.2 million to nonprofits in the target counties, and philanthropic leaders have cited its efforts as a model for other states that seek to build lasting civic infrastructure.

While the California Civic Participation Funders model can help inform the strategies of other grantmakers, both Arizona and Texas currently lack a robust level of investment from in-state funders despite the good philanthropic work being done in both states. One potential solution is for national foundations to use Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy data as a guide for identifying in-state donors with whom they can develop collaborative investment plans, agree to provide long-term grants that build lasting civic infrastructure over time, and foster an environment where more in-state investments can flourish.

If all that were to happen, in ten years an analysis of funding data for Arizona and Texas could look remarkably different. And so might the lives of its residents.

Headshot_eric_marshallEric Marshall brings years of leadership within the civic engagement, election reform, and voting rights fields as executive director of FCCP. He directed election administration and voting rights efforts at State Voices, where he regularly worked on the ground with more than twenty statewide networks, and successfully led the nation's largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition, comprising more than one hundred civil rights, good government and community organizations in twenty-two states, while at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. This is the seventh 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 in November, and beyond.

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