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'Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy': What Does the Data Say?

July 27, 2017

The following post is part of a year-long series here on PhilanTopic that addresses major themes related to the center's work: the use of data to understand and address important issues and challenges; the benefits of foundation transparency for donors, nonprofits/NGOs, and the broader public; the emergence of private philanthropy globally; the role of storytelling in conveying the critical work of philanthropy; and what it means, and looks like, to be an effective, high-functioning foundation, nonprofit, or changemaker in the twenty-first century. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback.


It's no secret that many Americans are wondering whether our democracy is still working. The signs of dysfunction are everywhere — allegations of election tampering, voter suppression, and "fake news" comprise a continuous soundtrack accompanying distressingly low levels of electoral turnout, ever more bizarre examples of gerrymandering, and perpetual government gridlock.

Concerns about U.S. democracy are on the minds of America's philanthropic institutions as well. We know, of course, about the "dark money" that is being pumped into the electoral process in an attempt to influence the outcomes of U.S. elections. But what about the efforts of U.S. foundations who see the task of improving U.S. democracy as an important part of their philanthropic missions? (And which, unlike dark money vehicles, are required to disclose information about their giving in publicly available tax documents.)

In partnership with eight foundations, Foundation Center, in 2014, developed Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, a free online portal that tracks the efforts of foundations to improve American democracy. The tool provides detail on more than 35,000 relevant grants, with additional data added regularly. (Next week, I'll be providing a tour of this mapping platform via a free webinar. Register here.)

Since 2011, U.S. foundations have spent more than $3.7 billion on efforts to improve our democracy. Our data show that foundations are almost equally focused on the areas of encouraging civic participationimproving how government functions at the national, state, and local levels; and supporting an accountable and democratic media, with about  a third of their democracy-focused grant dollars going to each area. Campaigns and elections, the fourth major area of foundation funding for democracy, received about 10 percent of democracy-focused grant dollars. (This adds up to more than 100 percent, because some grants address multiple issues.)

US Democracy_funding by category_fb

These findings suggest that important issues need to be addressed in all four areas — civic participation, government, media, and campaigns and elections — and that focusing on any single area isn't sufficient to ensure a well-functioning democracy. Civic participation funders are focused, in particular, on encouraging issue-based participation by the public; government-focused funders prioritize grantmaking in the area of civil liberties and the rule of law; media-focused funders split their grantmaking almost equally on strengthening journalism and improving media access and policy; and those focused on campaigns and elections are primarily funding activities to educate voters and increase voter turnout.

In three of the four major areas of funding — civic participation, government, and campaigns and elections — the type of support most often provided by foundations was for advocacy and public policy, accounting for nearly a third of foundation funding in these areas. This doesn't necessarily mean that foundations are themselves engaged in political advocacy, which would compromise their 501(c)(3) status. Rather, they fund organizations whose work focuses on policy research or on promoting discussion and debate on public policy issues.

In addition, foundations provided general operating support for organizations focused on democracy-related work at a rate that is roughly consistent with the field as a whole — more than a quarter of funding took the form of unrestricted grant dollars. Altogether, more than half of foundation funding for democracy-related initiatives takes the form of either general operating support or support for advocacy and public policy.

Not surprisingly, a significant amount of democracy-related funding — almost a third — goes to organizations based in Washington, D.C.  And much of that funding supports national-level efforts to improve democracy. Among grants that specified a geographic focus for the work (about half), 44 percent supported national-level efforts, 50 percent supported state-level efforts, and 12 percent local efforts.

The relatively low amount of support for locally-focused work seems surprising. But it probably reflects the fact that much of the data on democracy funding comes from large foundations, which are more likely to be engaged in national- or state-level work.  Could this be a missing piece of the puzzle? Or, are foundations simply better suited to play a role in supporting organizations that focus on broader, systemic aspects of democracy?

If foundations were more focused on local-level work, one might expect to see community foundations playing a prominent role. But, so far, the evidence is inconclusive. Based on the data we have now, community foundations are no more likely to focus on democracy-related issues than are other types of foundations. And the geographic focus data we have for community foundations suggests that they are only slightly more likely than other foundations to support local-level work on democracy issues.

The question that looms over all these initiatives is, Are they making a difference? But that may not be the best question to ask. It may be more important to ask, How does the work of foundations fit into the bigger picture in which the most important roles are played by individual citizens, groups, and communities? Foundation funding can help create the kinds of conditions under which democracy may thrive, but foundations can't engage directly in political advocacy and they can't vote. That's up to us.

Headshot_lawrence-mcgillLarry McGill is vice president for knowledge services at Foundation Center. On Wednesday, August 2, he’ll be hosting a tour of the data mapping tool featured in the post, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy. You can register for the free webinar here. For more posts in the FC Insight series, click here.

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