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Current Trends in Philanthropy: U.S. Foundation Support for Democracy

November 02, 2018

Heading into the midterm elections, we've seen heightened interest in the role that philanthropy plays in democratic societies, both globally and in the United States. Although foundations are prevented by law from engaging in partisan political campaigning, the regulations leave plenty of room for foundations to engage with democracy in other ways.

In 2013, a group of eight foundations commissioned Foundation Center to create an online knowledge portal, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, to help them better understand the range of approaches foundations are taking to strengthen democratic institutions and democracy in the United States.

Funding democracy grab

The portal features a data tool that shows how foundations have invested in four areas related to U.S. democracy: 1) Campaigns, Elections, and Voting; 2) Civic Participation; 3) Government/Civil Liberties; and 4) Media. Since 2011, Foundation Center has documented 57,000+ democracy-related grants made by more than 6,000 foundations totaling $5.1 billion. This represents about 1.5 percent of all grantmaking by U.S. foundations over that period.

Two subtopics within democracy funding currently are generating a great deal of interest among U.S. foundations — media and democracy, and immigrant rights. The impact of big-dollar philanthropy itself on democracy also has received scrutiny.

Media and Democracy. Interest in understanding and combating digital disinformation and so-called fake news has increased noticeably in the democracy funding space in recent years. In March 2018, for example, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced a commitment of $10 million over two years through its Madison Initiative to help address the problem that digital disinformation poses for democracy. As part of its commitment, Hewlett has partnered with six other foundations (the Alfred P. Sloan, Charles Koch, John S. and James L. Knight, and Laura and John Arnold foundations; the Democracy Fund; and Omidyar Network) to fund Social Science One, a new research commission tasked with using Facebook data to analyze the role of social media on elections and democracy.

Interestingly, the term "fake news" appeared in Foundation Center's grants database as far back as 2006-07 in descriptions of two grants awarded to the Center for Media and Democracy, a nationally recognized watchdog that tracks the role of money in U.S. politics. It wasn't until 2017, however, that the term began appearing in grant descriptions on a regular basis. The largest recent grant referencing "fake news" was awarded by the Ford Foundation in 2017 to the First Draft project at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Media in support of the project's efforts to study the impact of fake news and "fight mis- and disinformation online."

Philanthropy also actively supports "truth in media" organizations situated at different points on the political spectrum. Since 2016, we've tracked $4 million in grants awarded to the Reston, Virginia-based Media Research Center, whose mission is "to expose and neutralize the propaganda arm of the Left." Over the same period, we've also identified $5.2 million in foundation grants to D.C.-based Media Matters to America, a "progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media."

Given the increased focus on the role that media plays in our democracy, it's interesting to note that when we first began to talk to foundations about funding for a democracy portal and associated grants classification framework in 2013, the question of whether to include a category for media was hotly debated among funders who supported the project. Some democracy funders viewed media as an entirely separate program area within their grantmaking portfolios. Despite some pretty vehement objections, the group ultimately decided to include a category for media in the taxonomy. (It's doubtful any such objection regarding inclusion of the term would be raised today.)

Immigrant Civil Rights and Rapid Response. In the summer of 2018, several foundations mobilized to respond to the Trump administration’s family separation policy by providing funding for immigrant legal services as well as financial support for broader litigation aimed at ending family separation and similar policies. Funders such as the James Irvine Foundation and the Boston-based Barr Foundation announced a series of grants aimed at providing legal representation for affected immigrants, while Borealis Philanthropy, a philanthropic intermediary that partners with grantmakers to expand their reach and impact, issued a request for proposals for its Immigration Litigation Fund, a funder collaborative established to ensure that the nation's immigration enforcement system is fair, humane, and prioritizes the civil and human rights of those vulnerable to deportation.

Philanthropic mobilization in response to the administration’s family separation policy reflects a broader trend of the Trump era (particularly with respect to civil and political rights) in which foundations are experimenting with various methods to get resources to those who need them quickly through rapid-response funds. The Emergent Fund, a funder collaborative developed after the 2016 presidential election to respond to challenges to the civil and human rights of minority populations in the U.S., is one such example, as is the Pop Culture Collaborative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to catalyzing "just and authentic narratives about people of color, Muslims, immigrants, and refugees through entertainment and mass media."

At the same time, it would be a mistake to assume that all (or even a majority of) U.S. foundations are pro-immigration. Indeed, general operating support provided over many years to nonprofits such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies, and Numbers USA has helped these organizations position themselves as key influencers with respect to Trump administration immigration policies. Similarly, the D.C.-based Federalist Society, long a favorite grantee of conservative-leaning foundations, has become, for both the administration and Republicans in Congress, the go-to source for lists of reliably conservative judicial nominees.

Impact of Philanthropy on Democracy and Public Policy. A relevant meta-level trend (if not a funding trend, exactly) is the increasing concern caused by the growth of big-dollar philanthropy in the U.S. generally, and its impact more specifically on public policy and our democratic institutions. Prominent voices in that conversation include Stanford professor Rob Reich, journalist Anand Giridharadas (author, most recently, of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World), and Inside Philanthropy founder and editor David Callahan (author of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age).

The contention that private foundations are an inherently undemocratic form used by multi-millionaires and billionaires to avoid taxes, circumvent government, and shape American society more to their liking coexists with the view that foundations — with their flexible resources free from market, electoral, and fundraising pressures — are part of the solution to the problems of democracy in the twenty-first century, rather than the problem. Regardless of where you land on the issue, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy is a good starting point for anyone who'd like to learn more about what funders are actually doing to shape and strengthen democracy and democratic institutions in the United States.

As always, feel free to share your comments and feedback below. In our next post, we'll take a closer look at U.S. foundation support for climate change-related efforts.

Larry McGill is vice president of knowledge services and Anna Koob is a manager of knowledge services at Foundation Center. The center would like to thank the King Baudouin Foundation for support that helped make this series possible, as well as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Democracy Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Rita Allen Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for their support of the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy site.

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