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Funding for Democracy and Participatory Grantmaking: Two Sides of the Same Coin

November 29, 2018

In the wake of the U.S. midterms, it's easy to feel good about democracy and democratic practice. For those of us who were able to, exercising one’s right to vote can feel energizing. And the ubiquity of the 'I Voted' sticker on social media platforms offers a nice counterpoint to the all-too-common assertion that democracy is dying.

Trends cited as evidence of democracy's demise — dwindling participation in civic life, attacks on the press meant to undermine its legitimacy, the proliferation of digital disinformation, the rise of authoritarianism in formerly democratic countries — have been joined by renewed scrutiny of philanthropy, which finds itself under fire (once again) for being an anti-democratic tool of wealthy elites intent on shaping the world to their benefit. This criticism, however, exists alongside the reality that there are foundations funding efforts to strengthen democracy and loosen the grip of elite interests on the levers of power.


Indeed, there's a substantial amount of philanthropic grantmaking informed by a belief that democracy is worth saving. At Foundation Center, we've captured this funding for the United States in a data tool, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, that we developed in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Open Society Foundations, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Democracy Fund, and the Hewlett, JPB, MacArthur, and Rita Allen foundations. The platform makes publicly available information on 57,000+ grants awarded by more than 6,000 foundations since 2011 in support of democracy, including efforts to foster an engaged and informed public and promote government accountability, as well as funding for policy research and advocacy.

Grants that meet Foundation Center criteria are included in the platform regardless of whether a grantmaker self-identifies as a "democracy funder." And grants are not limited to a particular segment of the political spectrum. On the platform, you'll find grants awarded to the Young America’s Foundation, which is "committed to ensuring that increasing numbers of young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values," alongside grants to People for the American Way, which was "founded to fight right-wing extremism and defend constitutional values under attack, including free expression, religious liberty, equal justice under the law, and the right to meaningfully participate in our democracy."

Across the four major funding categories represented in the tool — Campaigns, Elections, and Voting; Civic Participation; Government; and Media — you'll also find support for activities that challenge the status quo in the U.S. and run counter to the interests of the power elite.

Examples include a $400,000 grant awarded by the Democracy Fund in 2017 to provide general operating support to Issue One, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated "to fixing our broken political system and strengthening our democracy"; a $30,000 grant from the Consumer Health Foundation in 2016 to Virginia Organizing in support of that organization's advocacy efforts aimed at engaging the Latino community and other immigrant populations in healthcare reform in Virginia; and a $30,000 grant awarded by the Altman Foundation to ProPublica in 2017 in support of the nonprofit investigative journalism organization’s reporting on public institutions in New York State.

Funding efforts aimed at encouraging civic participation or promoting greater public accountability is one philanthropic approach to supporting democracy. Another, participatory grantmaking, looks to democratize philanthropy and philanthropic practice itself. As defined in an expansive guide on the topic recently released by GrantCraft, participatory grantmakers cede decision-making power about funding — including the strategy and criteria behind those decisions — to the very communities they aim to serve.

Final_Guide_CoverParticipatory grantmaking can take many forms — and we've collected detailed descriptions of the different models here. But at its heart, the practice operates on the principle that those affected by funding decisions have a right to make those decisions. By putting the expertise of those with lived experience at the center of the grantmaking process, participatory grantmaking affirms and supports the value of civic engagement.

Democracy funders and participatory grantmakers do not necessarily see themselves as peers: the former is largely comprised of more traditional funders (see a list of top funders in the data set), while the latter are largely — though not exclusively — smaller, cross-border or community-focused social justice funds. But both operate from a similar set of principles — that there's a democracy deficit in the public sector, the philanthropic sector, and society more broadly, and that the solution to closing those deficits includes increased participation.

The perceived divide between the two types of funders breaks down further when one observes that many participatory grantmakers are, in fact, democracy funders. And that participatory grantmaking processes often result in grants awarded to support greater civic engagement — a sort of democracy multiplier effect! Examples of grants made by participatory grantmakers in support of civic participation include:

Foundations that consider themselves to be democracy funders by virtue of their outward-focused grantmaking could take a page from the participatory grantmaking playbook and incorporate the values of transparency, inclusivity, and representativeness in their own internal practices. But being participatory involves more than just ticking a box, and the prospect of figuring out how and where to start can be overwhelming. Commitments to living one's values can be difficult on an individual level (just ask me how my efforts to shop less on Amazon.com are going), while implementing change at the organizational level is always daunting.

Recognizing that it's not feasible or even desirable for every funder to adopt the practice, the GrantCraft guide offers some suggestions on where to start:

  • Begin with a single program.
  • Support research and knowledge-sharing around the practice.
  • Where goals overlap, fund participatory grantmakers who have established trust with a community and have been honing their processes for years.

Though it may seems like a contradiction in terms, a belief in the value of democratic and inclusive practices cuts across all kinds of foundations, even those whose origin stories start with the accumulation of vast wealth by a single entrepreneur. Not that these foundations always live up to these values, or that funding democracy inevitably leads to a stronger, more participatory democracy. One thing is clear, however: our chances of achieving that goal are much greater when democracy funders and participatory grantmakers see each other as allies.

Anna Koob is a knowledge services manager at Foundation Center. Headshot_anna_koob

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