23 posts categorized "U.S. Democracy"

Taking Civic Engagement to the Next Level

November 17, 2015

Several years ago, a colleague applied for a position at a large foundation that had just launched a democracy program. Ten minutes into the interview, he was told that because of his lack of experience in campaign finance reform and voter participation, he wasn't qualified. Mystified, he replied that he had more than two decades of democracy experience that was about as direct you could get: working with thousands of people in communities to address the same kinds of issues being debated in the halls of Congress.

Luckily he got the job. Still, it underscores how the millions of dollars many foundations have poured into get-out-the vote and electoral reform efforts are often seen as a proxy for democracy. Today, this work is still a top priority for foundations, with almost $300 million going to 738 organizations over the last few years that fall under the “campaigns, elections, and voting” category in Foundation Center's new Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool.

That makes sense. Voting is the cornerstone of American democracy. It's a concrete action that people can take to civically engage, and it's measurable.

But what happens after the votes are counted? There's mountains of evidence showing that Americans continue to opt out of the political system; in 2014 alone, voter turnout for the midterm elections was the lowest it has been in any election cycle since World War II.

It's easy to wag a finger at the disengaged and call them "cynical." What's harder is accepting the idea that this "cynicism" represents legitimate frustration over what many Americans see as a broken system that hasn't invited them to participate in meaningful ways. And even when they do engage, many people feel their voice counts for little. As a result, more and more Americans are turning away from traditional political systems and embracing activities where they think they can make at least a small difference such as volunteering, "clicktivism," and charitable giving.

The good news is that foundations appear to be increasing their support for broader civic participation, seeing it as important as elections and voting in defining what constitutes a robust democracy. Indeed, according to the center's database, civic participation receives the majority of democracy-related funding, with more than $853 million in grants made since 2011.

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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.

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Voter Turnout: A Linchpin of American Democracy

November 03, 2015

Voter turnout in the last midterm election was embarrassing, hitting the lowest levels since World War II, while statements like "the game is rigged" and "why bother" could be heard in conversations around the country.

But it does matter. It matters to the effectiveness of our democracy if the majority of people stay home on Election Day. And it matters to the future of our democracy if most Americans think of government as an inefficient "other" rather than something we create.

While running an organization focused on engaging young people in politics, I was privileged to be able to travel the world and speak with other organizational and state leaders on the topic of democracy. Those trips never failed to remind me that, in the U.S., we are lucky to have a robust nonprofit sector with nongovernmental and nonpartisan organizations dedicated to promoting the health of the country and democracy, as well as an equally robust foundation community that supports them. Collaboration among foundations supporting democracy-focused work in the U.S., combined with creative and rigorously evaluated work by nonprofits, is a critical part of solving the crisis that faces our nation as citizens stop participating and give up on — rather than try to improve — the government we have created over the last two hundred and twenty-eight years.

So, I was struck by the data I turned up when searching Foundation Center's Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool. For example, funding for the entire category of "Campaigns, Elections, and Voting" lagged far behind funding in any other category, making up only 8 percent of the total funding for U.S. democracy in 2011 and 14 percent in 2012. The three other main categories (Media, Government, and Civic Participation) comprising the U.S. democracy funding landscape (as defined by the tool) received 41 percent, 30 percent, and 31 percent of funds, respectively, in 2011 and similar percentages in 2012. And this was during a presidential election cycle. (Note: grants may support democracy work in more than one area; therefore, totals for the major areas of activity exceed 100 percent.)

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Break it down further and you find:

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Philanthropic Dollars Also Shape Electoral Outcomes: Here's How…

October 27, 2015

With another presidential campaign season under way, we're again hearing a lot about the mega donors and Super PACs that fuel modern politics. But this isn't the only stream of money that influences how elections unfold in the U.S.; philanthropic dollars also play a key role, with foundations supporting a range of activities that affect how our democracy functions and what happens at the polls.

Understanding the flow of these grants isn't just helpful for nonprofits hoping to get a piece of the pie. It's also super useful for journalists or others keen to see how foundations — which, by law must be nonpartisan — are deploying funds in ways that can sway electoral outcomes.

Let's take the area of voter education, registration, and turnout as an example. It's no secret that who turns out to vote, and where, can make a big difference in determining which candidates win on Election Day. If more African Americans turn out in swing states like Florida or North Carolina, for instance, that's good news for Democrats. If the electorate tilts toward older and white voters, Republicans stand to gain.

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Campaigns and Super PACs spend mightily to shape who votes. But what have foundations been doing? Well, Foundation Center's newly launched Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool offers some answers to that question.

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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.

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Funding the Voter Participation Spectrum

October 13, 2015

The fiercely contested American presidential election of 2000 laid bare the different ways in which voters can be disenfranchised: faulty voting machines, poor ballot design, uncounted ballots, and needless barriers to voter registration, to name a few. And, of course, the winner of the election wasn't determined by ballot but by the U.S. Supreme Court a month after the election itself.

In the decade and a half since, voting rights advocates, funders, and various elected officials have promoted reforms that make it easier to register and cast a ballot. These well-intentioned actors are operating under a classic economic theory: if we lower the costs associated with a transaction (i.e., voting), more people will avail themselves of it. But is it that simple? My research supports the theory — new, more accessible ways to register and vote do indeed have a positive impact on voter participation, but only to a point. And election reform is only one step in a continuum of activities that must take place if voter participation is to increase, especially among current non-voters.

Putting this into action requires a new way of thinking about funding. More than ever, it means we need to think about increasing voter turnout as a coordinated process — with the passage of inclusive, pro-voter reform as just one step in that process, not the ending point. The crucial steps that funders and the organizations they fund must be aware of and integrate into a holistic strategy if they hope to really boost turnout include:

  • Researching the most effective reforms and activities for increasing participation;
  • Educating voters and organizations about why voting is important and how it relates to issues that affect them, the voting process, and the availability of new methods of participation (i.e., early voting) and how to make use of them;
  • Organizing and mobilizing people at the state and local level to actively take advantage of new, more accessible voting options;
  • Pursuing legal strategies to ensure that the right to vote is upheld in every jurisdiction; and
  • Sustaining voter engagement into the future as younger generations reach voting age.

What's more, these steps cannot be treated as discrete activities by those interested in promoting and advancing voting rights, including funders.

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To Strengthen Democracy in America, Think Tech

October 06, 2015

A decade-and-a-half into the digital century, the vast majority of large foundations concerned with strengthening American democracy don't seem to get tech. According to the new Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool recently launched by Foundation Center, out of a total of 18,446 grants awarded since 2011 by more than 1,300 funders focused on the broad range of issues and efforts related to democracy, just 962 have been focused on technology.

What's more, that represents only $215 million out of a total of $2.435 billion awarded to study and/or reform campaigns, elections, and voting systems; expand civic participation; research or upgrade government performance; and/or study the workings of the media and improve public access to media. The Foundation Center tool also reveals that the universe of foundations making technology-related grants is much smaller, at 186, than the overall funder pool, as is the recipient base.

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Money, Data, and Democracy

September 29, 2015

The U.S. presidential election is thirteen months away. At this point, more than fifty candidates are vying for nomination by the two major parties. The field includes the lone member of the United States Senate to stand as a Socialist and a New York City businessman who has four corporate bankruptcy filings to his name. Members of the voting public may be said to fall into two camps at this point — political junkies who simply cannot ever get enough of campaign politics and the majority of Americans who plan to tune in about a year from now. The former group is hell-bent on getting enough attention from the latter to raise the country's dismal voting percentage to its presidential-election average, which hovers around 60 percent (ten points lower than the average for OECD countries).

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Voter turnout is a big deal. Not just to political junkies and clipboard-wielding party volunteers but also to American foundations. According to Foundation Center's newest mapping tool, Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy, 180 foundations have spent more than $150 million on voter education, registration, and turnout since 2011, a period that includes one presidential and one midterm election.

Seems like a lot of money to get Americans to do what people in many other countries die for. But we're good at spending a lot of money on our democracy. Even this early in the campaign, big donors are talking big numbers, promising (threatening?) to spend $100 million or more each on their favorite candidates or issues. And political junkies are predicting that more than $4.4 billion will be spent on TV ads alone — while election spending in total could run as high as $10 billion. Suddenly, nearly $150 million of foundation funding over four years doesn't look so big in comparison to $10 billion for a single election cycle.

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