For many, this moment can feel overwhelming and even paralyzing. From climate crises to the opioid epidemic and growing social divides, it can seem impossible to prioritize our philanthropic efforts.
As president of a national foundation focused on the health of the American political system, I receive calls daily from family philanthropists who have added the health of our democracy to their list of worries—a topic which many of us thought we didn’t have to worry about. Now more than ever, Americans see the fabric of our country being torn apart. Philanthropists realize that the issues we care about—education, poverty, health care—ultimately tie back to and depend on the strength of our political system.
This is not a partisan statement. While many of our priorities rely on policy change at the state and federal level, change does not only occur through government intervention. A functioning democracy—in which the rule of law is assured, people trust government to reliably deliver on its promises, and people feel safe and supported within their communities—is the bedrock of a system capable of ensuring all types of human flourishing. Unless we improve and maintain the health of our democracy, it will be difficult to move forward on any of the other issues that concern us.
Yet, at a time when the challenges facing our federal government are so large, many of the philanthropists I speak to are unsure how to move forward as we attempt to balance short term urgencies with long term needs. Traditionally, those families have sought to influence our democracy through mechanisms such as contributions to political campaigns or supporting local community service. For a variety of reasons, it is now clear that these tactics are not enough. The good news is that there are many things that philanthropy can do to make a difference.
Local Action, National Impact
At Democracy Fund, we work to ensure that Americans have the information they need, that they are able to play an active role in the public life of our nation, and that they can rely on our government to deliver on its commitments to the public. While much of our focus is on the national level, many of our grantees work in local communities across the country. When I speak to family foundations looking to make a difference in our current political crisis, it is there, at the local level, that I point them to in order to have the greatest immediate impact. Fixing our democratic system and our frayed social fabric requires interventions at many levels—but it’s at the local scale, in our communities, where trust can be rebuilt.
Our interactions with local institutions like town halls, post offices, and DMVs are where most Americans experience our government and how it functions firsthand—and influence their views of the government more broadly. If we focus on lifting local communities, making sure local institutions are fulfilling their obligations to the public, and empowering change within communities, these small changes can be weaved together to remake the fabric of our society at large. And, when so much attention goes into the fight for—and the fight in—Washington, communities are often where family philanthropists can do the most with their dollars.
Fortunately, the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented to do so. Examples abound of projects and groups hard at work protecting and strengthening all facets of our democracy at the local level—whether it’s supporting local journalism to ensure people have the information they need, working with state and local election administrators so all eligible voters can cast their votes without barriers, or training local and state legislators to ensure they have the skills and tools necessary to represent their constituents effectively. Countless others work to rebuild social ties through stalwart local institutions like schools and religious institutions.
The annual Newsmatch campaign, for example, makes it easy to find and support local nonprofit journalism by pooling gifts from local and national funders—including family foundations like Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, and the Dirk and Natasha Ziff Family Foundation—to match small-dollar donations to nonprofit newsrooms across the country. Family foundations also participate in regional efforts across the country from the Gates Foundation’s support of the Colorado Media Project—which develops partnerships and programs to increase local newsroom capacity, collaboration and community engagement across the state—to the Park and Prentice Foundations’ support of the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund—a group of local and national funders that work together to support and strengthen local news in the state to provide North Carolinians with news and information they need to participate fully in their communities and our democracy.
Our government was designed to have interlocking systems at the local, state and federal levels. To improve its function, philanthropy must adopt this same approach. Our democracy is not well served by a philanthropic community paralyzed by the crises in Washington or focused solely on past efforts to improve our democracy. Rather, we too must function as a multi-layered system, with foundations working in parallel with different assets and skills to address our democracy’s challenges.
It is incumbent upon us to set up and maintain strong networks for learning to pull the threads across our work. For our part, Democracy Fund is committed to be a resource for our philanthropic peers on these issues. We are committed to learning from the experiences of those working on the local scale and across sectors. Our responses in philanthropy across all sectors and organizational sizes, mimicking the balance and symbiosis at local regional and national levels of government, are a key to healthy democracy.