Protecting Democracy through Collaborative Philanthropy

I voted sticker - Democracy

In early April, when the turmoil of COVID-19 had gripped New York City, where the Woodcock Foundation is based, the foundation called an emergency virtual board meeting. The purpose was to discuss the implications of the pandemic on our programs, the steps we were taking to check in on and help ensure the stability of our grantees, and brainstorm ideas for what more the foundation could do to further its mission in a time of crisis.

What about our democracy?

After talking about issues from food access in communities across the US to the impact of travel bans on our grantees with an international footprint, our trustees asked a critical question: What about our democracy? We were in a presidential election year, and even before the pandemic hit, we were facing a crisis of democracy. The pandemic would only exacerbate this, turning traditional voter engagement efforts on their head. Knocking on a stranger’s door and having a face-to-face conversation was no longer possible.

Not long after COVID-19 began spreading, a series of police brutality events rocked our nation, putting a renewed spotlight on racial injustice in this country. As one crisis crashed into another, we felt a heightened sense of the importance of investing in our democracy and of the value of leveraging experienced decision makers who were attuned to approaches from local, grassroots organizing to national legal advocacy. In a democracy, you have a voice through your vote, and reaching every individual in every community in America to ensure that their vote was protected—and that they were mobilized and empowered to exercise their right to vote—felt more critical than ever.

Our trustees firmly believed that supporting efforts to protect and expand our democracy through strategic voter engagement and education was one of the best uses of additional foundation resources this year. The question at hand was where to allocate the funds. Who was doing the most strategic work, what states and communities had critical gaps to fill for voter engagement efforts? As a family foundation, Woodcock benefited from the ability to be nimble and responsive. We also faced a challenge common to all but the biggest foundations: limited capacity to research a new program area and make strategic decisions on an issue where time was of the essence.

Initially, our small staff jumped into conversations and research on key states, grassroots organizations, and innovative digital tactics for voter engagement; we quickly realized that learning enough to make the best bets on our own on a month’s notice was going to be a heavy lift. Building a knowledge base on a new program area usually involved talking to experts on the ground as well as other funders and getting to know organizations over a time horizon that we couldn’t afford. So how could Woodcock move quickly to make strategic grants that would fill critical gaps and get the most leverage in the field to protect and expand voter rights and education?

Leveraging a Collaborative

We found the solution by tapping into our peer network and making a decision to join a collaborative effort launched by another foundation. Our team recently connected with Galaxy Gives, a social justice philanthropy that, like Woodcock, believes that to move the needle on all issues we care about, we must have a strong and healthy democracy where peoples’ voices can be heard and our elected officials are accountable to their constituents. We learned from them about the One for Democracy (O4D) pledge, through which Galaxy Gives was encouraging families and individuals to commit 1% of their assets to protecting and expanding our democracy in 2020. The O4D pledge aims to “put gasoline on what’s working” and most in need of funding, leveraging its advisory board of experienced democracy funders to build grantee pipelines and collectively make decisions. Woodcock was facing a capacity challenge, and in front of us was a philanthropy collaborative that enabled us to put our financial resources in the hands of experts with an ability to make highly informed and strategic decisions about the most effective use of every dollar. The advisory board pools in-depth political analysis and aggregated polling to assess local, statewide, and national movement ecosystems; decide on key priorities; and distribute funds to a range of organizations in communities across the US.

Woodcock took the O4D pledge, and less than three months after our board decided to support efforts to bolster our democracy in 2020, we deployed 1% of our assets, splitting them between the One for Democracy Fund and the Movement Voter Project, another organization with deep field knowledge and emphasis on hyperlocal organizing, whose founder is also on the O4D advisory board. Both of these regranting organizations pay particular attention to the impacts of COVID-19 and to groups that are organizing and mobilizing people in BIPOC communities. Beyond the one percent, we also made a new grant to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to support its efforts to engage formerly incarcerated people in the wake of the state’s landmark legislation to restore their right to vote.

Join Us in the Fight for Democracy

As an early institutional signer, we’re encouraging other foundations to take the pledge and mobilize every extra dollar you can to support our democracy. The pledge is specific but flexible; those who sign on are committing to dedicate 1% of their assets to organizations fighting for democracy—and determining what organizations fit the criteria is at the discretion of each funder. The O4D Advisory Board is happy to provide direction to those looking for decision-making support. To date, there are nearly 100 pledges, and O4D has moved $45 million dollars to the field. The goal is to get to $100 million in pledged funds, so there’s still a big gap to fill—and a real need in the field. We’ll be co-hosting a Zoom meeting with O4D on September 30th, which is a great opportunity to learn more.

We see a critical need to restore faith in our democracy and support efforts that make it easier for all Americans to actively participate in our electoral process. If you agree and want to help fill the gaps in the field, there’s still time—but not much. Join us today and take the pledge!

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.