We Can’t Quit Now! Making the Case to Double Down on Democracy

Courtesy of the Movement Voter Project

This past year has been one of landmark success for our democracy, despite (or perhaps to some extent because of) the uphill battle the pandemic presented in a presidential election year. In the fall we shared the Woodcock Foundation’s decision to increase our grantmaking budget in order to promote democracy and support organizations as they pivoted from traditional canvassing and other in-person voter engagement efforts towards innovative tactics in a year when it felt like everything was on the line. We were not alone. Alongside Woodcock, a handful of foundations and many individuals leveraged the expertise of the advisory council for One for Democracy (O4D), an initiative that sprang up last year to mobilize and offer strategic support to funders like us who were looking to make big bets on protecting and expanding our democracy. O4D helped move $70 million to organizations in the field amidst a landscape of record-breaking election spending, which led to record-breaking voter turnout, with notably high turnout in historically marginalized communities. Then again, with the Senate composition on the line, organizations in Georgia had huge fundraising success and ran voter engagement programs for another record-breaking turnout in the Senate runoff election.

It’s tempting to celebrate a job well done and turn our attention back to the other programs on our dockets pre-2020. But to do so would be to ignore the most exciting lesson coming out of our efforts—and the ongoing threat of progress being washed away. Philanthropy’s major push to support organizations ranging from national legal organizations to hyper-local grassroots groups getting out the vote in their communities taught us that supporting democracy works! We’re also seeing the backlash, with hundreds of state-level voter suppression laws being introduced around the country. So while democracy prevailed in 2020, the hard work continues.

When we made our democracy grants in 2020, the Woodcock Foundation had intended to make a one-time commitment of over 1% of the foundation’s assets. This year, our Trustees have decided to launch a new program area focused on voter engagement and enfranchisement. We have an opportunity to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle of funding for Get Out The Vote (GOTV) groups and other organizations that fight every year to protect our democracy—not just in election years. If we all commit to continued funding, these organizations can build a solid footing, work strategically in non-election years as well as in election years, provide more stable, quality jobs to organizers who have relationships in the communities where they work, and no longer operate according to the chaotic nature of infusions of funding that only occur a few months before major elections.

If you’re not a democracy funder, you may be wondering what exactly the myriad of local, state, and federal organizations are working on in times when there isn’t an election at stake. I’ll offer a few examples from among the challenges, solutions, organizations, and strategies I’ve been learning more about.

The Brennan Center reports that legislative efforts to restrict voter access primarily fall in four areas: “(1) limit mail voting access; (2) impose stricter voter ID requirements; (3) slash voter registration opportunities; and (4) enable more aggressive voter roll purges.” On the flip side are efforts to expand voting access, largely focused on expanding access to mail and absentee voting, early voting, and easier voter registration. There are organizations working on these issues across the country, to educate and mobilize the public around state legislation.  Right now there’s also a unique opportunity in the form of the For The People Act, which many see as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to support transformative voter protection and expansion at the federal level. Voting access restrictions and expansions tend to impact BIPOC communities most, and there are many BIPOC-led organizations leading voter advocacy efforts. O4D has directed our attention to organizations like the New Georgia Project and Arizona Center for Empowerment that are building public support and deploying other strategies related to legislation that impacts voting access.

Disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people is another key barrier to voting access. Many organizations are focused on restoring the right to vote for individuals with past convictions. Woodcock is a supporter of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC), which championed voting access for Florida citizens with past convictions leading up to the passage of Florida’s Amendment 4. FRRC has continued to work on implementation and providing support for returning citizens to ensure voting access and build a cadre of informed, directly impacted advocates for change. Many states still have laws that restrict the right to vote for individuals with convictions, and among the many organizations working to restore those rights or support impacted people to ensure they vote are Voice of the Experienced in New Orleans, where rights were restored in 2019, and Black Voters Matter in Alabama and numerous other states where rights have yet to be restored.

Another body of work focuses on redistricting and related efforts to change how presidential electors are allocated. The redistricting landscape this year is complicated by delayed release of census data caused by COVID. With much attention on Georgia earlier this year, organizations like Fair Count and its sister organizations founded by Stacey Abrams have been in the spotlight. Fair Count’s work goes well beyond this past January’s election, and redistricting will be a key focus for this year’s workplan.

In addition to local and state organizations, numerous intermediary nonprofits, such as the Center for Secure and Modern Elections (CSME), the Movement Voter Project, the Democracy Fund, and more recently One for Democracy, are playing different roles in evaluating strategic opportunities to advance our democracy and distribute funding to groups on the ground in the best position to effect change. Some of these organizations publish impact stories, grantee highlights, or lists of their grantees online, which create a fuller picture of where these groups operate and what their work involves.

Beyond grassroots organizers and other state-based groups, and the intermediaries that do a combination of research and regranting to support them, there’s another level of institutions engaged in research and infrastructure-building activities that inform the strategies and plans of others in the field. The Brennan Center, a law and policy center focused on designing and advancing reforms that uphold justice and democracy in America, has been a key resource for me (which you may have guessed by the multiple references I’ve made to their data and resources). There’s also Demos, a democracy “think-and-do” tank that just launched The Inclusive Democracy Agenda, naming a constitutional right to vote, enfranchisement for all, and universal voter registration among others as key steps to ensuring that all people can thrive in our democracy.

There are opportunities for funders with varying levels of capacity to engage in support of our democracy. At Woodcock, we’ve organized our thinking across three tiers. The first is what we’re considering to be funder-facing intermediaries like O4D and Movement Voter Project. For funders with limited internal resources to build a strategic democracy program, these organizations can be great partners who can use internal expertise to deploy funds quickly and strategically. For funders with specific goals within voter protection and expansion but still in the context of limited capacity, intermediaries that focus on particular geographies, stakeholders, or strategies can be a good fit. Black Voters Matter is an example in this tier, with its focus on black voters in a handful of mostly Southern states. For funders with the time and resources to develop a tailored program, going straight to state-based organizing groups may be the right approach, especially for funders looking to be catalytic with small to mid-sized grants. For those with significant resources to put into their programs, supporting research and infrastructure-building institutions may be the best fit.

As a final note, the list of organizations mentioned here just scratches the surface and is not meant to be an endorsement over the many other organizations doing critical work to protect and expand our democracy. Rather, it’s meant to point out just how much there is to do, and to encourage funders to continue to support progressive democracy, so that we can build on the successes of the past year, strengthen the field, and continue the trajectory of success!

Stacey Faella is the Executive Director of the Woodcock Foundation.

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.