The foundation and grants data captured on the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy site represent a spectrum of strategies designed to help the democratic process in this country live up to our lofty ideals. They also represent the best of philanthropy: foundations using their unique freedom and flexibility to tackle long-term challenges that markets are ill equipped to address or solve. If democracy is the operating system of American society, it badly needs an upgrade, and a growing number of foundations are doing something about it.
In recent years, only 40 percent of the voting eligible population has bothered to vote in midterm elections, a number that jumps to 60 percent in presidential election years. It is not, as this infographic suggests, because U.S. foundations have ignored the issue. Indeed, since 2011, foundations have made grants totaling more than $3 billion in support of U.S. democracy.
Few things in the life of our nation serve to heighten awareness of particular social issues and causes more than a presidential election cycle. And given the historic (and boisterous) nature of this particular cycle, my research team and I wanted to understand how – if at all – millennials' philanthropic interests and engagement might change in response to the campaigns mounted by various major-party candidates, and whether these changes were influenced by demographic factors such as gender, age, and political ideology.
In the opening words of a famous political science textbook from decades ago, democracy is about "who gets what, when and why." We can apply the same question to the work of foundations and the nonprofits, universities, and agencies that together work to strengthen American democracy: Who gets what? Foundation Center's mapping of funding for democracy in the U.S. is one innovative way to answer that question.
The last five years have seen a tug-of-war over the future of our democracy. At odds are forces that want to restrict access to political participation and others who seek to open it in hopes of increasing the number of Americans who cast ballots. After the 2010 election, the war on voting rights intensified with the adoption of laws that curbed participation through voter ID laws in a number of states and cutbacks on early voting opportunities in others.
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, civic participation receives the majority of democracy-related funding, with more than $853 million in grants made since 2011.
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.
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.
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.
Democracy requires constant vigilance. Too often, however, our liberty is taken for granted. Unless we vehemently protect it, democracy will perish.