How donors can work together to defend American democracy

Collaborative giving vehicles offer donors a place to start or expand their giving to protect and strengthen democracy.
I voted stickers
By Element5 Digital via Unsplash

It’s a presidential election year, and elections—especially this one—matter a lot to the stability and health of our democracy. No doubt your inbox is chock-full of requests for donations to candidates and your newsfeed is awash in messages about ways dollars are, or are not, moving in advance of the election.

We want to draw attention to a different need for philanthropic dollars. This is the need for resources to strengthen and advance towards a more inclusive and resilient American democracy. It’s the important work that pro-democracy and civic engagement organizations do, before and after election days, no matter the result. It’s the longer-term work in states and communities across the country, to help ensure free and fair elections, build effective government institutions and leadership, foster community engagement, and strengthen trusted media and information systems.

And this is urgent work in an election year, where philanthropic dollars often move too late to be useful to strengthen democracy building efforts. The signers of the All by April Campaign, which includes the Democracy Fund, Open Society, The JPB Foundation and more than 100 others, have issued a call to action to act now and give more.

Philanthropic funding for democracy work is often overshadowed by political funding focused on specific candidates or winning specific elections. In the runup to the 2022 midterms, campaigns and outside groups spent $8.9 billion—almost equaling all the philanthropic dollars for democracy work in the five years between 2016 and 2020.

We know that many donors understand how critical defending our democracy is to a functioning society—and in fact how critical it is to all the other issue areas they care about, from climate change to education to public health. But it can be hard for donors—often those without staff—to wade through the complex landscape and identify how best to use their scarce dollars to support a strengthened democracy.

Collaborative giving vehicles—funds, re-grantors, and others—offer donors a place to start or expand their giving to protect and strengthen democracy. We wrote “The power of collaborative philanthropy: Giving together to strengthen American democracy” to provide an introduction to these organizations. The benefits such funds offer in democracy are efficiency and effectiveness, the opportunity to give while learning within a community of donors, and of course, the chance to direct funding at a greater scale by partnering with others. In particular,

  • Donor collaboratives in democracy can be nimble—moving money when and where it needs to go. For example, The Movement Voter Fund researches and identifies giving opportunities to grassroots groups all over the country that are focused on expanding and strengthening democracy by engaging those most disenfranchised.
  • They can identify strong organizations that might be hard for individual donors to find on their own, especially grassroots organizations led by leaders who are rooted in their communities and know how to get tangible results. For example, through the AAPI Civic Engagement Fund funders are giving together to support grassroots state and local organizations in mobilizing Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), who in 2020 demonstrated the biggest growth in voter turnout among all racial groups, up 39% from the 2016 election. Almost a quarter of these were first-time voters.
  • The work to strengthen democracy requires long-term investments, which individual donors might not be willing to commit to alone. Collaboratives can help to direct funds toward long-term efforts, including strategies that may not show results immediately, but could have an enormous impact later. For example, the Trust For Civic Life is a new philanthropic collaborative that supports local initiatives to bring residents together to solve community challenges. It seeks to connect national and regional philanthropy with rural efforts that strengthen bonds, civic engagement, and “everyday democracy.”

Bursts of funding to elect candidates and pass ballot measures will never be sufficient in the fight to strengthen our democracy. Often those dollars go to media efforts or other short-term uses that vaporize after an election. For those who want to see reform and a more resilient democracy, donor collaboratives offer one promising pathway to get involved and increase their giving.

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