Grantmakers Need to Help Fix American Democracy

The still-fragile economy is a continuing challenge for grant makers and the organizations they support. But they must really focus their attention on a much more unsettling problem: Our democracy seems to be going bankrupt.


The tenor of political debate in this election year is certainly an indicator. But the problems go deeper. The failure of American politics places a heavy burden on nonprofits and foundations to change our ways and take a close look at what we can do together, ideally across ideological lines, to preserve the key institutions of democratic life that have taken a serious beating in recent years. We need to climb out of the silos that isolate us and focus our money and attention on what matters. Among the causes that must be high on every grant maker’s agenda:


Restore facts and evidence to their primary role by advancing the institutions that educate the public and policy makers. Organizations that promote the integrity of science, numbers, and critical thinking face serious threats to their well-being.


The research capacity of America’s public colleges has been endangered by budget cuts and political interference, and the diversity of their student bodies has been weakened by tuition increases and cuts in loan programs that push college further from reach for low- and middle-income students.


Academic freedom, vital to the search for truth, can only be protected by a wall between higher education and politics. Academic access can only be protected by a broadly shared public recognition that higher education is not a luxury but essential to a functioning democracy and a thriving economy, and that the investment in it pays dividends in the future of the country.


Another set of institutions in peril is the newspapers and other independent media sources we count on to cover the stories most critical to democracy—from what’s going on in statehouses and city halls to what’s going on on Wall Street and Main Street. A promising breed of nonprofit news-gathering organizations has sprung up that deserve foundation support. The philanthropists Marion and Herbert Sandler have made a substantial gift to start ProPublica (on whose board I serve), and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supports Web-based regional news organizations like Voice of San Diego.


Protect and preserve the basic rules of democracy. Elections are meant, of course, to be partisan, with different worldviews and programs contesting for voters. But the system in which these contests take place should not be rigged for partisan gain.


That means independent redistricting to assure elections are resolved at the ballot box, not in smoke-filled (or at least they used to be smoke-filled) committee chambers. It also means fair legislative rules—like an end to the filibuster, which in the U.S. Senate has allowed a handful of senators to block or unduly influence widely supported legislation. And it means an end to interference with voting itself through the resurgence of proposals to require identification at the polls. Grant makers can support advocacy groups that put the pressure on policy makers to make redistricting transparent and fair.


The low rate of voting in the United States should be an embarrassment to this country. That we should be seeing efforts designed to suppress participation even further—disturbingly documented by the Brennen Center for Justice in its recent report, “Voting Law Changes in 2012”—is something grant makers across the political spectrum should resolve to do something about.


Curb the undue influence of money in politics. The Super PACs that have been unleashed in the Republican primaries, and that will surely be matched on the Democratic side as the general election approaches, are unaccountable entities trafficking in wholly negative material. They distort the political process and further disgust the voting public at a time when we can ill afford to withstand more decline in participation.

Support nonprofits that rally Americans to keep the courts above the political fray. It seems we will never see the day when self-styled conservative politicians will end their assault on the courts—40 years of increasingly conservative jurisprudence does not seem to have made a dent in the fervor for going after this favorite whipping boy. If there is anything the right and left ought to be able to agree on, it’s the need to protect an independent judiciary that has been a vital part of the country’s checks and balances for over 200 years. Yet only a handful of grant makers, like the Open Society Foundations, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Joyce Foundation, concern themselves with these issues.


Reinforce government’s duty to care for everyone. The proper scope and reach of government is, of course, a matter for vigorous political debate. But we are in a period in which long-settled questions—should we have a minimum wage, child-labor laws, a Social Security system, a foreign-aid program, birthright citizenship—seem to be on the table.


We have traveled a long way from President Eisenhower’s embrace of New Deal laws and President Nixon’s acceptance, and even modest expansion, of the Great Society.


Every other industrial country, under conservative and liberal regimes, believes that government­-should provide health care, economic security for the oldest among us, access to education for the youngest, and workplace protections for all of us.


Why can’t America?


Foundations, which don’t have nearly enough money to deal with all the human needs that some would consign to charity, should not stay silent about that matter.


Taking those steps requires changes in how philanthropy channels its resources. But we also need a shift in how foundations operate.


In our hearty embrace of metrics, of language and measures adopted from corporate America, we have failed to make our case in the moral terms it demands.


No one is drawn to fixing the schools or curbing poverty because of programs. No one marches to war under the banner of effectiveness. People mobilize to right a wrong or address an injustice. They gather around a collective will to change the world for the better.


We demand schools that work for poor children because it is a moral obscenity that a rich country doesn’t provide a quality education to every child.


We want to ensure that poor people don’t have to jump through hoops to get social benefits to which they are entitled, not because we love to see a logic model working perfectly but because no one should have to go hungry or homeless. When people have rights, they must be respected.


Some grant makers seem to fear that if we use plain language or speak from the heart, we won’t be taken seriously. We are still fighting the battles of the 1960s and reeling from the attacks on Ford and other foundations that dared to talk about the causes of social ills.


To build the missing constituency for what works requires us to understand that evidence does not drive policy unless a compelling message is there. Groups like Harlem Children’s Zone and Teach for America have captured public imagination, not just because they are so rigorous in evaluation of their programs and designing their business plans but because they tell a story that is compelling, with compelling messengers.


To meet the challenges of the day, however, we need more than language and stories. We need muscle. And the muscle will be there when ordinary people—the parents and students and community leaders who benefit from the important work foundations pay for—feel their own stake in it, deeply, and take action to protect it.


Navigating the waters to bring lasting change in the United States requires wading through waters infested with budgetary and political sharks. Many grant makers are understandably wary of these risks. But philanthropy’s most important role today is to seek ways to transcend the political polarization of the moment by shoring up institutions of democracy that are endangered by it.