Is Democracy Funding Undemocratic? Funding Civic Engagement in an Era of Protest

By Austin Belali

Nonprofit Quarterly - March 22, 2016

This piece is part of our ongoing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Project created to spotlight millennials’ voices and thoughts on diversity and justice. We urge you to read how this project came together in collaboration between NPQ and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and about the ideology behind this series. We intend to publish another 20 pieces in the upcoming months. Readers will be able to subscribe to an RSS feed to follow articles as they are published, approximately every two weeks. NPQ and YNPN will be using the hashtag #EDISeries, so post about the series along with us.

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“What we are trying to do is build a democracy,” said Baltimore organizer Tre Murphy to television news crews moments after a sit-in protest at Baltimore’s City Hall. Murphy and fifteen others were arrested at City Hall protesting the death of twenty-five-year-old Freddie Gray, allegedly at the hands of Baltimore police.1

The deaths of Freddie Gray and other unarmed black youth sparked a national yet localized movement that has recruited scores of previously unmobilized young people from underrepresented communities into the policy-making process for the first time. Social justice organizers across the country are activating underrepresented citizens who are the hardest to reach by political campaigns or formal institutions. Using trusted messages and messengers from the communities in which they live, these organizers use traditional civic engagement tactics like voter registration, mobilization, and democracy reform.

The United States is on the verge of an upsurge in democratic participation in cities and communities across the country, but will traditional civic engagement funders take notice?

Young and emerging movement organizers like Tre Murphy and so many others are absent from the grantee lists of major democracy and civic engagement funders, despite their embodiment of the ideals and practices of democracy in their quest for change. The generation of leaders emerging in this still-young century has yet to become the new face of the mainstream civic engagement community. While the leaders of what could be described as a twenty-first-century movement for inclusive democracy are largely women and people of color, civic engagement philanthropy and the organizational leadership it supports is stubbornly the opposite. If our grantmaking had proven particularly effective at rescuing U.S. democracy from restrictions on voting rights, assaults on campaign finance laws, and partisan redistricting in recent years, then perhaps the lack of inclusion of young and diverse movement leaders would seem less unacceptable, but most of us recognize that the movement leaders and social justice organizations they represent may very well be the missing ingredient essential for bringing America’s democratic practices closer to our stated ideals.

Despite the obvious strategic value in harnessing the energy of social justice movements, there are reasons why funders have been slow to support them. Several prominent civic engagement funders share an unspoken worldview that younger Americans and underrepresented communities participate in civic life at lower rates than others because of personal apathy rather than structural barriers deterring their participation. The foundational belief among some funders that nonvoters do not participate simply because they lack a sense of civic responsibility or are ignorant of the process is akin to the framing in economic policy debates that poor people should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” On the other hand, social justice organizations like the Advancement Project have rightly acknowledged how the efforts of extremists to undermine the right to vote, coupled with the outsized voice of moneyed interests and the lack of accountability by governing institutions, have largely contributed to current levels of low participation.2 There is quantitative—if limited—evidence for both explanations (individual and structural) of civic inequality in America to justify these deeply held beliefs about nonparticipation. This worldview governing institutional and individual donors’ conclusions about why marginalized communities are participating less than other groups has very real consequences with respect to how decisions are made about which groups and what strategies get funded.

Many civic engagement and pro-democracy funders also have an incomplete interpretation of American history that understates the importance of social justice in achieving democratic outcomes. The United States was, paradoxically, founded on both democratic ideals and the racist institution of slavery. While formal democratic processes in American history have been about checks and balances, the separation of powers, and protecting civil liberties, democracy has also been the terrain of struggle for social progress and inclusion by those at the margins of our society. Social justice, therefore, is a precondition for achieving full participation and healthy democratic practice in the United States. There is perhaps no greater example of this than the African-American struggle for democracy and inclusion and the demand for an end to racially motivated disenfranchisement. Too many civic engagement funders have ignored the complicated racial history of the United States and the role that racial hierarchies continue to play in creating current patterns of political inequality among underrepresented communities. The funding community that supports a movement for strengthened democracy and the funding community that supports the movement for racial and social justice exist separately from one another, despite the fact that, as Manning Marable points out in his article “Structural Racism and American Democracy,” in assisting “the development of community-based initiatives that have the capacity to educate and mobilize those who suffer from racial oppression…we may make an important contribution toward the reconfiguration of American democracy itself .”3 The issue of race and racism in American is polarizing, so it is likely that the conflict aversion of some civic engagement funders and their boards makes it difficult to support social justice as a core strategy toward strengthened democratic ideals, institutions, and practices. But an evidence-based approach to grantmaking would acknowledge that social justice issues like criminal justice reform or gender justice can be key motivators for civic and political engagement. For example, we know that among young voters, issues are stronger motivators of participation than candidates, which speaks to one possible reason why social justice organizations are so effective at mobilizing young people to participate.4

While the private sector is beginning to innovate with forms of patient capital, where investors are willing to sacrifice short-term returns for a bigger payoff down the road, civic engagement funding—even of the nonpartisan sort—maps closely to boom-and-bust electoral cycles. Funders often feel pressured to report immediate success over a twelve-month or eighteen-month grant period. This makes it difficult to measure returns on funding aimed at building the core civic engagement capacities of social justice organizations.

As Alice Walker once said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Capacity building in underrepresented communities, including African Americans, immigrants, LGBTQ, and low-income whites in rural areas, requires year-round funding support that stretches beyond the boom-and-bust cycle of elections. Rather than funding the capacity of trusted, local community-based organizations, a disproportionate amount of grantmaking dollars flows to short-term voter registration and mobilization efforts. In North Carolina, the Southern Vision Alliance, an exciting collaboration of youth and student organizations with a track record of success, struggles to secure general operating support, even in a swing state. Voting is a form of binding, empowered decision-making that can have the effect of increasing confidence among underrepresented communities that their participation can make a difference. Creating a culture of voting and democratic participation in underrepresented communities requires investments in year-round advocacy and organizing capacity of groups, like the Southern Vision Alliance, whose primary issues may not be democracy reform or voting rights. The kinds of organizations that engage marginalized communities on a year-round basis are often groups with a larger social-justice-related mission in which voter registration, mobilization, and democracy reform are only strategies for reaching larger goals; direct action may be another among them. For example, United We Dream, an undocumented immigrant youth organization, is using civic engagement as a tactic even though the members themselves cannot vote. The organization is also known for using more disruptive tactics, such as sit-ins and civic disobedience, toward the same aim.

A fundamental shift in the amount of people who feel their civic or political participation will make a difference requires flexible grantmaking from funders that allows room for multiple tactics and strategies to exist at the same time. The shift also requires resource commitments to support leadership development and, dare I say, community organizing beyond the boom-and-bust cycle of elections. This reinforces the importance of civic engagement and democracy funding for states like Arizona or Georgia that do not benefit from the influx of resources into battleground states. The structures of exclusion and inequality that weaken the strength of U.S. democracy were built over long periods of time, and it will take patient, place-based funding that includes social justice organizations to overturn them.

Recently, a wave of new funders from Silicon Valley, like those at Open Philanthropy, have tiptoed into the world of philanthropic giving for the first time, supporting community-based organizations that have a social justice frame to catalyze the impact of their giving. Despite valid concerns about their growing influence, these younger funders have shown a willingness to invest their resources in groups that are multi-issue, employ multiple tactics to reach their goals, and have leadership that reflects the diversity of the current movement moment. Civic engagement and democracy funders must likewise recognize that our grantmaking can have a larger impact by being nimble, collaborative, and more patient about our investments in systemic change.

Rather than risk backlash from influential donors or appear too committed to one side of a debate, funders may be tempted to steer clear of supporting organizations that appear to take positions on controversial issues like police accountability or fair wages for immigrant farmworkers. There are even some institutional civic engagement donors who may be afraid to be caught at the same meetings as key movement leaders for fear of jeopardizing their nonpartisan status. But this risk-averse approach, unlike that taken by Open Philanthropy and others, is unlikely to yield big results over time. By not supporting the most vibrant social justice organizations in the country, which can bring new insight and perspectives to our grantmaking, civic engagement funders may be quietly working against their own goals.

Of course, this is not the first time that funders concerned with the strength of U.S. democracy have had to choose sides and take risks. When volunteers worked in Mississippi to register black voters for the first time, they faced economic reprisals from the Southern power structure.5 Many community leaders lost their jobs and their land. But foundations provided critical funding to scale up voter mobilization campaigns in the Deep South, like those that supported the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. Civic engagement funding does not have to be partisan to support organizations that take a public stance on what may be politically charged issues.

By funding the intersections between social justice and democracy, a growing number of forward-thinking civic engagement and democracy funders are addressing the root causes of the civic empowerment gap in underrepresented communities that have been ignored for far too long. At the October 2015 Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), which focused on harnessing the power of social movements for democratic revival in the United States, Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, said, “I believe I was so wrong to erect a wall, in our funding at Open Society some years ago, between criminal justice and democracy work. I don’t think that distinction, however misguided it may have been in the past, can be maintained any longer in the wake of Ferguson and similar events, where we have seen the close interplay of political exclusion—the kind of American apartheid in which majority Black communities are governed and policed by whites, financing the mechanisms of their own oppression through fees and fines—and violence.”6

The reasons underrepresented communities do not vote and disproportionately face barriers to equal voice in this society are directly tied to mindsets, structures, and behaviors that disadvantage them in all other facets of life (economic exclusion, discrimination, et cetera).7 The institutional silos that prevent grantmakers from seeing the interconnectedness between forms of social injustice and democratic participation only make us less effective in the long run.

The Youth Engagement Fund (YEF) is supporting research on a variety of topics that can be studied experimentally, which could aid in introducing more funders to the work of social justice organizations improving civic and political participation over time. Other civic engagement funders associated with the FCCP are beginning to explore best practices on more integrated approaches to voter engagement, to include issue-based education and registration.8 These integrated approaches that lead with social justice issues require more research but are likely to inspire greater participation among younger Americans and move them to action.

Ultimately, no amount of research can replace an honest accounting of our nation’s history, an ability to see the structural barriers to participation among underrepresented groups, and a willingness to fund real change patiently over time for larger impact. Democracy in America was not given to us from on high but was born of struggles of ordinary people staking their claim on the promise of liberty and justice for all. In the face of rising political inequality, voter suppression, and the outsized influence of money in our political system, philanthropy must choose a side. A truly democratic society is a just one.

Notes

  1. Message from the #CityBloc #CityHallShutDown,” YouTube video, October 14, 2015.
  2. A Universal Right to Vote,” The Opinion Pages, New York Times, March 11, 2013.
  3. Manning Marable, Structural Racism and American Democracy: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), “Racism and Public Policy” conference paper, September 3–5, 2001.
  4. CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement), Tufts University, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, “2014 Youth Turnout and Youth Registration Rates Lowest Ever Recorded; Changes Essential in 2016.”
  5. Wesley C. Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
  6. Gara LaMarche, “Control, Disruption and Democracy: Philanthropy’s Role in Inclusive Civic Engagement.” (Adapted from unpublished October 6, 2015 keynote speech at the Funders Committee for Civic Participation [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][FCCP] conference in Washington, D.C. Note: the quoted text does not appear in the adapted version.)
  7. Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady, The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).
  8. Integrated Voter Engagement: A Proven Model to Increase Civic Engagement,” Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), 2009.

Read the original article in Nonprofit Quarterly.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

January 22, 2020

NFG Member Spotlight: The Libra Foundation

Logo of The Libra FoundationThe Libra Foundation staff: Angie Chen (Senior Program Officer), Crystal Hayling (Executive Director), Ashley Clark (Knowledge & Grants Manager), Jennifer Agmi (Senior Program Officer)

(L-R): Angie Chen (Senior Program Officer), Crystal Hayling (Executive Director), Ashley Clark (Knowledge & Grants Manager), Jennifer Agmi (Senior Program Officer)

NFG's network is composed of 120+ members that work in every part of the nation, in both urban and rural settings, and includes private and public foundations, community foundations, family foundations, corporate foundations, faith-based funders, and other grantmaking institutions. 

We recently connected with Crystal Hayling and The Libra Foundation team about their growth and vision for 2020, which organizations are giving them inspiration in this moment, and why they continue to invest in NFG with their renewed and increased membership.

We love to connect with our members! Share your experiences as part of the NFG network by getting in touch with Lindsay Ryder, Senior Membership Manager, at lindsay@nfg.org.


 
  1. How do notions of people, power, and place fit in with Libra’s grantmaking approach?

The organizations Libra supports are building a world where low-income communities of color have the power to determine their own freedom, define safety, and thrive in healthy environments. Families that are separated by mass incarceration, communities whose voting rights are suppressed, and neighborhoods suffering from contamination are among the many ways people, power, and place are at the foundation of structural oppression, and, therefore, the heart of Libra’s grantmaking approach. We are centering organizations building power through grassroots community organizing, deep network and coalition building, and progressive advocacy for lasting solutions that work for all.
 

  1. Libra has gone through a bit of a transformation over the past few years, including a new ED and larger staff, a larger public profile, and a refined grantmaking strategy. How has being a part of NFG’s network informed or served Libra along the way?

Transformation is a daily practice - a collection of intentions and ideals - with no clear point of arrival. I knew when I joined Libra as Executive Director I wanted to help guide a team of passionate, heart-driven individuals who are committed to doing philanthropy differently and moving resources to frontline communities. We are so grateful to the NFG network for guiding and supporting the changes we continue to undergo. NFG’s community of funders and activists have a rigorous and thorough analysis that not only informs our community’s understanding and actions, but pushes us all to do better. The network brings together social movement leaders and funders that drive our field to be accountable and unified in our vision for justice.
 

  1. Libra recently renewed its membership with NFG, opting to increase its membership level for 2020. As we enter NFG’s 40th Anniversary year, what are your hopes and plans for engaging with the NFG network?

We are intentionally investing more in NFG because of our shared belief in organizing institutional funders to mobilize more resources for grassroots power building. Too often in philanthropy we are siloed by issue areas. Meanwhile, the same folks who are most impacted by criminal justice are disproportionately affected by gender and environmental justice as well. Although it’s vital to develop and focus on expertise in each of these areas, it’s critical that we as funders take an intersectional approach that recognizes these truths. NFG is leading in this regard, especially in its prioritization of people of color, and Libra aims to do the same.

Our team is planning to engage more in Funders for Justice this year. Lorraine Ramirez helped orient us to all the avenues for collaboration, and we’re excited to learn more from the field advisors and members. And we are really looking forward to this summer’s national convening! A lot has happened since the NFG community got together last in 2018 and we’re hoping that the entire Libra staff will be in attendance.
 

  1. Of NFG’s 125 member organizations, are there any funders you would like to give a shout out to for inspiring or partnering with Libra?

What an inspiring group! We are motivated and encouraged by so many of our peer members at NFG. We are fortunate to be in community with lots of NFG members and look forward to deepening relationships. 

To name a few that are a part of the Libra grantee community, Groundswell Fund is doing incredible work in the reproductive justice field protecting women, nonbinary, and trans folks of color across the country. Proteus Fund houses essential donor collaborative funds (like Rise Together Fund) and fiscally sponsors many of Libra’s grantees. And of course Common Counsel, which among many other philanthropic services houses Native Voices Rising, a fund that supports Native-led community driven projects across Turtle Island.

When we began refining our strategies here at Libra, we leaned on many of our friends in the NFG network. Specifically in environmental and climate justice, we are learning from close colleagues like Mertz Gilmore Foundation and Surdna Foundation that have shifted their strategies to uplift frontline leadership and people centered solutions to the climate crisis. And we continue to be inspired by colleagues that have led the charge to do philanthropy differently, like Marguerite Casey Foundation and Chorus Foundation (among many others!).

  1. And most importantly, are there any community leaders or organizations that you’ve been connected to through NFG’s network that Libra is supporting or that you are inspired by?

Specifically in 2019, members of our program team attended the Funders for a Just Economy Racial Capitalism convening. We were blown away by presentations from Trans United, which supports visionary trans leadership, and ACRE Institute, which organizes campaigns working at the intersection of racial justice and Wall Street accountability. Following that convening and based on recommendations from partners in the field, Libra funded both in our latest docket.

 

January 15, 2020

Racial Capitalism, Power & Resistance: Keynote Videos & Highlights for 2020

In October 2019, NFG's Funders for a Just Economy (FJE) held a breakthrough Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance Convening, an unprecedented conversation with more than 70 funder participants on the racial and gendered inequality defining US and global capitalism — and the role of philanthropy within these structures. FJE is moving this conversation into action in 2020. Towards that goal, we are recapping the convening and providing video from the seminal keynote talks by Dr. Ananya Roy and Dr. Barbara Ransby that grounded our meeting.  

Nine speakers who were at the convening.

Top (L-R): Dr. Barbara Ransby, Mónica Ramírez, Dr. Ananya Roy
Middle (L-R): Cindy Weisner, Alicia Garza, Aaron Tanaka
Bottom (L-R): Dimple Abichandani, Farhad Ebrahimi, Pamela Shifman

FJE’s Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance Convening was about asking hard questions and opening a conversation about the underlying history of the US economy and the origins of philanthropy as a way to ground us in how to support powerful resistance movements. Through this piece, we wanted to bring you some of the critical questions that stuck with us — and ways to move forward the themes and ideas generously offered by our activist-academic, movement, and philanthropic speakers and participants.

Who are we in alliance with? And how does that shape the real choices funders make?

Dr. Ananya Roy started off our conversation with a powerful question: Can we decolonize philanthropy in a real way? She also offered a proposition: We can’t do so without facing the way foundations are based in “twice-stolen wealth” — profit extracted via exploitative racialized capitalist means and through evading public taxation. [1]

Dr. Roy offered the example of her work with the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA, working to “turn the university inside out” through co-creation of knowledge alongside movement leaders; simplifying funding opportunities for community organizations; and paid, unfettered residency programs for activists. She pushed us to reflect on “what additional work we create for communities” through our grantmaking practices and the “difficult choices we must make on who we are in alliance with” — including standing up when foundations undermine community-led liberation movements.

You can hear Dr. Roy's keynote, Decolonizing Philanthropy? A View from The Public University, in the video below.

How do we define and confront the deep histories of racialized capitalism?

FJE presented a portion of the Action Center on Race & the Economy and Grassroots Collaborative’s popular education workshop on racial capitalism. The material examined how core institutions of US capitalism — like banking — built wealth directly off the slave economy and indigenous genocide. Grappling with the inextricable connection between racism, patriarchy, and capitalism raised the fact that Black women and other people of color also face these traumas every day in philanthropy. How can funders collectively support healing among philanthropic staff as they find ways to fund movements genuinely addressing the genocidal histories of greed?

“What happens when we put life [and sustaining it] at the center of our work?” — Cindy Wiesner

To bring us into how contemporary movements are confronting racial and gendered capitalism, Alicia Garza of the Black Futures Lab led a conversation with Mónica Ramírez of Justice for Migrant Women, Aaron Tanaka of the Center for Economic Democracy and Cindy Wiesner of Grassroots Global Justice. These leaders shared that grassroots, collaborative, feminist, and anti-capitalist social justice movements serve as “kryptonite” (in Cindy Wiesner’s words) to racial capitalism and neo-fascism. These movements range from organizing for a Green New Deal to local democratic investment structures, to migrant women-led sexual harassment activism. Speakers challenged funders to work alongside communities to resource experimentation and “freedom dreaming” — and to understand the solutions won’t come quickly or easily. They also asked foundations to use their own power — as investors and public figures — to take on racial capitalism.

What power do we have in our institutions? And how do we shift power with communities?

Pamela Shifman, formerly of Novo Foundation; Dimple Abichandani of General Service Foundation; and Farhad Ebrahimi of Chorus Foundation shared how as Executive Directors and alumni of NFG's Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship, they recognized and acted on their power to shift their institutions and the sector. As Dimple Abichandani noted, “These rules and practices that we work in come out of racial capitalism and corporate compliance frameworks. We can decide to change those.”

The speakers raised the fact that while education programs are plenty, actively organizing foundations towards collective goals through leadership development — like Philanthropy Forward — is rarer but necessary. Foundation staff also rarely hold other funders publicly accountable – perhaps because feel that they cannot tell others what to do with their money. Yet recent campaigns to discourage the Gates Foundation in awarding the fascist, Hindu-nationalist aligned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggest insurgent philanthropy is percolating.

What are the projects we fund to undo racial capitalism, and what logics are the projects based on?

On Day 2 of the Racial Capitalism, Power and Resistance Convening, Dr. Barbara Ransby offered three key elements to understand racial capitalism today: First, the irreconcilable relationship between capitalism's “infinite growth model on a finite planet;” second, financialization and the global “ponzi scheme;” and third, automation’s influence on worker's lives and consumption. She urged us to hold these contemporary capitalist crises with their roots in slavery and empire.

Dr. Ransby offered that dealing with this past and present means actively confronting white supremacy and nationalism; “building as we undo” through solidarity economies and other alternatives; and thoughtfully advancing abolition and reparations. Such ongoing processes require reckoning with anti-Blackness and asking: “How do you relinquish some of the power [that you have over organizations] and see yourself with a greater sense of humility?”

You can watch Dr. Ransby's keynote, Racial Capitalism, Power and Black Radical Tradition, in the video below.

“How do we show up, use our collective assets, and stand behind our grantees?” — Marjona Jones

Marjona Jones of the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, José García of the Ford Foundation, Emma Oppenhiem of Open Society Foundations, and Shona Chakravartty of the Hill-Snowdon Foundation, in conversation with Anna Quinn of NoVo Foundation, brought the meeting home with a dialogue on how we could take tangible action, including through the Funders for a Just Economy.

Participants then honed in on key work areas to follow-up on after the event including: building accountability mechanisms in philanthropy; transforming partnerships with our grantees; healing and strategizing together as co-conspirators; remaking tax structures and philanthropic asset management.

Stay tuned for more from FJE as we work together to provide the space and tools for philanthropy to take these ideas into action into 2020 — and into a more just tomorrow.

 

[1] Roy was quoting Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2009). “In the Shadow of the Shadow State” in The Revolution Will Not be Funded (edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Boston: South End Press, 2009). http://sfonline.barnard.edu/navigating-neoliberalism-in-the-academy-nonp...