A majority of Americans say living in a democracy is important, but many feel that the institutions that define our country are getting weaker. Additionally, philanthropy is receiving more scrutiny for its role in undermining U.S. democratic values. Faced with these challenges, we asked several experts:
How can philanthropy create the context for problems to be solved publicly?
Big philanthropy is an exercise of power by the wealthy, the direction of private assets toward public influence. And it is a form of power that is largely unaccountable, often perpetual, and generously tax-advantaged. It would seem to be a misplaced plutocratic element in a democratic setting that is committed to the principle of political equality. But big philanthropy can be vindicated, provided we change some of our current public policies and orient the work of foundations in a particular direction. Big philanthropy supports rather than subverts democracy when it works on long-time-horizon innovation and social problem solving, a form of experimentalism on behalf of democratic institutions and ideals. — Rob Reich, author of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better and Professor of Political Science, Stanford University
Traditionally, philanthropy (as distinct from charity) in the U.S. provided risk capital and operating support to innovative and change efforts designed to benefit a largely shared public interest vision. In this moment of cultural and ideological polarization and inequity in the distribution of resources, however, this sense of the common good has fractured. As a result, philanthropy is reconceiving its role in civil society. Among the growing strategy shifts, is greater support to sophisticated programs that enable members of the public to learn about, think through, and determine their own questions and answers regarding the policies and conditions that affect their lives, and those of their families and communities – especially among marginalized communities. Donors are increasingly working together, and supporting a supply chain of aligned groups, each with a role, in helping the public build and enact its will. Specifically, more philanthropic support is going to diverse grassroots organizing and advocacy groups, which are located within communities and interact with its members every day. To work with and support this local/state/national grassroots work, donors are funding aligned policy and communications groups and issue experts, research and data shops, leadership and organizational development professionals, and other capacity building and technical assistance firms. These provisions combine to create a new and vibrant public square – both physical and virtual — whereby civil society’s manifold resources of voices, ideas, and experiences are already knitting together a new vision of our common good. — Scott Nielsen, Managing Director of Advocacy at Arabella Advisors, and Loren McArthur, Senior Director at Arabella Advisors
Philanthropy has an obligation to help heal our democracy. But, exactly how without reinforcing or deepening the divisions that exist in our country is the challenge. Americans have lost trust in almost every institution and no longer feel like our government is representative. Instead of having some agency as citizens (in the most philosophical sense, not necessarily in statute or practice), Americans feel like subjects under the rule of media and wealthy elites. That’s a tough position for philanthropists. Because of the outsized power and privilege of the wealthy, philanthropists must choose a more constructive and optimistic path that rebuilds trust by giving power and agency in support of Americans regaining their role as citizens. For example, one can contribute to a functioning democracy by supporting programs and efforts to ensure that all of us truly have a voice in the choices that shape vibrant, equitable and inclusive communities. By 2020, the majority of American children will be from communities of color; by 2043, this will be true for the majority of all ages. Instead of focusing solely on the next election cycle or legislative session, historical changes of this magnitude invite us to ask what philanthropy can contribute to a healthier democracy in the long run. — Remy Trupin, Executive in Residence, Philanthropy Northwest
In the United States, we are facing challenges addressing issues spanning from the need to stem violence, curbing climate change, fighting for the rights of the most vulnerable, and overall – creating a more just and equitable society. It is a myth that progress on all these issues has been blocked by a lack of political will. While true in some cases, the larger challenge facing us is the subversion of the peoples’ will. We have a system which was designed to disenfranchise and disempower marginalized communities from having a political voice. Civil society, with robust support from philanthropy, is needed to help take back our system of government through wide-scale democratic system reforms, community engagement, and protecting our democratic institutions. Collaboration is key: Networks like FCCP provide philanthropy a space to strengthen our democracy by bringing together grantmakers, community organizations, and individual leaders around the country. Ultimately, if we can create the context for people to have a political voice, we can unlock the potential to solve the big challenges facing our country and world. — Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation
All across our nation, people are making progress against seemingly intractable problems. But you’d never know that from the news, which amplifies and perpetuates a narrative of polarization, distrust and dysfunction. Against this 24/7 drumbeat of brokenness, we struggle to talk to one another, to listen respectfully, and even to acknowledge the full humanity of others with whom we disagree. There’s a remedy for this erosion of civil discourse and information sharing, however. An increasingly important approach to reporting, known as solutions journalism, reveals not only our problems but also how individuals and communities are collectively responding and making a difference. Evidence-based and credible, solutions journalism creates a shared sense of purpose and possibility, sharpens accountability, and reveals how and where civic agency and action are functioning. By investing in journalism that tells more complete stories about who we are as a nation, philanthropists and journalists have an opportunity to expose Americans to a different model of social and political coverage — one that encourages constructive discourse, increases empathy across fault lines, builds agency and self-efficacy, and helps restore Americans’ trust in one another and in our democracy. — David Bornstein, CEO, Solutions Journalism Network
Learning and benchmarking are key steps towards becoming an impact giver. If you are interested in giving with impact on North America take a look at these selections from Giving Compass.
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