Anecdotally, America seems to be experiencing a great surge in civic engagement. The Women’s March on Washington brought millions of people together on every continent in January 2017, and tens of thousands more in 2018. The March for Our Lives, the March for Science, Black Lives Matter, even the protests and counter-protests associated with the alt-right are bringing thousands of Americans out into the streets to call for some definition of change. But what does that have to do with philanthropy?

Philanthropy is often defined as the giving of time, talent, and treasure. Since the 2016 election, we have seen innumerable examples of Americans giving all three of these to impact politics. In November 2016, over 80,000 people made donations to Planned Parenthood “in honor of” Vice President Mike Pence (Mettler, 2016). In the 15 months following the election, the American Civil Liberties Union’s membership jumped from 400,000 to 1.84 million (Reints, 2018). Even the $55 million drop in memberships and donations reported by the National Rifle Association in late 2018 can be considered the result of philanthropic action: people choosing to express their political views by withholding their time and treasure from that organization (Sykes, 2018).

Furthermore, Mati, et al. (2016) argue that social movement activism and protesting should be considered volunteering in the traditional sense. “[B]oth volunteering and social activism are actions undertaken without pay; they are voluntary to the extent that they are founded on individual free will and conviction” and share a “reliance on [the] commitment and capacities of ordinary people” (p. 520).

Still, not all the numbers bear out this narrative of renewal. According to a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, nearly half of Americans (48 percent) report that their level of involvement in civic activities (e.g., signing an online petition, donating money to a campaign or cause, or attending a public rally or demonstration) has not changed since 2016, with 45 percent reporting they took no actions at all. Only 20 percent say they have become more likely to take part in civic or political activities, while, importantly, 30 percent say they have become less likely to do so (Vandermaas-Peeler, et al., 2018).

This same study, however, reveals an important point for nonprofits: 62 percent of Americans report they “feel somewhat or very well represented by nonprofit groups advocating for change on issues they care about.” That’s more than double the number (28 percent) who reported they feel that way about national elected officials (Vandermaas-Peeler, et al., 2018, para. 67).

Nonprofits themselves are playing an increasingly visible role in our political lives. Social and policy crises around immigration, reproductive rights, healthcare, and other issues have highlighted the importance of nonprofits like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, among thousands of others at every scale, as representatives and advocates for groups of people struggling to achieve broader rights or opportunities, as pathways in to action for those who want to get involved, and as proponents of civic engagement itself.

A study from Nonprofit VOTE, for instance, showed that voters who have been contacted by a nonprofit they know and trust were nearly 6 percent more likely to actually vote than those who had no such interaction (Miller, 2018). Surely this influence contributed to the massive success of National Voter Registration Day this year, a project coordinated by Nonprofit VOTE and which registered a record 800,000 voters (their initial goal was 300,000) (Parlier & Zdanowicz, 2018).

In “Is There Any Point to Protesting?” Nathan Heller (2017) points to the necessity of sustainable, centralized coordinating bodies behind the mass of people. “The recent studies make it clear that protest results don’t follow the laws of life: eighty percent isn’t just showing up. Instead, logistics reign and then constrain. Outcomes rely on how you coordinate your efforts, and on the skill with which you use existing influence as help” (para. 34).

In essence, you need a nonprofit — an institution organized around private action for the public good. You need people who are responsible for the logistics, the relationships, the communications, and who can, ultimately, negotiate with existing power structures on behalf of the movement (Heller, 2017).

The trend to watch, therefore, is less about Americans seeing their (small “d”) democratic activities as philanthropy; it’s about philanthropy’s growing awareness that its activities are democratic, too.


By Tory Martin, Director of Communications & Engagement, Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy.