In 2015, we started thinking about funding civic engagement in the lead up to what we knew would be important elections in 2020. We wanted to look beyond the next election cycle to the structural components protecting or suffocating our democracy. Working with foundation peers, we started to focus not just on battles but the war for our democracy.

We Built Power With Trust - In 2015, we launched Project 2020 to build the civic power needed to reduce these growing distortions. Our operating theory was simple: giving more – more deference, more flexibility, more funding and over more years – would lead to greater impact. We committed to larger grants and more flexible funding (in our case, both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) funds). We also adjusted our giving to prioritize BIPOC-led local organizations, leaders, campaigns, and coalitions, extending them the trust that had long been due them, but that had rarely been offered. And we gave more to groups led by and serving communities of color, which have historically received far fewer resources.

We Prioritized Structural Fixes - A commitment to long-term power is complementary to – and is providing a stronger foundation for – our cyclical support for nonpartisan electoral work, voter protection, issue campaigns, and leadership pipelines. As we did the year-in, year-out funding, we simultaneously paid attention to the longer-term elements of building civic and political power. We provided early money to a Bauman Foundation-led effort to ensure a full count in the 2020 Census and joined partners to fund census work after the count had ended, even in the face of political threats. We also supported – and continue to support – a parallel, multi-donor initiative to ensure fair representation in redistricting. And we made these investments in promising but traditionally under-resourced places — the South and Southwest, and in particular Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina.

We Targeted  States with Shifting Demographics - While federal policy dominates headlines, state policy often plays a more dominant role in shaping the schools, roads, criminal codes, and civil rights of most Americans. In Arizona, we built on efforts by Unbound Philanthropy, Carnegie Corporation, and the Four Freedoms Fund, which, a decade earlier, had a vision for the state premised on the strength of its young, mostly of-color, and often undocumented leaders who fought tirelessly against xenophobic legislation and elected leadership. We also benefited from the partnership of in-state donor “tables” established by the Committee on States network, such as Put NC First and the Georgia Alliance for Progress—groups that strove to build lasting civic engagement infrastructure despite politically motivated efforts to undermine their work. 

We Invested in New Leaders - Project 2020 helped strengthen a range of leaders and organizations who were – and are – playing a critical role in building independent political power in their communities. They facilitated record-breaking voter turnout in the 2020 U.S. elections – particularly among voters of color, who indisputably helped reshape the map in states like Arizona and Georgia – despite an unprecedented assault on our democracy and the complications of a deadly pandemic. Moreover, the work of those organizations and their leaders led to more reflective and accountable elected representation – leaders responsive to the needs of their communities, people of color, and in many cases former activists and organizers who could push forward-looking policy. 

Read the full article about civic engagement funding by Laleh Ispahani at National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.