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The health of American democracy has become an inescapable topic for those in philanthropy. How did we get to this tenuous place? What can be done to deescalate the current polarization? Where are the entry points for donors to make a difference? While we have a long way to go to repair our divisions, hope for a better future is visible in some places. There are a growing number of ways to support mission-driven efforts to mend our fractured discourse and foster greater civic participation. Despite the challenges we face as a nation, these efforts are having an impact — from deepening how students learn about government, to registering new voters, to changing policy.
In the four years I have run Grantmakers for Education, a national network of almost 300 funders, I have seen a shift in our members. There is growing interest in issues at the intersection of education and democracy, and a recognition that we have done too little in this area in the past. In fact, I personally feel such a sense of urgency around civic issues that I am transitioning out of my current role and into work focused on strengthening our democracy.
Within the civic education space, there are a few primary opportunity zones for donors to consider.
- Civics education programs, both in- and out-of-school. The fundamental tenets of democracy going back to ancient Greece are (1) all citizens must be active participants and (2) citizens need knowledge and skills to participate effectively. Nonprofits such as iCivics and the Institute for Citizens and Scholars are providing schools and extracurricular programs with materials, activities, and educator supports aimed at ensuring students graduate with deeper understanding. In a Grantmakers for Education poll, 86% of respondents said this was an area where philanthropy had an important role to play. One caution to consider, though, is that the meaning of “civics education” is sometimes unsettled political terrain. The left emphasizes equity and justice while the right emphasizes freedom. The resources described above are explicitly nonpartisan.
- Efforts to bridge division. A growing number of funders are turning their attention to intentionally shifting the norms and behaviors that got our democracy to its current state of perpetual conflict. Some have banded together under the umbrella of the New Pluralists and aim to build bridges across the divisions that plague our nation. Nonprofit programs such as the Better Arguments Project, Story Corps’ One Small Step, and America in One Room are emerging as hubs for Americans to practice the skills of civil discourse and constructive disagreement.
- Policy and advocacy. In a Grantmakers for Education poll, four out of five respondents (80%) believed that funders must engage in supporting public policy and advocacy-related activities if they want to advance their priorities. Nonpartisan initiatives like the Campaign for Our Shared Future exist to support public schools as healthy democratic institutions that are inclusive and anti-racist in their practices. Those in philanthropy are often warier of getting involved in policy and advocacy than they need to be. While there are strict limitations on lobbying for specific candidates or specific legislation, there are other important roles for funders to play. Supporting high-quality research to inform decision-makers, and funding training programs that help people understand the policy process are just two ways donors can help.
- Youth voice initiatives. Opportunities for young people to become advocates have exploded, especially in conjunction with efforts to improve racial and social justice. At Grantmakers for Education we have tracked over 50 separate programs in the youth voice category. Some of these organizations, such as the Young Invincibles and the Alliance for Youth Action, played a prominent role in mobilizing youth in support of student debt cancellation. Their recent policy success on this issue demonstrates the power of this strategy.
I am especially inspired by the youth voice initiatives, both for their impact and their ubiquity. However, my observation is that too often, those of us at midlife are implicitly telling youth “do as I say, not as I do” on activism. In fact, there is not a single community that exists to call those of us in our prime leadership years into greater civic participation. I am leaving Grantmakers for Education to fill that gap with The Legacy Years Project. The next couple of decades will define my generation’s legacy, and I believe we can do a better job joining with the young as a force for good.