Today, the tension between philanthropy as democratic threat and democratic expression runs as high as ever. It’s not surprising, then, that the democratization of philanthropy has become an increasingly prominent center-point of discussion within the sector. It was, in fact, a key theme at Urban Institute’s recent Giving Innovation Summit and the explicit topic of one of its panel discussions. Now, as a century ago, invoking democracy is a powerful rhetorical tool. Yet as the panel made clear, for precisely that reason, it’s important to think carefully about how we are using the concept.

That’s why scrutinizing the term and interrogating the practice of democratizing philanthropy is so crucial. Those tasks require fighting the strong temptation to invoke democratization as a sort of mystical, sector-wide watchword that conveys instant legitimacy on any philanthropic enterprise. We need to ask, what are we talking about when we talk about democracy in philanthropy?

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