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Why All Funders Should Be Democracy Funders

An op-ed by Cathy Cha and Peter E. Haas, Jr. Family Fund's Ralph Lewin

Discussing the urgency for philanthropy to increase investments for democracy at the local, state, and national levels.

This op-ed was first published by Inside Philanthropy on June 11, 2024.

Nationwide, philanthropy is investing in nonprofits and initiatives focused on important issues including affordable housing, poverty, education, immigration, anti-racism, climate change, healthcare and more. As we look ahead to the November elections, there’s another issue that’s ripe for funders’ attention and investment: protecting our democracy at the local, state and national levels.  

The health and vitality of our democracy affect everything else we care about.  

Over the last few years, the foundations we lead have both come to see the importance of investing in democracy work. We share a deep concern about the future of American democracy and how the nation’s core democratic systems and principles are under threat from creeping authoritarianism, voter suppression, disinformation and other forces.  

For many foundations, these problems can seem endemic and beyond our capacity to address. Just 7% of all philanthropic funding was dedicated to democracy work in 2022. The tendency in philanthropy is to focus on our foundations’ priorities or on the immediate issues facing communities we care about, and to leave “democracy work” to large, national funders. But the truth is, the strength of democracy—whether at the local, state or national level—has huge impacts on the ability of all funders and our nonprofit partners to deliver results on any issue and for any community.  

For example, if Latino, Black, Native American or Asian voters are being denied fair representation because of voter suppression, racial and political gerrymandering, and other problems, government will be less responsive to the needs and priorities of these communities on issues ranging from housing to education, healthcare and more.    

Intersecting journeys to democracy work

As we have grappled with how systemic problems like these are undermining democracy in California and beyond, our two foundations have taken distinct yet intersecting journeys to investing in efforts to protect democracy.  

The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund officially launched a focused Democracy program in 2020 with the goal of building a fair and representative democracy in California. This came after many years of supporting community organizing and advocacy, as well as jumpstarting partnerships to increase civic engagement among underrepresented populations in key regions across the state. Because those who vote have more influence in society, we’ve seen how encouraging marginalized community members to vote is an effective part of power-building.  

The Peter E. Haas, Jr. Family Fund made the shift to investing in democracy work in 2020, as well. After many years of locally focused work in Marin County, the foundation broadened its sights to explore how to have a deeper impact on democracy through strategic investments in key state and national groups working on voter engagement, and by ensuring free and fair elections.  

Our two foundations also are founding supporters, alongside the Levi Strauss Foundation and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, of the recently launched Democracy Policy Initiative at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. The initiative’s mandate is to advance innovations to strengthen democracy in California and beyond.  

As we have moved deeper into this work, we’ve been inspired by other foundations that are not traditional democracy funders per se, but are jumping into the fray because they understand what’s at stake. For example, the Marin Community Foundation recently created its Safeguarding Democracy Fund to provide donors with ways to invest in voter education, voter turnout and protecting elections. And national philanthropic collaboratives focused on protecting the census and supporting a fairer redistricting process have attracted broad support and participation from diverse foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a leading healthcare funder, and local and regional funders like the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in North Carolina.  

Getting into democracy work: tips for funders  

Getting involved in a multifaceted issue like democracy can be intimidating. Fortunately, funders have an array of options for getting started. Here are three keys:

  • Reach out for information and ideas. One for Democracy (O4D) is a new national group started by next-gen donors seeking to unlock more democracy investments to expand its work in California. O4D has created a California advisory committee of funder representatives and grassroots leaders who can help make things easy for new donors to figure out where to steer their democracy investments this year and beyond.  
  • Join existing funder tables and collaboratives. Philanthropy and allied organizations have created diverse opportunities for funders to learn, collaborate and direct pooled funding to democracy work. In addition to the national funder tables on the census and redistricting noted above, there’s the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation, Northern California Grantmakers (NCG) and the Democracy Funders Network. Also, the State Infrastructure Fund at NEO Philanthropy supports funders to align their efforts on voting rights. There are many state-based funder collaboratives on these issues as well, such as PIVOT in California.
  • It’s OK to start small. Of course, funders don’t have to go all in on democracy overnight. There are countless ways to “start small”—such as supporting a current grantee to engage in voter education and outreach on your foundation’s priority issues, supporting policy advocacy, or strengthening local media and narrative change work.  

It’s easy to get disillusioned and cynical about the state of democracy in the United States today. But our foundations have found enormous hope and inspiration in the grassroots organizations we are supporting to strengthen democracy at all levels. We are honored to be counted as democracy funders, and we are hoping more funders will join us in this vital work—because so much is on the line.

Cathy Cha is President and CEO of the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.

Ralph Lewin is Executive Director of the Peter E. Haas, Jr. Family Fund.