This op-ed by Nick Penniman and Ian Simmons originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Today, the foundations of our republic are cracking. The rule of law, the underpinning of our entire system of government, is being challenged from the White House. Foreign powers are interfering in our elections. Congress is gridlocked and consumed by hyperpartisanship. Only half of Americans believe the 2020 elections will be fair, people don’t think elected leaders have their best interests at heart, and impeachment is further dividing Washington.
To begin fixing these and other systemic problems, it is time for American philanthropists to begin fixing democracy as a core part of their missions.
Over the next decade, at least 1 percent of total philanthropic giving should be directed toward this goal. Right now, just over one-tenth of 1 percent of more than $400 billion in charitable giving funds work to strengthen our democracy. That is less than one Dunkin’ Donuts coffee per person per year. In comparison, the largest organizations in environmental, health, and human services fields have individual budgets larger than the entire movement dedicated to bolstering democracy. That’s no longer sustainable.
Here’s why: Democracy is a work in progress and requires constant renewal. But philanthropy’s lack of investment in groups that protect our system of government means organizations that work to strengthen and defend democratic principles and values have been resource starved for decades. Now we are all paying the price for it.
All of our past successes and future endeavors rest upon American self-government. If philanthropists want to empower more Americans to solve the biggest problems facing the environment, economy, and education, they must dedicate exponentially more resources to repairing our democratic foundation.
The good news is that we’ve already built the foundation of this movement. All it needs is a good shot of adrenaline and sustained support for this marathon.
Good Groups, Paltry Budgets
Time-tested grassroots organizations, such as Common Cause, dominate much of the space with expenses of less than $20 million each year. Common Cause, for instance, couples a D.C. strategy with chapters in 30 states and millions of grassroots members working to champion a panoply of efforts to strengthen democracy, involving voting, ethics, accountability, and other matters.
Now imagine if their budgets were $100 million. Their membership could expand across all 50 states, and they could win policies that would reduce corruption that much faster. They could establish pipelines to pass institutional knowledge from one generation to the next. For the first time in years, these groups could stop worrying about whether each program they start will shutter one year later from lack of support.
Even the Center for Responsive Politics, the national backbone for all reporting and advocacy for money in politics — cited by every political reporter and pundit every day, in every national newspaper and every cable news show – has a paltry budget of less than $5 million a year. That costs little more than a penny per American, and it was founded nearly 40 years ago.
Now add in the new organizations that have sprung up in the past several years. Groups like Issue One are strategically repairing the broken political system by mobilizing former Republican and Democratic elected officials and business leaders to advocate for federal policy solutions. Younger think tanks, like the R Street Institute, are developing new approaches to strengthening the legislative branch and balancing power in our government between the three branches again. With more firepower, they could help return government to working order faster, and modernize it, too.
Variety of Approaches
New partnerships between advocates and academics are trying to repair the eroded bridges between the political parties in Congress to shore up and future-proof the institution. That’s a decades-long fight that goes to the heart of how lawmakers solve problems and turn policy ideas into legislation.
There are even growing legal organizations, such as the Campaign Legal Center, that advance democracy by successfully defending in court policies that make a difference. Groups like the Alliance for Securing Democracy are laser focused on stopping foreign interference in U.S. and other elections, bolstering the foundation of democracy globally.
But that is not all. Look closer at the states and you’ll find efforts that are as varied as the landscapes of the states themselves. Popular multistate groups that attract national followings from coast to coast, such as Unite America and Represent.Us, are driving successful campaigns in specific states while serving as crucial resource hubs for local activists. Quadruple their budgets and they can deploy most staff throughout the states, becoming national forces. They would not have to pick and choose which of the dozens of state and local fights to support, but could instead help groups earlier by aiding the movement strategically and deciding which battles are toeholds, and which are the most winnable.
Many other state efforts have also recently succeeded, like the grassroots activist Katie Fahey’s fight against gerrymandering in Michigan with “Voters Not Politicians.” Meanwhile, others seek to find local legislative champions, but opposing lawmakers can be quick to overturn victories they do not like. We need well-resourced groups that can fight and hold lawmakers accountable as the new laws across the country take effect.
Take an even closer look at local communities, and you will find organizations that are successfully leading the way on forms of civic renewal that don’t require a legislature to enact. Efforts like the All In Campus Democracy Challenge want to turbo-boost student voting rates, and the National League of Cities is encouraging campuses and communities to create cultures of full participation for all eligible voters across party, race, income, and ZIP code.
What’s worth considering is that two-thirds of organizations working to improve our democracy have budgets of $2.5 million or less. Imagine if it were more like 10 times that. With sufficient resources, we could mount comprehensive efforts, like establishing a national communications center to train grassroots activists and opinion leaders to spearhead work to strengthen democracy. We could supercharge efforts underway to build 50-state lists of millions of voters committed to fixing the political system. We could do all this and more if we could expand philanthropic resources available to allow vital organizations to reach their full potential.
With philanthropy more focused on supporting democracy-building in the United States, we could tackle problems like foreign interference in our politics, lack of voter choice, the dominance of secret money, voter exclusion, and the erosion of evidence-based policymaking. That’s just the tip of the decades-long list of improvements just waiting for the political will to make them happen. But we need sufficient outside pressure, and support, from this movement to seize this moment.
An opportunity like this comes around at most once in a generation. The last era of overhauling policies to keep our democracy working began in 1974. That followed a similar crisis to the one we are facing — Watergate. Over the next six years, advocacy groups and business leaders helped Congress pass 14 major laws that created the Federal Election Commission, tightened ethics rules governing lobbying and interactions with foreign governments, and safeguarded Americans’ privacy. These all strengthened our political system and bolstered peoples’ faith in democracy.
Just as we rose to the occasion four decades ago, we must do so again today. The foundation of our republic is badly broken, and strategic philanthropists can help by speeding up the repair work already underway.
Nick Penniman is founder and CEO of Issue One, a group that unites Republicans, Democrats, and independents in the movement to fix the broken political system. He is the co-author of “Nation on the Take.”
Ian Simmons is a leading philanthropist dedicated to initiating projects that enhance democracy. He is the founder and president of the Foundation for Civic Leadership and the co-founder of Blue Haven Initiative.