Taking Civic Engagement to the Next Level

Several years ago, a colleague applied for a position at a large foundation that had just launched a democracy program. Ten minutes into the interview, he was told that because of his lack of experience in campaign finance reform and voter participation, he wasn’t qualified. Mystified, he replied that he had more than two decades of democracy experience that was about as direct you could get: working with thousands of people in communities to address the same kinds of issues being debated in the halls of Congress.

Luckily he got the job. Still, it underscores how the millions of dollars many foundations have poured into get-out-the vote and electoral reform efforts are often seen as a proxy for democracy. Today, this work is still a top priority for foundations, with almost $300 million going to 738 organizations over the last few years that fall under the “campaigns, elections, and voting” category in Foundation Center’s new Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool. 

That makes sense. Voting is the cornerstone of American democracy. It’s a concrete action that people can take to civically engage, and it’s measurable.

But what happens after the votes are counted? There’s mountains of evidence showing that Americans continue to opt out of the political system; in 2014 alone, voter turnout for the midterm elections was the lowest it has been in any election cycle since World War II.

It’s easy to wag a finger at the disengaged and call them “cynical.” What’s harder is accepting the idea that this “cynicism” represents legitimate frustration over what many Americans see as a broken system that hasn’t invited them to participate in meaningful ways. And even when they do engage, many people feel their voice counts for little. As a result, more and more Americans are turning away from traditional political systems and embracing activities where they think they can make at least a small difference such as volunteering, “clicktivism,” and charitable giving.

The good news is that foundations appear to be increasing their support for broader civic participation, seeing it as important as elections and voting in defining what constitutes a robust democracy. Indeed, according to the center’s database, civic participation receives the majority of democracy-related funding, with more than $853 million in grants made since 2011.

A deeper dive, however, into the tool’s four subcategories under civic participation — civic education and leadership, issue-based participation, naturalization and immigrant civic integration, and public participation — reveals that the smallest share  of funding in this area went to public participation — arguably, the heart and soul of a democracy that was established to be  of the people, by the people, for the people.” (The tool defines the public participation category as support for “non-election related general organizing, public engagement, and involvement in the policymaking process or community life.”)

While some may argue that all civic participation is public participation, others disagree, pointing to data that indicates a palpable shift toward democracy becoming the purview of a professional political class that includes party officials, political operatives, donors, activists, and pundits. Even advocacy organizations, originally established to break up the “Iron Triangles” dominating the policymaking process, have become professionalized and dependent on big donors and “checkbook members.” The data in the center’s database illustrates this trend, with a marked number of grants supporting large national advocacy groups that have little direct connection with the average person. The result: Ordinary people are crowded out and, once again, left feeling powerless to make a difference. Cynicism is justified when there’s little incentive to participate.

It may, therefore, be time for philanthropy to rethink its theory of change when it comes to democracy. Rather than seeing things like issue organizing, volunteering or voter participation as the definitive measures of a healthy democracy, foundations might consider them as a necessary but insufficient means toward a more robust end: a sustainable, deep, and broad cultural ethos of civic engagement that becomes part and parcel of everyday life. Getting there, Carmen Siranni and Lew Friedland note, will require more than reforming campaign finance or boosting the number of Americans who vote regularly. It will require building a civic infrastructure that strengthens the ability of ordinary people to engage in public problem-solving so that they can “do the everyday work of the republic.”

This frame suggests the need for a sharper line between philanthropy that’s intended to buttress or reform representative governance as it currently exists versus philanthropy that’s intended to support, foster, and/or create democratic governance. The latter happens when there are civic spaces that put people first and encourage them to identify and address the issues they believe are important. Such spaces intentionally involve all members of the community — not just those who agree — in deliberating and deciding on collective action to resolve public problems using the tactics they deem most appropriate — whether it’s volunteering or community organizing or something else.

Through these kinds of deliberative processes, people become civic actors rather than merely consumers of taxpayer-funded services; culture change becomes as much a focus as short-term outcomes, issues, or victories; and cross-sections of entire communities, not just parts of them, are encouraged to participate. Moreover, when these processes are transformed into values and habits, they have the potential to create and renew local civic cultures. Because they give people the chance to see that their participation matters, those cultures, in turn, become the poles on which the larger tent of a robust democracy is erected.

An example of such a process is participatory budgeting, which received $1.3 million in foundation grants and is gaining traction in cities across the country for two reasons. One, it gives real people the chance to partner with government in meaningful ways that can kindle their desire to participate in other civic/political processes. And two, it responds to policymakers’ growing interest in this kind of  collaboration because they realize that solving daunting public problems won’t happen without the funding, public trust, and legitimacy they used to enjoy. In short, policymakers and average Americans alike are realizing that successful democratic practice is about more than just public input; it requires the active participation of both in making important decisions based on that input.   

As we see more of this kind of deliberative governance, there will come a time when Foundation Center will want to include it as a category in future incarnations of its database. Doing so will help show that philanthropy finally understands community engagement as more than just a strategy to be applied to issue campaigns, reform, or get-out-the-vote efforts. It’s the very essence of a democracy and one that, hopefully, foundations increasingly will support in the future.

This post originally appeared on PhilanTopic.

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