How to be a Democracy Funder

Democracy is under severe threat in the United States and around the world, but figuring out how to use your financial resources to protect and sustain American democracy is no easy feat. For one thing, the decline of democracy is an incredibly complex challenge with a multitude of domestic and global drivers. Not only is the problem multi-causal, but the potential solutions are manifold as well. Finally, there are dozens of organizations in the field—many with similar-sounding names—and a plethora of networks, pooled funds, and other resources designed to engage donors on this issue.

What is an aspiring democracy funder to do?

We believe it is both harder and easier to be an effective supporter of democracy work than many imagine. It is harder because philanthropy often falls prey to certain fallacies about American democracy that funders need to contend with. It is easier because despite the breadth of potential interventions, funders need not tackle them all. Here are three lessons we have learned about how to be a democracy funder from our own work in this space:

1. Democracy is about process, not about outcomes.

The most common and persistent fallacy we see funders make is to conflate democracy with their side winning or their preferred policy outcomes being enacted. This is especially prevalent on the left, which has long supported expanded voter participation both because it is morally just and because it is seen as a tactic to produce more Democratic votes. It is incredibly difficult to disentangle our political views from our views about democracy—the way we understand democracy is inevitably influenced by our ideological orientation, and few among us are more motivated by process than outcomes; but when our funding is aimed at one side beating the other, then we are funding politics, not democracy. That distinction is certainly challenging to maintain at a moment in which the Republican Party has seemingly abandoned its commitment to democratic norms and institutions. Recognizing the difference, however, is extremely important for philanthropy because we must create a democracy agenda, and build a democracy, that all Americans can commit to regardless of their political, religious, racial, or ethnic backgrounds. Practically speaking, this means that we should be wary of a democracy portfolio that only includes groups on the left or only promotes progressive ideas, and we should endeavor to support pro-democracy conservatives in addition to the democratic aspirations of marginalized communities. We should also try to avoid funding organizations that further inflame partisanship and harden sectarian identities. And we should consider how to build greater social cohesion in the United States, to counter the vicious cycles of toxic polarization that prevent our democracy from functioning and are likely to lead to widespread political violence if left unchecked.

2. Democracy is more than voting.

Voting is the ultimate act in a democracy: The ability and right to choose our representatives, those who will make decisions on our behalf. But if there is one thing we have learned over the past four years, it is that a successful democracy relies on a range of norms and institutions that until recently were seen as a “background condition” in American politics. The rule of law, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and a free press, for example, are all vitally important to American democracy, but their role has been underappreciated by philanthropy—and indeed by society writ large. So a democracy agenda for philanthropy must encompass more than voting rights and voter participation. We need to use policy, communications, and the law to defend democratic norms and institutions. We need a healthy information ecosystem with robust local journalism that can inform the public about key issues in their communities and we need to combat disinformation that warps our understanding of reality. We need a more effective government that can attract top talent and better meet the public’s needs. We need to rebuild a healthy civic culture undergirded by strong civic education and national service, and we need to combat rising extremism and tribalism. Of course, voting also remains central to democracy: free and fair elections are a cornerstone of our political system, and at this moment in which both voting rights and the nonpartisan administration of elections are under threat, we must push back to ensure that all eligible Americans are able to vote safely and securely, and to have their votes counted. Finally, we need to continue experimenting with reforms to the political system—including independent redistricting and ranked choice voting—that offer the promise of better representation for the American people and a more functional democratic system.

3. Democracy needs all of us.

If you have read the areas above and find yourself unsure about where to begin or which interventions would be most effective, our advice is simple: they all matter, so pick one (or a few) that aligns with your values and interests. Unlike electoral politics, the democracy field is still dramatically under-resourced, so you can have significant impact in any of these areas at just about any scale of giving. Given the timely and complex challenges to democracy, we encourage an approach of funding while learning: begin giving now, and try to learn intentionally as you go. Learn about the areas on which you’re focused, but also study democracy issues more broadly so you’re aware of what is happening on adjacent topics. Each of the democracy subfields also has a robust ecosystem of funders and organizations, and broad-based donor groups such as the Democracy Funders Network and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement can help you connect and learn with others in the space. You can also use non-financial assets to improve democracy. If you run a business, consider joining the Civic Alliance to strengthen democratic participation. If you serve on the board of a nonprofit outside the democracy space, ask what the organization is doing to build social cohesion and create a healthier civic culture. Talk to your friends, family, and colleagues about democracy to get them involved as well. 

It will take an all-of-society approach, likely over many decades, to revitalize American democracy. Let’s get to work.


Below are the names of the groups and resources hyperlinked in this piece:

Pro-democracy conservatives: Republican Accountability Project

Greater social cohesion: New Pluralists

Defend democratic norms and institutions: Protect Democracy

Local journalism: American Journalism Project

Combat disinformation: A Funder’s Guide to Combatting Disinformation

Effective government: Partnership for Public Service

Civic education: Civic Learning Funder Affinity Group

National service: Service Year Alliance

Voting rights: State Infrastructure FundVoting Rights Lab

Nonpartisan administration of elections: Center for Tech and Civic Life

Reforms to the political system: Unite America

Mike Berkowitz is Executive Director of the Democracy Funders Network and a Senior Advisor to the Pritzker Innovation Fund. Rachel Pritzker is President and Founder of the Pritzker Innovation Fund and a lead funder of the Democracy Funders Network.