One of the mounting tensions in the philanthropy sector in recent years focuses on the role that giving can play in democratic processes. In some ways, philanthropy seems to work against democracy. After all, individuals with wealth get to choose how that money is distributed and have the ability to select the issues they consider most important without input from the public. However, philanthropy could also be used to renew democratic values and uphold the larger, public voice, provided that this pursuit becomes a priority. In addition, renewing democracy through philanthropy will require intentional work, which is why the Council on Foundations and the Kettering Foundation have joined forces to explore what philanthropic support of democratic processes looks like.
In May 2018, these two organizations convened a two-day symposium to do just that. The event welcomed about 20 different foundation and nonprofit leaders with experience at the local, state, and national level. Together, they discussed how philanthropy can work to put people in closer touch with the institutions that serve them and drive greater public engagement. These conversations were summarized in a report that was recently released by the two organizations. Titled “Our Divided Nation: Is There a Role for Philanthropy in Renewing Democracy?”, the report looks at why the country may seem more divided in recent years than in decades past and how philanthropy can help address this problem and drive greater public collaboration with organizations.
The Problem of Division within the United States
At the symposium, the conversation often focused on the divisiveness that exists in the United States and its effects on achieving philanthropic goals, including getting individuals more involved with the programs designed to meet their needs. Attendees believed that philanthropy has a clear role in addressing the separation and instilling greater confidence among American citizens. While the forces that have led to the division are not new, modern trends and pressures have amplified them to such an extent that philanthropy can no longer ignore it without perhaps doing more damage (by adding to the confusion and driving greater separation).
According to the report, several different factors are currently at play in the United States that add to the problematic divisiveness. One of the key issues is a decline in confidence in many institutions, including newspapers, schools, and the police. The public has been continuously losing trust in these organizations’ ability to provide quality services, which stokes tensions and fear. Overall, this mistrust has created a breakdown of constructive discourse between communities and caused many to become more insular. This loss of social capital can cause grave misunderstandings. The whole picture is complicated by fairly new technologies, such as smartphones and the Internet, making it easier than ever before to spread misinformation and inflame tensions. Furthermore, increasing wealth gaps have created a lot of anxiety across the nation.
How Philanthropy Can Support Democratic Values
While these problems have created some serious rifts in the United States, responsible philanthropy can begin to heal the wounds. The report also includes several recommendations for how philanthropists can be more mindful of how their work affects these tensions and perhaps even create programming that can restore democratic values and facilitate communication. One such recommendation is the creation of new public spaces that can create a context for meaningful dialogue. By bringing people of different backgrounds together and giving them a platform to discuss things they really care about, which can facilitate greater shared understanding and help identify common concerns. Philanthropists should also think about the importance of networking and hands-on learning opportunities.
In addition, philanthropists should focus on developing civil leadership among nontraditional leaders who can serve as change agents by bridging gaps between people to start new conversations. Many communities already have great resources for driving greater involvement, but these resources need to be developed and supported. Philanthropists should listen closely to community members about what they think would and would not work, to get a better sense of current capacity and how it can be expanded. Communities should play an active role in getting their own members more involved. Philanthropists can serve to remove, or at least mitigate, the perceived barriers to this goal.
A Call to Philanthropists to Increase Conversation
The report also addresses the idea of what advancing democracy really means to help get the philanthropy community on common ground. Many foundations put this goal in their mission statements, but it is not often clear what exactly it means and how it should be achieved. As its own community, philanthropy needs to think more about the kind of democracy that it wants to support so that organizations can work together toward a common goal rather than push against each other with slightly different aims. However, simply acknowledging that a problem exists is an important first step in fueling more conversation. The report comes at an important time, when clear action is needed from American philanthropists.