Best Practices for Funding Democracy

Democracy in the U.S. is a big, complex endeavor that calls for initiatives far beyond the handful of organizations profiled in this guide. In addition to the five elements identified in our framework, funders can use the following tips and resources to find and evaluate opportunities to strengthen democracy:

Scan the field

Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy is a free resource provided by Candid to catalog and visualize democracy grantmaking in the U.S. With data available since 2011, grants are sortable by strategy (advocacy, organizing, etc.), population served, and geography. Media Impact Funders has sponsored a similar platform for media grantmaking.

Establish a baseline for change

Indicators help funders benchmark the current state and understand progress towards strengthening democracy. Given the diversity of perspectives and approaches to democracy, there are a number of ways to measure success. The National Conference on Citizenship works with partners in government and civil society to help at multiple levels, including  local, city, state, and national, to develop a Civic Health Index that can guide community efforts.

Look for a multi-level approach

Funders don’t need to choose between top-down and bottom-up approaches. Organizations like the demonstrate how advocacy can be informed by both grassroots engagement through its members, and the insights of policy professionals through state and national affiliates. Similarly, coalitions like CivX Now facilitate connections between civics education providers that are working face to face with students, and the researchers and policy advocates that shape policy debate.

Keep it non-partisan

Donors motivated to strengthen our democracy should understand the legal distinctions between the organizations they might want to support. Nonprofit organizations include both 501c3 “charities”, the focus of our guide, and 501c4 “public welfare organizations.” Contributions to 501c3 organizations are tax deductible, but their advocacy and voter outreach work may not endorse a specific party, candidate, or piece of legislation. 501c4 organizations are permitted to undertake “partisan” political activity as long as it represents less than 50 percent of their programing, but donations to c4s are not tax deductible. Additional guidance on legal issues related to funding advocacy and lobbying are provided by Learn Foundation Law and Bolder Advocacy.

Support efforts that mobilize and organize

These terms often get used interchangeably, but are different tactics for civic engagement. Mobilizing is about breadth, reaching people with a latent interest bring them to the table. Organizing is about depth, building relationships and systems that get people more invested in the work. Effective civic engagement efforts use both these tactics, often relying on the amplifying power of technology and social media to mobilize a broad group, but supplementing online engagement with face to face interactions that foster relationships and increase people’s emotional investment in the mission.

Integrate democracy into existing programs

By supporting citizens’ efforts to solve problems in their communities, philanthropy strengthens democracy even when grantees work in seemingly unrelated areas like hunger or early childhood education. Nonprofits engage citizens in public affairs and can increase their impact by elevating the voice of their volunteers and beneficiaries in relevant policy discussions (e.g., Faith in Action). Nonprofit Vote provides resources for nonprofits to incorporate nonpartisan voter engagement into their ongoing programs and services.

Focus efforts where citizens have power

Elected officials make decisions that affect all of us, but are formally accountable only to the voters in their district. Many organizations focus on state or national issues by attempting to influence the actions of legislative bodies without building relationships with the discrete constituencies who elect their members.

Fund ongoing capacity

Even the most successful philanthropic efforts cannot solve our problems once and for all future generations. We will always need organizations that provide a platform for citizens to engage with public problems. Funders can support civil society that is built to last by investing in organizations’ efforts to develop new sources of revenue (American Journalism Project), spread their model(City Bureau), and institute new practices (Orton Family Foundation) to sustain their work past the life of the grant.

Leverage the wisdom of other funders

Newsmatch is a national matching-gift campaign that offers a simple, turn-key platform for all types of funders to support quality news. The 2018 campaign raised $7.6 million for 154 nonprofit news organizations in 54 states. The organization also provides expert training and individualized coaching to help newsrooms develop their fundraising capacity. By supporting Newsmatch, donors can leverage the wisdom of the crowd, and double the financial support of 240,000 people who make contributions to their favorite nonprofit newsroom.

Invest in tech-enabled news and civic engagement

The internet has permanently changed the social and information ecosystems that shape civic life. Funders should help their grantees consider how technology can support their efforts to inform and engage their community. Outlier Media uses SMS messages to provide Detroit homeowners and renters with information about their property’s taxes and utility payments. Democracy Works’s TurboVote app provides reminders and information about elections and polling places. The National Issues Forum hosts online townhalls that offer healthier discourse than many online alternatives.

[i] Hahrie Han. “How Organizations Develop Activists.” 2014.