Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some quick answers to some of the questions addressed in our full We the People guidebook. You can learn more about this project, including authors, methodology, and acknowledgements, on our About This Project page.

About Democracy

What is democracy?

Democracy is government by the people. While its most visible practice is the free and fair election of leaders, democracy comprises a broad array of institutions that vest power in citizens, including a free press, rule of law, individual rights and others. A number of pro-democracy institutions have provided detailed definitions, frameworks, and indices of democracy that we consulted for this project. Examples include Democracy Fund, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the V-Dem Institute.

What are 5 elements of a strong democracy?

An ideal democracy has the following elements. To read more about their indicators, determinants, and how donors fund them, see our full Framework.

Empowered citizens: The people are the principal actors in a democracy. Citizens are empowered when their rights are protected, they are informed, and their communities proactively engage them in the democratic process.

Fair processes: The mechanics of democracy. Fair processes respect the principle of one-person, one-vote and hold policy-making institutions accountable through checks and balances.

Responsive policy: An output of democracy. Responsive policy weighs all citizens’ interests and values equally, provides for the common good, and establishes institutions that empower individuals to protect their rights.

Information and communication: These elements mediate the relationship between citizens, processes, and policy. Information and communication that is representative, accurate, and trusted ensures fair processes and enables citizens to hold policy makers accountable.

Social cohesion: A shared sense of purpose and identity implicit in the enduring phrase “we the people.” A democratic society’s members recognize each other’s right to a voice in the political process and are willing to collaborate for common ends.

What evidence is there that democracy is declining?

In 2016 the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index downgraded the U.S. from a full democracy to a flawed one.

Congress’s approval rating among Americans averaged 37 percent from 1974 to 2009, but only 17% since. Trust in government has followed a similar trend with only 17% of Americans reporting that they trust the government all or most of the time.[iii]

The percentages of Democrats and Republicans who hold very unfavorable views of the opposing party have more than doubled over the past two decades (to 38% and 43%, respectively).[iv]

Increased partisanship among elected officials has led to increased gridlock in the U.S. governing institutions. For example the U.S. Congress has failed to pass on-time appropriations bills in every fiscal year since 1996.[v]

[i] The Economist Intelligence Unit. 2019. North America 2018 Democracy Index 2018: Me Too? http://www.eiu.com/Handlers/WhitepaperHandler.ashx?fi=Democracy_Index_2018.pdf&mode=wp&campaignid=Democracy2018

[ii] Abramowitz, Mike. 2019. “The Struggle Comes Home: Attacks on Democracy in the United States,” Freedom in the World Report 2019. https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Feb2019_FH_FITW_2019_Report_ForWeb-compressed.pdf

[iii] Gallup. 2019. “Congress and the Public.” https://news.gallup.com/poll/1600/congress-public.aspx

[iv] Pew Research Center. “The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider.” 2017. http://www.people-press.org/2017/10/05/the-partisan-divide-on-political-values-grows-even-wider/

[v] Bipartisan Policy Center. 2016. “Can Congress Deliver Appropriations Bills on Time?”. https://bipartisanpolicy.org/blog/can-congress-deliver-appropriations-bills-on-time/

How does local media strengthen democracy?

Information provided by local media is essential to the abilities of individuals and communities to fully participate in civic and democratic life, specifically information related to emergencies and risks, health and welfare, education, transportation, economic opportunity, environmental quality, civics, and politics.[i] Strong local media goes beyond reporting information to engage citizens and to facilitate public discourse and build social cohesion.[ii]

[i] Communication Policy Research Network. 2012. Executive Summary for CPRN-FCC LIT REVIEW. https://transition.fcc.gov/ocbo/Executive_Summary.pdf

[ii] Agora Journalism Center, Engagement Lab. 2019. “Building Engagement: Supporting the Practice of Relational Journalism.” https://agora.uoregon.edu/research-reports/

How does civic engagement strengthen democracy?

Civic engagement encompasses a broad range of activities from donating to charity and volunteering to running for political office. Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) provides resources for funders looking to incorporate civic engagement into their grantmaking. Our guide focuses on three related forms of civic engagement: civic membership, which aggregates and amplifies the voices of citizens, deliberative participation, which exposes people to opposing viewpoints and allows for compromise and consensus, and voting, which enforces citizens’ role as the principal actors in our democracy.

What is civic engagement?

PACE defines civic engagement as “the process of helping people be active participants in building and strengthening their communities, whether defined as a place or a shared identity or interest.”

[i] Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement. 2017. What is Civic Engagement? Pace Civic Engagement Primer. http://www.pacefunders.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Civic-Engagement-Definition.pdf

How do you characterize a local media landscape that supports a strong democracy?

There are three key criteria that represent a strong local media presence. These criteria are:

  • Quality Coverage: Professional, representative journalism that is informed by communities’ perspectives and meets their critical information needs.
  • Engagement: Reporting that invites citizens’ participation by every possible means: contributing to stories, reading and sharing articles, joining public debate.
  • Sustainability: Outlets with reliable revenue streams and strategies to reach their audience as news consumption habits evolve.

How do you characterize a society that is rich in civic engagement?

Civic engagement encompasses a broad category of programming related to democracy, from donating to charity to running for political office. We focus our guidance on three related forms of civic engagement and provide concrete examples of how philanthropy can support them. Each ties into to our framework of strengthening democracy:

Civic Membership: Joining voluntary associations fosters social cohesion and empowers citizens by aggregating individual voices.

Deliberative Participation: Forums for public discourse lead to more informed citizens and richer communication between elected officials and their constituents, leading to more responsive policy.

Voting: Sustained, broad-based participation in elections—local and federal, and primaries—enforce policymakers’ accountability to citizens.

About Philanthropy and Democracy

Why is Democracy an important issue for philanthropists, specifically, to tackle?

Since the government addresses many of the same social impact areas as philanthropy and funds 32% of nonprofit revenue, funders must concern themselves with its functioning.[i]

The nonprofit sector represents the collective efforts of citizens coming together to solve common problems, the essence of democratic culture.[ii] Philanthropically supported civil society organizations are essential in a democracy, as they give citizens a platform to act in the political process.

[i] McKeever, Brice. 2015. The Nonprofit Sector in Brief 2015: Public Charities, Giving, and Volunteering. https://www.urban.org/research/publication/nonprofit-sector-brief-2015-public-charities-giving-and-volunteering

[ii] Alexis de Tocqueville. 1835. “Democracy in America.” (J. Schleifer translation published 2012.)

Are there limitations to certain philanthropic strategies?

  • Philanthropists may be ineffective if they do not think critically about long-term comprehensive solutions to democratic challenges, particularly in voter registration and policy research and advocacy.


Voter registration and mobilization are popular choices for democracy funders. Yet many nonprofit leaders have emphasized that philanthropic support for voter turnout should go to long term efforts that lift participation across all elections, and not just in presidential election years.

Policy research and advocacy is another representative area for democracy funders. However, these efforts often rely exclusively on professional staff rather than invite broad participation of citizens who have a stake in the issue. Funding policy research and advocacy can also be challenging given the current level of polarization in the U.S., especially for donors and institutional grantmakers new to this space.

Do you have a recommendation for the most impactful program area(s)?

CHIP recommends helping through reinvigorating local media or increasing civic engagement. Why?

In our interviews with scholars, the declines of local media and civic engagement were the most often cited drivers of the distrust and polarization that characterize contemporary politics.

Interviews with funders revealed significant philanthropic interest in these topics, especially given the place-based approaches of many funders.

Reviews of academic literature confirmed the importance of local media and civic engagement to all five elements of a well-functioning democracy.

About This Project

Who funded this project?

Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar that invests in organizations working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people.

How was this project executed?

As with all of our work, we iteratively rely on three circles of evidence: academic research, informed opinion, and field knowledge to understand philanthropic opportunities that are both evidence-based and actionable. For this guide, our research began with an extensive literature review of democratic theory, founding documents, and related analyses. In total, we reviewed roughly 130 documents. We also reviewed 10 frameworks produced by foundations and other civil society organizations as well as eight of the most commonly referenced indices for measuring democratic health. Finally, we performed 25 organization interviews and received information on grantmaking from 20 scholars, donors, and practitioners during an in-person workshop in October 2018.

How does CHIP select the Nonprofits Making a Difference that are featured in the guide?

Through the course of the literature review and interviews that informed our philanthropic guide to strengthening democracy, we compiled a list of 37 organizations whose missions aligned with our focus on the two deep dive areas of strengthening local media and civic engagement. These organizations were contacted to request interviews. Twenty-five interviews with these practitioners gave us insight on how these strategies can be applied most effectively, as well as referrals to exemplary organizations. These referrals constituted a shortlist of 14 organizations which was narrowed to the eight profiled in this document on the basis of the following criteria: geographic balance, alignment with aspects of civic engagement and local media highlighted in our guide, and evidence of impact. We then conducted multiple followup interviews with the eight exemplar organizations to provide further evidence of impact and cost-effectiveness.