Democracy and Civic Life: What Is the Long Game for Philanthropy?

Published

A well-functioning democracy depends on healthy and trusted public and private institutions; an economy that provides broad-based opportunity and prosperity; tolerance and respect for one another and our differences; and a vibrant civic life. But democracy is undergoing a period of stress that some might even call decline. The challenges of our time raise questions about the role of philanthropy and whether the sector has acted aggressively and effectively to stem the decline of confidence in government, institutions, and one another. To explore where philanthropy might make more of a difference, the Kettering Foundation and the Knight Foundation invited leading thinkers on the future of our democracy to write about the challenges and opportunities for American democracy and what role philanthropy can play in addressing those challenges. You can find the 18 essays here:

A Better, Stronger America: Together

A Better, Stronger America: Together

Kettering Foundation president and CEO David Mathews makes the case for American inventiveness and creativity as a major source of the nation’s resilience throughout its history, and how it can help lead the nation to better times ahead. He also explores the role that foundations can play in backing risky and innovative ventures that have the potential to strengthen our democracy.

Philanthropy’s Role in Strengthening American Democracy: A Diverse Agenda

Philanthropy’s Role in Strengthening American Democracy: A Diverse Agenda

Knight Foundation president and CEO Alberto Ibargüen and senior vice president and chief program officer Sam Gill provide an overview of the 18 essays that explore how philanthropy can help accelerate the reimagining of our democracy. And they explore why foundations should also prioritize the reimagining of local news as part of their core community mission.

Gathering: A Prerequisite for Democracy

Gathering: A Prerequisite for Democracy

Lucy Bernholz, a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, explains that humans have always sorted themselves into groups, and have been sorted and clustered by religious practices and by rulers. But as our lives now operate in both digital and physical spaces, it is imperative that philanthropy focus on the changing nature of how and where we assemble and the need to protect physical and digital spaces for civil society to thrive.

The Conversations of a Self-Governing People

The Conversations of a Self-Governing People

Emily Chamlee-Wright, president and CEO of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, argues that the liberal democratic ideal—a tolerant and pluralistic society in which we treat one another with dignity and respect—depends upon the quality of our conversations. She explores seven basic conversational principles essential to a good society and to the success of the American experiment.

Death and Democracy

Death and Democracy

University of Chicago political science professor Cathy J. Cohen examines the disproportionate deaths and inequities suffered by Black Americans, ranging from the killings by police officers to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has laid bare the uneven distribution of resources in health care, housing, wealth, and education between Black and white Americans and the fundamental failings of democracy. She calls for philanthropic groups to help build movement infrastructure for effective protesting and organizing, which will amplify the voices and facilitate the participation of those most marginalized.

The End of Philanthropy

The End of Philanthropy

University of Miami School of Law professor Mary Anne Franks calls for a recognition that many of the largest philanthropic organizations in the nation were created by white male business leaders in a distorted and antidemocratic market. She urges foundations to focus on funding reparative projects that aim to transform the structural conditions of injustice rather than offering temporary solutions to pressing problems.

Comprehensive Public Sector Reform

Comprehensive Public Sector Reform

Francis Fukuyama, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, examines the federal government’s career civil service, which has been under fire for decades and particularly in the last four years when President Donald Trump and his allies have complained of a “deep state.’’ He calls for foundations to help create a nonpartisan plan for improving government performance and to rebuild respect for public service, so that the government can once again be trusted to work for the American people.

Philanthropy’s Techno-Solutionism Problem

Philanthropy’s Techno-Solutionism Problem

Data & Society founder danah boyd and executive director Janet Haven see worrisome concentrations of power in both the tech industry and philanthropic organizations, despite what is often the best of intentions. They call on foundations to recognize that democratic values are being challenged by the desire to find a tech solution to every problem—even though there is nothing inherently democratic about the technologies—and for philanthropic organizations to begin difficult conversations about reining in their own power and shifting that power to more democratic venues.

Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the Twenty-First Century

Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the Twenty-First Century

California Community Foundation president and CEO Antonia Hernández served on the American Academy of Arts and Sciences task force that spent two years working to come up with recommendations on reinventing democracy. She calls for community foundations to bring local residents together to drive change on a smaller scale city by city—and collectively drive a national transformation.

To Save Democracy, First Save Society

To Save Democracy, First Save Society

Brian Hooks, chairman and CEO of Stand Together, a philanthropic community, looks at the failures in American institutions, ranging from education to business. He calls for philanthropy to focus on building a healthy and inclusive society, which in turn will help restore faith in our democracy. He also urges foundations to invest across institutions and silos to empower people to succeed.

Fear and Loathing in American Politics

Fear and Loathing in American Politics

Stanford University political science professor Shanto Iyengar examines polarization in American society and how it has intensified over the last few decades, with Democrats and Republicans increasingly viewing the other with disdain. That polarization and the fact that few politicians believe that moderation and civility will be rewarded results in hyper-partisanship that may further erode democratic norms, particularly in the aftermath of a close election.

Fortifying Our Democracy in an Alienated Age

Fortifying Our Democracy in an Alienated Age

Yuval Levin, director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, explores Americans’ increasing alienation from social and political life and how citizens increasingly do not think of themselves as inside our society, but as observers on the outside. He calls for a new language of civic engagement that emphasizes the first-person plural and thinking and speaking in terms of “us,” “we,” and “ours,” so that citizens feel they are part of a whole.

Building Civic Bridges through a Lens of Racial Justice

Building Civic Bridges through a Lens of Racial Justice

Martha McCoy, executive director of Everyday Democracy, calls for foundations to make racial justice a core focus of grantmaking, as well as for the funding of active civic engagement and strengthening of democratic institutions. McCoy makes the case that being color-blind is insufficient and that philanthropic institutions must explicitly commit to racial justice as they prioritize investments.

What Philanthropies Should—and Shouldn’t—Do to Save Democracy

What Philanthropies Should—and Shouldn’t—Do to Save Democracy

Yascha Mounk, an associate professor of the practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, examines the rise of populism around the globe and explores what philanthropic supporters of democracy can invest in to help their countries fight the plague of authoritarianism. His analysis offers three important areas where foundations can make a difference, but also warns against a culture of elitism that results in nothing but disdain for half the nation.

What Big Philanthropy Can Learn from Big Tech

What Big Philanthropy Can Learn from Big Tech

Safiya U. Noble, co-director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, compares the largest philanthropies with the global tech giants and how both set standards and systems for smaller organizations. Just as the tech companies are facing a reckoning over their decades of involvement in antidemocratic and antisocial activities, Noble calls for foundations to examine their own practices and commit to funding investments designed to flatten the curve of inequality.

An Agenda for Economic Democracy

An Agenda for Economic Democracy

K. Sabeel Rahman, president of the think tank Demos, explores the need for economic democracy and calls for the dismantling of modern monopolies such as Facebook and Amazon; improving labor rights and giving employees a stake in their companies; and providing a better safety net from the federal government. He also calls on philanthropy to focus on building bottom-up power in the communities facing the greatest need and to do a better job of linking together groups that focus on driving societal change.

The Enduring Insight of John Dewey

The Enduring Insight of John Dewey

Melvin L. Rogers, associate professor of political science at Brown University, examines the work of American philosopher John Dewey, who at the start of World War II worried that democracy might succumb to stability and safety in the face of threats to liberty and norms of decency. Rogers compares that challenging time in American history to this country’s current political climate and asks that Americans engage in a vigorous fight to secure the values of freedom, equal protection, and human dignity.

“Defactionalizing” Science

“Defactionalizing” Science

Daniel M. Rothschild, executive director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, examines the current distrust of science, academic institutions, and experts, and what has driven these trends. He calls for philanthropic organizations to support the emergence of new mediating institutions that can help the public engage productively with scientific knowledge and expertise.

Building Connective Democracy to Combat Polarization

Building Connective Democracy to Combat Polarization

Natalie J. Stroud, professor and director of the Center for Media Engagement (CME) at The University of Texas at Austin, and Gina M. Masullo, associate professor and associate director of CME, characterize the heightened animosity between social and political groups as the leading threat to American democracy. They call for a collaborative effort among foundations and organizations to bolster local media, combat the torrent of social media posts designed to manipulate and inflame, and bring together groups with disparate and sometimes conflicting views––with the goal of building bridges and understanding.

Conformity Culture

Conformity Culture

Janet Tran, director of the Center for Civics, Education, and Opportunity (CCEO) for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, explores the need to better understand and revere the role of dissent in democracy. She considers the prevailing conformity of thought, staffing, and actions throughout the philanthropic world and encourages dissent and diversity at every level. She asks whether foundations have the right makeup to assist individuals and organizations who can’t easily navigate the language and bureaucracy of philanthropic institutions.


This series was edited by Derek Barker and Melinda Gilmore of Kettering Foundation and Sam Gill of Knight Foundation. The authors’ views expressed in these essays are their own.