Today, almost half of undergraduates in the United States are enrolled in community colleges. Compared to students at the nation's four-year colleges and universities, community college students are significantly more diverse. By mobilizing students to become active in their communities (and society more broadly), we ensure that government and other institutions are more accountable to everybody — not just the privileged (or loudest) few.
Concerns about U.S. democracy are on the minds of America's philanthropic institutions. We know, of course, about the "dark money" that is being pumped into the electoral process in an attempt to influence the outcomes of U.S. elections. But what about the efforts of U.S. foundations who see the task of improving U.S. democracy as an important part of their philanthropic missions?
In the months since the 2016 presidential election, philanthropy has begun to respond energetically to real and perceived threats to longstanding American principles of justice, equality, and fairness. Yet more is needed to counter policies and actions that undermine democratic norms, roll back essential safety-net protections, and shrink or destroy government programs essential to the health of the nation and the planet.
A new conversation about civic engagement is emerging. Against the backdrop of rapidly changing social and political upheaval, Americans are feeling a call to take a more active role in their democracy. This swelling interest and urgency has been increasingly felt among the constellation of organizations devoted to the public good. And at Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), a network of funders committed to civic engagement and democracy, we’ve felt this shift firsthand.
Yes, foundations are allowed to support policy and advocacy. Yet, many still balk. Even in funder collaboratives that are doing advocacy work, there are sometimes members who feel like they’re “not allowed to do this,” even though they are.
Legislatures, at the federal, state and local levels, are where elected officials write the laws and pass the bills that establish the rules by which we live, work, and play. They are to democracy what the heart is to the human body, the beating, messy source of its vitality and dynamism. At the same time, they are, as Tocqueville noted, the American political institution "most easily swayed by the will of the majority," subject, by design, "not only to the general convictions, but even to the daily passions, of their constituents.
With the quid-pro-quo nature of politics more evident than ever and public trust in government at close to all-time lows, organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice, with the support of foundations across the country, are working to advance reforms that would reduce the influence of corporations and individual mega-donors in our politics and give "ordinary voters a far louder voice."
The foundation and grants data captured on the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy site represent a spectrum of strategies designed to help the democratic process in this country live up to our lofty ideals. They also represent the best of philanthropy: foundations using their unique freedom and flexibility to tackle long-term challenges that markets are ill equipped to address or solve. If democracy is the operating system of American society, it badly needs an upgrade, and a growing number of foundations are doing something about it.
In recent years, only 40 percent of the voting eligible population has bothered to vote in midterm elections, a number that jumps to 60 percent in presidential election years. It is not, as this infographic suggests, because U.S. foundations have ignored the issue. Indeed, since 2011, foundations have made grants totaling more than $3 billion in support of U.S. democracy.
Few things in the life of our nation serve to heighten awareness of particular social issues and causes more than a presidential election cycle. And given the historic (and boisterous) nature of this particular cycle, my research team and I wanted to understand how – if at all – millennials' philanthropic interests and engagement might change in response to the campaigns mounted by various major-party candidates, and whether these changes were influenced by demographic factors such as gender, age, and political ideology.