New Grantmaking Strategy Addresses Political Influence Beyond Campaign Donations

The goal of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s (RBF) Democratic Practice–United States program is to advance a vital and inclusive democracy. Since 2008, the program has been uniquely committed to addressing the corruptive power of money in politics, granting over $19 million toward these efforts. Work funded under the program’s Money in Politics strategy operated to reveal and address disproportionate policy capture and democratic disruption by wealthy campaign donors by increasing understanding of the relationship between money and representative democracy, mounting educational efforts to advance legislation on public financing and donor spending limits, and coordinating direct action to reduce the influence of corporate power in our political system.

Over time, RBF staff found the focus on money as a proxy for political and economic elites’ asymmetric influence, which drives policy development and constrains accountability, to be insufficient. After engaging with grantees, elected officials, and the funding community, DP–U.S. staff arrived at the conclusion that “money in politics” is too narrow a scope to address the breadth of structural challenges that undermine U.S. representative democracy. By shaping both the definition of the problem and the source of the solutions around money, the Money in Politics strategy limited RBF’s ability to fund the full scope of activities that bolster the networks and power building necessary to address these challenges. As a result, the program has not adequately addressed the multiple vectors of power beyond campaign donations that can be leveraged by citizens and residents.

In light of the evolving political and economic context in the United States; developments in research, organizing, and advocacy; feedback from grantees; and the Fund’s institutional learning and engagement, we have revised the Money in Politics strategy to focus on Equality of Representation. This new strategy will support innovations in systems and practices to strengthen equality of representation and disrupt corruptive influences, including money and privileged relationships.

The Equality of Representation strategy more closely reflects the scope and breadth of work needed to dismantle systems, rules, and intellectual frameworks that support political dominance for a limited class of private actors. Its framing addresses the interrelated factors that influence the allocation of resources and shape the rules, practices, and structures— including structural racism, sexism, and ableism—and practices that control U.S. political and economic institutions and systems. The focus on innovation is designed to advance creative policy and practice ideation from the field in partnership with community organizations.

This shift in strategy also helps to advance RBF commitments to anti-racism and anti-sexism by focusing on transformative changes in both the form and operation of democratic and economic systems and institutions to better align with demographic changes. It allows us to support technological innovations that enhance the standing of voters and communities to leverage democratic processes and contend for power.

Activities funded under the reframed strategy will include limiting money in elections; advocating for structural changes that shift political incentives away from monetary donations; and advancing innovation to address concerns about the relationship between money, power, and U.S. representative democracy. We anticipate increasing support for new thinking to address structures, power, and race within the context of U.S. representative democracy and experiments to test the ideas it generates. Across all its strategies, the Democratic Practice–U.S. program prioritizes efforts to dismantle structural sexism, racism, and ableism in U.S. democratic systems when considering grant requests.

Changing our strategic grantmaking focus from Money in Politics to Equality of Representation provides an opportunity for the Fund to help the field reframe its work and shore up opportunities for collaboration with other funders. The broader scope will allow us to support a more comprehensive range of grantee work to combat policy and legislative capture by shifting power from the few to the many, expand the space for democratic engagement, and improve prospects for governance policies and practices that further the interests of broad majorities of people.

Read the full Democratic Practice–United States program guidelines here.

Atika Khawaja contributed to this article.