Philanthropy's Obligation to Democracy

  • Photo by Aaron Burden.

By Stephen Heintz, president and CEO. This essay originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

As Americans get ready to mark the holiday of the nation’s independence, we have reason to celebrate one of the hallmarks of our democracy: The nation’s more than 100,000 foundations distributed more than $75 billion last year, the highest dollar amount on record. That money went to a kaleidoscope of causes, including cutting-edge medical research, early-childhood education, investigative journalism, microfinancing, and so much more.

It is because lawmakers see these philanthropic contributions as an essential ingredient in our democracy that Congress long ago gave foundations special privileges to operate as tax-exempt institutions. You might think that this understanding would go two ways—that grant makers would make strengthening democracy itself a central part of their work.

But less than 2 percent of philanthropic dollars spent in the past decade have been dedicated to efforts to advance voting, promote civic participation, strengthen government, support the news media, and pursue other work that ensures our democracy is functioning well.

That oversight is a key reason foundations aren’t achieving the impact they intend. Take the example of health, the area of focus that today commands the largest share of foundation grant-making dollars, at 28 percent. Studies have shown that the strength of a country’s democracy has a greater effect on chronic diseases than even GDP. The environment is another example: Empirical evidence confirms that strong democracies correlate to clearer air. The same is true for education, social services, and journalism. In the Venn diagram of all public goods that foundations support, democracy lies in the millionfold intersection.

A functioning democracy is not a panacea for the myriad challenges that foundations seek to address, but a broken democracy makes other broken systems and institutions much harder to fix.

The Covid-19 pandemic and recent surge of awareness around the centuries-old crisis of racial justice have made glaringly obvious the high costs we incur when we turn a blind eye to our democracy’s disrepair. Our ineffective response to the pandemic is the grievous price tag of a political culture riven by polarization and government institutions that have lost the public’s trust. Persistent violence against Black Americans, too, has its roots in the dual failures of our democracy’s culture and institutions: a culture of white supremacy and institutions both unresponsive to the voices of citizens and unrepresentative of our country’s rich diversity.

The stunning indifference of American foundations to democracy is self-defeating in more ways than one. Not only do foundations miss an opportunity to support a public good that would blow wind in the sails of everything else they care about and work on, but they also undermine their own legitimacy.

As numerous critics have noted in recent years, foundations are by nature profoundly undemocratic institutions. We are creatures of vast economic inequality whose endowments are subsidized through tax exemptions, and yet whose activities are largely unaccountable to the public. Our undemocratic means are justified only through the promise of more democratic ends. When we neglect democracy as a public good, we undermine our own reason for existence.

No matter how much we give, foundations cannot fund our way out of our current crisis of democracy. But foundations still do have a vital role to play in mobilizing citizens to reinvent our democracy’s culture and institutions. Because foundations are restricted from partisan activity and lobbying, they are in a special position to support the kind of long-term, inclusive efforts that can empower regular citizens to rise above polarized political interests and well-resourced lobbies. Against short-term policies that favor the bottom line, we can throw our weight behind the public good.

That’s why the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has long made bolstering democracy a key part of our focus, and why we now devote up to 13 percent of our annual grant-making budget to that purpose.

For foundations that don’t yet see democracy as a core part of their work, “Our Common Purpose,” a report from the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which I co-chair, offers numerous points of entry. Informed by the voices of hundreds Americans who participated in the commission’s listening sessions, the report aims to fundamentally reinvent American democracy for the challenges of this century.

Numerous organizations are already working on the report’s recommendations to establish a National Trust for Civic Infrastructure that will invest in civic life, draft a public-interest mandate for social-media platforms, enact a constitutional amendment allowing Congress to mitigate the distorting influence of money in politics, expand paid national-service opportunities that will inspire shared public commitment to American constitutional democracy, and more. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund has committed up to $14 million to support these efforts, which will require significant investments from other foundations to succeed.

Six years from now, on July 4, 2026, Americans will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the political birth of our nation. The principles set out by its founders in 1776 have carried the United States through more than two centuries, but not without deliberate care and revision along the way to address critical shortcomings and reflect changing context. The country reinvented itself after the Civil War—a second founding. A century later, the Civil Rights movement ushered in a third founding. The conditions of the 21st century urgently require a fourth.

For too long, U.S. foundations have taken democracy for granted. Now, in the face of a splintered populace, a global pandemic, and a racial-justice crisis that threaten all else we do, we must support the kind of democratic reinvention that will carry us into the next century. The public good depends on it.