Democratic Practice Guidelines

For democracy to flourish and deliver on its promises—including political participation, human rights, access to justice, a good education, an improved quality of life, a healthy environment, and personal security—its citizens must be informed, engaged, empowered, and assertive. Similarly, institutions of governance must be inclusive, transparent, accountable, and responsive.

The frequent failure of both new and established democracies to deliver on their promises undermines the commitment to democratic practices. Wealthy and powerful actors exercise undue influence, and voices that historically have been excluded remain unheard in decision-making processes.

The United States continues to face a number of democratic deficits: a decline in many traditional forms of civic engagement; reduced participation in the formal institutions of democracy, including but not limited to voting; and declining trust in all institutions, especially institutions of government. These deficits are being exacerbated by deeply rooted economic inequality, and American society is becoming increasingly polarized, socially, economically, and politically.

At the same time, the process of globalization has similarly produced democratic deficits in global governance. Global power and wealth inequities have deepened, while the significance of decisions made by transnational institutions such as multilateral organizations, multinational corporations, and international financial institutions has increased. In this patchwork of institutions and practices, global governance decisions are made with inadequate inclusiveness, accountability, and transparency, often pre-empting or distorting legitimate national and local decision-making processes.

The Fund's Democratic Practice program has two parts: advancing a vital and inclusive democracy in the United States and strengthening democratic practice in global governance. Based on a careful assessment of local needs and priorities, the Fund also pursues one or more of the democratic principles underlying the program in its "pivotal places." Recognizing that there is no single model of effective democratic practice, the Fund emphasizes flexibility and adaptability to different contexts in these pivotal places.

Democracy in the United States

Democracy in the United States is facing myriad challenges as persistent and deep divisions continue to undermine the nation’s social, economic, and political vitality. The current U.S. political system suffers from outsized influence of money in politics, extreme partisanship, retrenchment of voting rights, issues with outdated and inefficient election administration, and concentrations of power in narrow segments of society not reflective of the larger population. Alternatively, new opportunities for systemic reform are developing and gaining traction. The nation is seeing a resurgence of grassroots political activism, protest, and a democratization of both traditional and social media. Digital resources are fueling different kinds of engagement and activism that are reaching people in entirely new ways. Further, the ability to leverage creative investigative and solution-based journalism and broadly available government and election data to improve both democratic systems and grassroots civic engagement provides exciting opportunities to build a vital and inclusive 21st-century democracy.

The Fund recognizes that the gaps between rich and poor, and white and non-white, are widening, while the diversity of elected officials remains misaligned with the electorate, fundamentally undermining the quality of representative democracy. Exorbitant amounts of private money spent on political campaigns and lobbying by a very small percentage of the electorate profoundly distort the political system. Others without the financial resources to influence public policy are further marginalized, undermining the ability of voters and constituents to hold elected officials accountable and fostering public cynicism and distrust of elected officials and public institutions.

The quality of our political culture continues to deteriorate. Consequently, there are fewer and fewer examples of true bipartisanship and constructive compromise in state and federal legislatures. Additionally, partisan actors, with a goal of achieving partisan supremacy rather than ensuring democratic fairness, exert disproportionate control over voting rights, poll access, and redistricting. Participation in national elections remains below that of most advanced democracies, and turnout for local elections is persistently low. Moreover, fair, efficient, and effective election administration is undermined by inaccurate voter rolls and outdated processes and technology. In addition, eligible voters have been kept from the polls by restrictive voting laws, or worse, by overt voter-suppression efforts.

Meaningful and informed public participation in all phases of democracy in the United States provides the foundation for a truly vibrant democracy. The Fund believes that innovation in traditional grassroots organizing strategies, development of opportunities for underrepresented populations in civic leadership, and effective integration of digital media and communications into civic life are promising ways to improve public participation in governance. Authentic public participation in democracy lays the groundwork for substantive policy reforms that are a true reflection of our representative democracy.

Goal: Advance a Vital and Inclusive Democracy in the United States

In the United States, the Fund supports innovative strategies to strengthen and broaden participation in the practices and institutions of democratic governance, foster greater transparency, accountability, and responsiveness of government institutions, and promote social, economic, and racial justice in our democratic systems.

  • Combating the corrupting influence of money in politics by supporting the adoption of public financing of electoral campaigns, including judicial elections, and selected other reforms to enhance the integrity of representative democracy.
  • Increasing opportunities for meaningful citizen participation in democratic systems through election and voting reforms, including improvements in voting rights, election laws, redistricting processes, and election administration.
  • Supporting movement-building strategies for systemic reform of democratic institutions to advance economic and racial justice.

The Democratic Practice–U.S. program works to enhance the quality of American democracy through support for high leverage opportunities at the federal, state, and local levels (including New York City as the Fund’s home).

Global Challenges

The dramatic increase in cross-border flows of capital, goods, and people and their values and ideas—“globalization”—is producing deep interdependencies and changes in power relations. It is a defining process of the 21st century, offering both challenges and opportunities.

Public engagement in decision making across all levels of governance must contend nowadays with powerful global actors, forces, and institutions, presenting profound challenges to democracy. Economic interests have largely overshadowed democratic practices, social equity, and environmental concerns in the evolution of global institutions. Powerful international trade and financial institutions remain opaque and exclusive, and the power and reach of multinational corporations often escape public scrutiny or effective regulation. Thus, although the impact of global forces on peoples’ lives is growing, they face enormous impediments to both defend their existing rights and engage to meet new global challenges.

At the same time, globalization has opened up new opportunities for building cross-border, citizen-based coalitions, which are finding innovative ways to frame, address, and resolve global problems. Evolving understandings of planetary limits and the drivers of climate change have given rise to citizen groups pressing for economic and environmental rights. Common experiences of inequality and the erosion of democracy have led to demands for changes in how rules of the global economy are written—and in whose interest. New technologies and ways of organizing undergird citizen networks working across languages, geographies, and cultures. These novel combinations of grassroots, professional, public, private, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental organizations are analyzing global processes, articulating alternatives, and advancing in democratic practice and accountability to address global challenges.

Goal: Advance Democratic Practices to Address Global Challenges
  • Supporting evidence-based analysis and communication of the workings and impact of global processes and institutions.
  • Supporting citizen organizing and other initiatives to align the rules of global commerce and energy and infrastructure finance, with social equity and environmental sustainability.
  • Advancing select innovative ideas to frame and address global challenges and opportunities.

Priority is given to initiatives led by and in support of constituencies and perspectives underrepresented in efforts to forge solutions to global challenges.

For more background information, download the Democratic Practice–United States Program Memo (March 2015) [PDF]

Featured Grantees

Protesting proposed ownership rule change in front of the FCC in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Rodney Choice.)
Free Press
Held annually the first week in May, Public Service Recognition Week is a nationwide program that honors the contributions of public employees. As part of the 2010 commemoration, the Partnership held a celebration on the National Mall that involved more than 100 government offices and agencies and attracted more than 40,000 visitors.
Partnership for Public Service, Inc.

News and updates

The Fund Reframes its Global Democratic Practice Grantmaking Portfolio

An evaluation of the RBF's grantmaking work in the global Democratic Practice portfolio 2010 to 2015 found that it was successful in its primary goal of strengthening the vitality of democracy in global governance. Program director Thomas Kruse's memo reflects on the evaluation and outlines the continuing strategies of the portfolio.

RBF President Stephen Heintz Announces Increase of 2017 Program Grants Budget

Recognizing the challenges to many of the RBF's program priorities presented by the political climate, the board of trustees has approved an increase in the Fund’s grants budget by nearly 12 percent for 2017, Fund President Stephen Heintz announced today.

Heather McGhee’s Powerful Response to a Question on Prejudice

After airing on C-SPAN, the video of a short exchange on race between RBF board member Heather McGhee and a caller from North Carolina has been viewed online more than two million times and garnered widespread media attention.