Philanthropy can save democracy

Philanthropy can save democracy
© Getty Images

Every year, Americans donate hundreds of billions of dollars to support higher education and the arts, to combat poverty and to conserve the environment, and to many other causes they care passionately about. In 2017, we dug deep into our pockets and generously donated $410 billion to improve our communities and our nation through charitable giving.

The good news is that this giving is diverse and widespread. Individual Americans and charitable foundations direct their resources to provide basic human services through homeless shelters, youth services, food banks, sports organizations, and family and legal services, to preserve the environment and protect animals, to promote and sustain the arts, to strengthen educational opportunities and institutions, and other ways.

But the hard truth is the causes that Americans care about most cannot succeed if our democracy crumbles. That what is happening today as Congress remains paralyzed by political gridlock and our nation has seen a steady erosion of democratic norms and principles. Unfortunately, there is more bad news. The sector that dedicates itself to the care and feeding of our democracy by fixing campaign finance laws, strengthening ethics enforcement, and making government work for all citizens is very small.


This sector comprised only about $400 million in 2017, which is just a tenth of 1 percent of philanthropic giving. There are also only two major national foundations that explicitly fund political reform work aimed at fixing our broken political system. Deep pocketed individual donors, to a large extent people who are all too aware of the big problems with the political system because they are relentlessly asked for money to help candidates run for office, and small donors provide the remaining funds.

Think about all the pressing challenges facing Congress, including taxes, immigration, infrastructure, climate change, health care, and more. There is no simple fix to any of these problems. But the hard fixes will not come about if the political system is broken. That is precisely why electing more Democrats than Republicans, or vice versa, will not change miraculously change things. Power has changed hands in Washington for decades and the political system is still broken, with leaders often unwilling to make the policy decisions simply because it could damage their reelection odds.

But something clearly has to change. It is time for those who can most afford it to look beyond the next election and invest instead in the future of our nation. As a fundraising professional, I have had the privilege to support organizations that work on important issues including human rights, economic justice, international development policy, and now political reform. But raising money in this space is a unique challenge.

I have never faced as much reluctance to support a cause than I have for the renewal of democracy. Fundraising is not easy and every organization must inspire giving by telling the story of why their cause is so important and urgent. But I am struck almost daily by the reluctance of institutions and individuals with significant capacity to truly invest in this sector to do so, especially when the functioning of our government is at stake. The fight to sustain our democracy is missing key philanthropic investment.

We need those that can afford it most to increase their giving to 1 percent, call it a democracy overhead, that would inject the necessary billions into this sector to create a scale at which our nation could have durable and fundamental improvements to our democracy. We simply cannot stand for a future characterized by a failure of American democracy. Creating a more perfect union is the only way here. The alternatives, which we see playing out around the world through a rise in authoritarianism, extreme economic inequity, and crumbling societies are much too frightening.

We do not need a democracy to fulfill an ideal but one that will allow the United States to achieve its promise. Our democracy must work to meet our greatest challenges and our greatest needs. Even a small surge of investment from philanthropy in the organizations which call that their mission would go a long way toward fulfilling the promise of our nation.

Anne Snouck Hurgronje is the chief development officer of Issue One.