Is There a Role for Philanthropy in Renewing Democracy?

Is There a Role for Philanthropy in Renewing Democracy?

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Thursday, July 11, 2019 - 3:00pm

Has the world of organized philanthropy done everything it can to shore up democratic values and aspirations, or has it been pursuing its own ideas of the public good? To what extent can philanthropy’s efforts to strengthen communities and rebuild public trust be more effective and responsive to the needs of a democratic society?   

In May of 2018, the Council on Foundations and the Kettering Foundation convened a two-day symposium to wrestle with these and other questions. The symposium brought together a group of 20 foundation and nonprofit leaders working at the national, state and local levels who explored how philanthropy can narrow the gap between people and institutions, strengthen public engagement, build civic capacity and bolster democratic norms and practices in the United States.

A report entitled Our Divided Nation: Is There a Role for Philanthropy in Renewing Democracy was recently released by The Kettering Foundation and the Council on Foundations. The report summarizes the discussions and findings of this group, and it attempts to identify some of the reasons why the country seems more divided and divisive than has been the case in recent memory.

Indeed, the conversation was centered on the problem of divisiveness and whether there is a role for philanthropy to play in addressing “the deepening cleavages in American society.” While the group acknowledged that divisions are not new, there appeared to be consensus that forces are at work today inflaming tensions and breeding confusion and doubt. 

The group opined that this divisiveness is intertwined with a set of other challenges facing America today, which they believed include:

  • The decline of public confidence in newspapers, schools, churches, the police, and other democratic institutions;
  • The pervasive loss of social capital and the breakdown of constructive dialogue in U.S. communities;
  • The impact of new technologies and their tendency to spread misinformation, inflame tensions, and create filter bubbles and echo chambers that polarize rather than bring us together; and
  • Deeping income inequality.

While these problems may seem insurmountable, the group offered a number of potential areas where organized philanthropy could play a role. These include:

  • Creating public spaces in which people can interact across barriers of social difference and begin to discover common interests. Creating these public spaces also requires establishing a context for meaningful dialogue, and giving people a kind of permission to address things they really care about.
  • Building democratic skills and capacities by offering ideas and information, technical and administrative assistance, training and hands-on learning opportunities, networking and access, and marketing and media relations expertise.
  • Developing civic leadership especially among emerging and non-traditional leaders who can serve as change agents who bring people together and spark new ideas and conversations (something that the American Express Foundation has been focused on for the past decade).
  • Identifying resources that already exist at the community level, which may mean spending more time listening and learning from community members, understanding where the capacities already exist, and helping to unlock the civic potential of their communities rather than creating new solutions and initiatives.

The report concludes by asserting the foundations often stress the importance of advancing democracy in their mission statements, but there is no real consensus about what that means. One of the challenges facing philanthropy is to decide what kind of democracy it wants to support and how best to go about doing it. 

Acknowledging that a problem exists is often the first step in finding a solution, so it’s hopeful that this report is a step in the right direction and that it may act as a guidepost for further discussion and analysis in the field of organized philanthropy.

Portions of this blog post first appeared on Forbes.

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.



CSR Now! Is a weekly blog by Timothy J. McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation, designed to get at what's happening in corporate social responsibility today -- from the point of view of a corporate practitioner.


Rohan Ramsay
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American Express