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Our Democracy Is Faltering, but We Can’t Rely on Philanthropy Save It

By Ellen Friedman

LEAH MILLIS, REUTERS – An explosion caused by a police munition is seen during the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

Originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

January 12, 2021

The future of our democracy is on thin ice. That became tragically clear last week when the U.S. Capitol was violently attacked by American citizens following a deeply contentious and hard-fought election.

In the past year, many have called on philanthropy to pour more support into efforts to shore up our democratic institutions, especially our elections. Foundations and individual donors have met the moment, playing a big role in efforts to fight voter suppression and ensure safe and fair elections during the November contest and last week’s Georgia Senate runoff — too big a role.

During my 35 years in the field, encompassing nine presidential and countless local and midterm elections, I’ve watched our democracy become more dependent on private philanthropy and our civic infrastructure grow weaker as a result. The thin ice we’re skating on will not hold if we don’t immediately reverse this course.

As philanthropic leaders, we must call for an increase in public investment in a fairer and more accessible election process for all citizens. While private philanthropy has a place in supporting civil society and advocacy organizations, public dollars must be invested in rebuilding and fortifying the foundations of a functioning democracy.

Joe Goldman, president of the Democracy Fund, noted that during the November election “hundreds of millions of new dollars entered the philanthropic space through individual and institutional giving to ensure that a diverse, representative electorate could vote safely and that the American people could have faith in the election’s outcome.” The result was a securely conducted and high-turnout election worthy of our praise. But it raises a fundamental question: If voting is a core right and foundational to a representative democracy, why were private dollars needed at all? Why aren’t public funds protecting our elections?

The answer to these questions is rooted in a long history of racialized and systemic disenfranchisement and a lack of public investment in the solutions that would guarantee fair elections.

As a starting place, our tax system is not designed to support a robust infrastructure that would guarantee easy and safe voting in every state. Decades of tax policies that benefit the wealthy have crippled federal, state, and local support of programs and policies that ensure fair and accessible elections, such as modernized voter-registration systems, independent redistricting, a fully funded postal system, and voting-rights protections. All of these should be backed by public dollars, not private philanthropy.

Instead, our system allows wealthy donors to freely pour cash into elections, resulting in policies that increase the wealth gap and make our democracy more fragile and unbalanced.

Candidates in the 2020 elections raised in excess of $14 billion from donors, including more than $500 million for the Georgia Senate runoff races. Not surprisingly, a majority of Americans believe money can buy elections. Skepticism grows when wealthy donors and a majority of Republicans oppose remedies such as the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would return the 1965 Voting Rights Act to its full strength and provide investments for a modern and equitable election infrastructure. The flood of private dollars flowing into our elections also unfortunately adds fuel to wholly meritless claims of election rigging and theft. This is not a sustainable path for a democracy.

When private wealth and philanthropy repeatedly come to the rescue, we lose sight of the benefits of a representative democracy in which taxes provide for the common good and elected representatives uphold and respect the democratic process by making decisions that reflect constituent priorities. Not only are individual philanthropists and foundations far removed from our nation’s most pressing challenges but their tax status, privilege, and power give them little incentive to promote true structural change.

Our government should meet the communal needs that philanthropy has been backfilling — and that applies to health care, education, and other public needs, as well as our election and voting system. Unless private philanthropy supports the taxation and redistribution of wealth, it only preserves its power and stays in the unaccountable position of determining priorities for the rest of us.

I run a foundation and am not a tax expert, but I know that the system we are working in is seriously flawed and continuing to respond as we have in the past is not a solution. I am inspired by recent commentary by a range of people, including British writer and philanthropy historian Paul Vallely, who notes that philanthropic endeavors aimed at racial, economic, and environmental justice must look honestly at a tax system that “continues to benefit wealthy donors at the expense of those they seek to help.”

But such calls to action will only lead to meaningful change if foundation leaders and wealthy individuals, even those without an explicit focus on democracy, speak up in support of serious tax reform. Our industry associations and affinity groups should advocate in support of legislation to increase taxes on the wealthy. We must also advocate for redistribution of wealth within the philanthropic world, including increasing foundation payout rates. The ultimate success of our grant making will be a future in which democracy will not need philanthropic investment to thrive.

In addition to using our voices to advocate for change, we must consistently support grassroots and community groups that have pushed for this kind of structural reform for years. They are the ones who have fought voter suppression, pounded on doors to get out the vote, protected election workers, and supported ballot initiatives for public financing of elections. As foundation leaders, we must fund organizers and activists and stand with them over time and between election cycles. Just because 2021 isn’t an election year doesn’t mean we stop talking about and funding structural change.

I was drawn to philanthropy because I believed I could work inside the system to bring resources to those working to build an equitable and just future. Today I firmly believe that institutional philanthropy is not a sufficient, nor even a desirable, substitute for taxation that redistributes resources to benefit everyone. The vision that fueled my early work in philanthropy can no longer be funded by private foundations or individual philanthropists — it takes all of us paying our fair share to get there together.

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for all who stepped up and invested heavily in this election cycle, including the foundation that I am proud to lead. We would not be able to move forward as a country without these efforts. But if our democracy continues to depend on private philanthropic investment, the thin ice we’re skating on is sure to give.

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