#170 Summer 2012 — Election Issue

Where’s the Money for Democracy?

A breakdown of the funding climate for civic engagement.

Korean Resource Center, CC By-SA

Korean Resource Center does voter registration outreach in Arirang Garden Grove, Orange County, California, in October 2011. These sorts of efforts should attract more foundation funding than they do.

civic engagement

The Korean Resource Center does voter registration outreach in Orange County, California, in October 2011. Photo courtesy of Korean Resource Center, CC By-SA

When we elected a community organizer as president of the United States, it represented arguably the emotional high point in this country’s history of civic engagement of young people and people of color.

In the world of funding, however, it’s been a different story.

In the Foundation Center’s online database of some 2.4 million grants from over 100,000 private foundation, corporate, and public charity grantmakers, among the thousands of possible subjects of grants, the term “community organizing” does not even appear.

This is striking in light of several foundation-supported reports attesting to the importance of community organizing in social change strategies. Some major foundations — including the Ford Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the New York Foundation, and others — appear to recognize the importance of community organizing and community mobilization as a core strategy for achieving social change goals, but the amount of the foundation sector’s overall financial commitment to building on-the-ground community organizing capacities and networks hasn’t yet been deemed important enough to even be tracked.

A total of $26.1 million was distributed through 287 grants to United States nonprofits with “community organizing” as keywords in the grant descriptions between 2009 and 2012 (although that time period mostly reflects 2009 and 2010 due to foundation time delays in filing their Form 990PFs). Fifteen foundations accounted for over $21 million of that $26.1 million, and most of these community organizing grant dollars were concentrated on the east and west coasts, with nearly $9.5 million given to organizations in California, $3.2 million in Washington, D.C., $2.3 million in New York state, and $1.7 million in Massachusetts.

All told, it’s not much.

The Civic Engagement Alternative

If the foundation sector appears to balk at the term “community organizing,” perhaps a less politically charged term might be “civic engagement.” The Case Foundation, a leader in the effort to increase philanthropic commitments to civic engagement, describes the civic engagement process as “the ability and incentive for ordinary people to come together, deliberate, and take action on problems or issues that they themselves have defined as important and in ways they deem appropriate — whether through volunteering, voting, activism, or organizing.”

What’s more, civic engagement can attract foundations of more diverse political persuasions. A civic engagement measurement tool generated for a study done by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), one of the foundation world’s frequently cited sources on the topic, offered 19 indicators of civic engagement including participating in community problem-solving, regularly volunteering, engaging in charitable fundraising, voting regularly, participating in electoral campaigns, participating in marches or demonstrations, and signing petitions.

The Obama administration is a supporter of the concept of civic engagement and not long ago created “We the People,” a White House site that encourages viewers to create online petitions and post them for endorsements and signatures. If a petition gets 25,000 signatures within 30 days, a White House-designated official will write a response (the original response threshold was apparently 5,000).

Despite the broad philanthropic acceptance of the concept, “civic engagement,” like “community organizing” doesn’t rate a categorical description in the Foundation Center online database.

Advocacy for Civil and Human Rights

For community developers, a more useful grantmaking topic might be “advocacy for civil and human rights.” Among the notable grantmakers in this arena in 2009 and 2010, with grant levels of more than $1 million, are some well-known community development funders, including, Ford, Marguerite Casey, Bill & Melinda Gates, Foundation to Promote Open Society, the Public Welfare Foundation, and Surdna. The list also includes funders with less direct community development commitment, like Public Interest Projects, the Proteus Fund, and the Open Society Institute.

A good deal of advocacy funds flowed from foundations to regrantmaking entities, such as $7.2 million to the Liberty Hill Foundation, $2.9 million to the Public Interest Projects, $8.2 million to the New World Foundation, and $1.8 million to the Tides Center. This was also true of community organizing grants. Over $3 million of advocacy grants came from community foundations, which themselves are regrantmaking institutions. Typically, their grants were likely given to smaller, community-based organizations.

Voting Rights

Coming into the national elections, the nation’s most significant barometer of foundation support for civic engagement might well be foundation grantmaking that addresses voting rights, voter education, and voter registration. Latino Decisions, a political opinion research organization, conducted an analysis of voter registration patterns and census data on population growth that showed that only 60 percent of eligible Latino adult citizens are registered to vote. That means more than 12 million Latinos in the United States are eligible to vote but are not registered, with the highest concentrations in Texas (2,154,600), California (2,026,500), Florida (638,400), New York (537,600), Arizona (405,300), and Illinois (300,300).

The policies of some states aimed at suppressing voter registration and voter turnout may already be taking effect in the 5 percent decline of registered Latino voters and the 7 percent decline in registered African-American voters between the 2008 and 2010 elections. This means foundation support for voting rights is not only a statement of commitment to increased civic engagement, but a potential “vote” in favor of racial justice.

In terms of overall foundation grantmaking on the subject of “voter education,” as tabulated in the Foundation Center’s online directory, the top five grantmakers in 2010 were the Ford Foundation ($6.7 million), the Vanguard Charitable Endowment ($6.2 million), the Carnegie Corporation ($3.05 million), the Foundation to Promote an Open Society ($3 million), and the James Irvine Foundation ($1.4 million).

The top grant recipients in this category (receiving over $500,000 of foundation support) include the traditional voter education groups, such as Women’s Voices, Women Vote ($3.8 million) and Rock the Vote ($2.07 million). But they also include those groups that work to register and mobilize people of color or young people, including Voto Latino ($745,000) and National Coalition on Black Civic Participation ($1.3 million).

The grants lists show increasing voter education support for organizations targeting Latinos in particular, including local efforts such as the Latina Initiative based in Denver, and Asian Americans, such as the Chinese American Voters Education Committee in San Francisco. While grantmaking for voter education and voter registration targeted to racial and ethnic groups may be on the rise, it is surpassed by more general voter education and voting rights work and programs targeted to groups such as women and young people without reference to their racial or ethnic identities.

Engaging Community Developers

The overlapping dimensions of community organizing, civic engagement, civil rights, and voter education programs with grantmaking are intuitively obvious. Foundations should consider making providing grants to support community-based groups in doing voter education and voting rights a top priority, especially with the assault on the voting rights of American citizens metastasizing from state to state, reflecting a coordinated campaign by conservative think tanks.

The meaning of this assault for community developers is clear from the demographics. The Brennan Center recently released a study documenting that voters in poor, relatively rural areas in states like Mississippi will be more adversely affected by voter ID laws than others. But the same applies in urban areas. Estimates are that more than 437,000 of the 1.6 million people in Pennsylvania who lack the photo identification currently needed to vote are in Philadelphia.

Voter registration conducted by 501(c)(3) public charities is required by law to be nonpartisan, but community development groups can and should be asking their staff, donors, and volunteers to vote along the lines of the “Vote with Your Mission” campaign and guidelines of the California Association of Nonprofits, which asks nonprofit staff to vote “with the ideals and values that bring them into the nonprofit sector” and “take the issue of voter encouragement and education to boards, management teams, coalitions, and donors.”

There is nothing distinctly Democratic or Republican about protecting voting rights and asking nonprofit workers to take their nonprofit, social justice ideals into the voting booth. But there is one distinctly partisan element of this issue. Foundations and nonprofits supporting voting rights and voter registration are partisans for grassroots democracy, for protecting or restoring the American notion of citizenship.


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