“Democracy is in trouble,” said Diana Hess, Senior Vice President of the Spencer Foundation, to open a breakfast discussion with Donors Forum's Members and Partners on March 18. The program, Strengthening Democracy: Our Sector’s Vital Role, covered the roles nonprofit organizations and foundations can play in strengthening the underpinnings and institutions of government.
Speakers and panelists were blunt in their assessments of the issue. “The system is rigged,” said Robert Gallucci, President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in his keynote address. He identified voter disenfranchisement, closed and obtuse redistricting processes, distorted media and communications systems, income inequality, and campaign financing as key elements that restrict people’s participation in democracy and help a small group of individuals and organizations retain outsized influence in the functioning of government. He said that as a result, government systems were becoming less representative of citizens’ interests, and the socio-economic opportunities and mobility that the United States is known for have been reduced. “It shouldn’t be that if you want to enjoy the American Dream, you have to go to the Netherlands,” he said.
Mr. Gallucci noted that the problems were so large and widespread that there was no single approach that would bring about the necessary changes. Different solutions and activities are needed at all levels of government, but one thing that unifies the organizations in the room was the need to take action. “For each of us, the challenge is the same. How can we make our democracy more representative, how can we make government more effective, and how can we all be part of the solutions we want to see?” he said.
A panel discussion followed, moderated by Ms. Hess. The conversation provided perspectives on how funders and nonprofits can engage in areas that can improve and strengthen democratic systems. Ryan Blitstein, President and CEO of CHANGE Illinois, focused particularly on bringing independence and transparency to redistricting practices to bring balance to Illinois congressional districts, reduce partisanship and division, and make representatives more responsive to their constituents. This effort is important, he said, but it also is only one part of the larger work. “This is a set of systemic, interlocking issues, and we need to be working on all of them, or we will not be making the change we need,” Mr. Blitstein said.
Byron Hobbs, Executive Director of SOUL (Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation), discussed the importance of reconnecting people to government and how it can impact their lives. “An increase in voter participation should be connected to people’s belief that democracy is the vehicle they can use to make dramatic change in their life. Sadly, that is currently not the case.” He spoke of training community leaders about times in the past that grassroots movements have led to improvements in political and social systems, such as the labor movement and the groundswell behind the New Deal. This training, he said, can help leaders understand what is possible as well as the work needed to implement real change.
Finding ways to encourage social service organizations to play an active role in political issues that affect them and their constituents would be a useful step, said Edgar Ramirez, President and CEO of Chicago Commons. He stated that as nonprofit organizations become more reliant on government funding, they often feel pressure to not engage in any policy issues. That can hamper them from having a constructive voice in policy discussions. “People may not be comfortable that an organization like Chicago Commons is engaging in activism, but we need to change that paradigm. We need to look at how the current paradigm is affecting us in a negative way,” Mr. Ramirez said.
The panelists discussed the challenges of working in a system designed to keep certain groups on the outside, and they said that increased transparency, more independent government processes, and broader grassroots participation are needed to build responses to these issues. “We need to organize around principles of what sort of democracy we’d like to see, and how folks at every level, in every neighborhood, can participate in the process,” Mr. Ramirez said.
Doing the work needed to change systems and strengthen the nation’s democracy can be challenging because it is not always easy to convince all parts of an organization what needs to be done and persuade them to act. Mr. Gallucci recommended finding an issue you can connect with emotionally, as that passion can help carry people forward. Mr. Ramirez added that organizations should be careful to find a broad range of opinions and perspectives, which can help make people more likely to invest in whatever strategies develop.
In discussing the role nonprofit organizations and foundations can play in strengthening democracy, panelists emphasized the importance of the sector’s flexibility. “Funders and foundations should strongly encourage organizations like mine to take more risks, be innovative, think outside the box, and partner with other organizations,” Mr. Hobbs said.
Mr. Gallucci added that transparency on the part of funders can give other organizations the opportunity to learn from the chances they took. They should “be open about what interventions you have attempted that have worked and haven’t worked so that other people can learn the same way you should be learning from your experience,” he concluded.
~Jason Hardy, Member Services Support, Donors Forum