“A Fragile Political Moment.” A Seasoned Donor Advisor on the State of Democracy Funding

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I recently spoke with Mike Berkowitz, a philanthropic consultant and executive director of the Democracy Funders Network (DFN), about the state of the democracy field and what issues are keeping donors up at night. The timing of the call was somewhat inauspicious.

A few days before our chat, news outlets released private texts from Fox News anchors who derided former President Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud while simultaneously legitimizing the conspiracy theory on-air. The revelation underscored that cold-blooded, profit-driven cynicism (“The stock price is down,” texted a panicked Tucker Carlson after a contributor questioned the fraud claims) fuels division, misinformation and a deep distrust in the media.

And so I dialed up Berkowitz feeling a bit disillusioned. How do civic-minded donors stand a chance of restoring and strengthening the body politic against the backdrop of a multibillion-dollar corporation — not to mention a host of other malign actors — actively sabotaging it? Fortunately, Berkowitz assuaged at least some of my concerns.

“Back when George W. Bush won reelection, there was an explosion of new organizations and donor networks,” Berkowitz told me. “But what happened after Trump’s election totally dwarfs what happened back in 2004 and 2005.” In the years since 2016, a vast array of donors and donor organizing platforms joined the fight to protect American democracy. Most of those organizations are still around, and more continue to come online, forming a sprawling network of diverse nonprofits committed to protecting voting rights, building social cohesion and pushing back against encroaching authoritarianism.

The Democracy Funders Network educates and matches donors across the political spectrum with these kinds of organizations, with a focus on identifying evidence-based and interconnected interventions. “Structural reformers, journalism funders, anti-polarization funders — they’re all part of a broader movement to revitalize American democracy,” said Berkowitz, who has previously co-authored guest posts on IP. “There isn’t one way of understanding what got us here, and likewise, I don’t think there’s one investment that’s going to get us out of it.”

How the Democracy Funders Network came together

Prior to the 2016 election, Berkowitz explained, funders assumed existing systems would contain the “norm-busting” impulses of a divisive political figure or movement. “We had come to take a lot of things for granted,” he said, noting, ironically, that the U.S. government and funders were helping other countries shore up their democracies by supporting conflict prevention, anti-corruption measures, and free and fair elections.

But as Trump’s term unfolded, donors on the left and right realized that “something serious was happening,” Berkowitz said. “Our systems required re-imagination and revitalization.”

Berkowitz has been a donor advisor in the democracy funding space for over a decade, and previously cofounded a cross-ideological network called Patriots and Pragmatists, along with Rachel Pritzker, president and founder of the Pritzker Innovation Fund and a member of the famously wealthy Pritzker family. Given the concerns he had been hearing from donors during those first several years after Trump’s election, Berkowitz said he and Pritzker “went out on a limb” and started DFN in 2018 “to see where things stood and make sense of what to do.” His team’s first order of business was convening with donors and scholars to get a lay of the land and identify key priorities with an eye toward the looming 2020 election.

“An unsustainable level of polarization”

Fast-forward to the present day. The good news, Berkowitz noted, is that voters rejected a crop of Trump-endorsed election deniers in the 2022 midterms. The bad news is that candidate Trump and a substantial portion of his supporters continue to maintain that the 2020 election was stolen.

This is the context that democracy funders now find themselves in. Their agitation over the health of the body politic “has never really abated,” Berkowitz said. “It’s a very fragile political moment.”

Donors he’s speaking with are especially concerned with ongoing efforts to undermine ballot access in the run-up to the 2024 election, noting that some Republican-led states have pulled out of the Electronic Registration Information Center, which helps member states maintain accurate voter rolls. Berkowitz also cited “a significant uptick” in political violence in the U.S. over the last couple of years. “I think a lot of donors are starting to recognize that it is a serious problem that could undermine parts of our system,” he said.

At a personal level, Berkowitz worries about “toxic polarization.” Any civil society will have some degree of polarization, and he acknowledged that distinguishing oneself in the marketplace of ideas is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. Indeed, some voices in philanthropy have been deeply skeptical of attempts to address polarization by seeking “common ground” and “civility,” pointing out that extremists who are actively working to weaken U.S. democracy cannot be counted on to interact in good faith.

But there’s a big difference between disagreeing on public policy and actively “demonizing people with different beliefs or from other backgrounds,” Berkowitz said. “I think there’s recognition that this is an unsustainable level of polarization in a society that needs to function as a collective.”

Educating donors

The DFN works with donors across its six priority areas — toxic polarization, authoritarian populism, civic culture and learning, inclusive, multi-ethnic democracy, democracy reform, and the information environment, which explores issues like digital misinformation and the fragmentation of the news. 

Let’s say a donor wants to address toxic polarization. Berkowitz said he would direct the donor to a DFN report called “A Funder’s Guide to Building Social Cohesion.” The 46-page brief outlines theories of change for advancing social cohesion, lists various nonprofits doing the work on the ground and includes a set of open questions for the field.

“We want funders to understand the variety of ways to approach the work,” Berkowitz said. One of the report’s theories of change is “bridge building” to strengthen personal relationships and deepen understanding between individuals across divides. The report highlights the work of the #ListenFirst Coalition, which consists of more than 500 “bridging” organizations like Village Square and Living Room Conversations. Other theories for change include “inclusion and belonging,” which calls for cultivating a more pluralistic culture, and “narrative change” to connect people through stories to amplify pro-democratic messaging.

Berkowitz thinks this multifaceted approach underscores the need for donors to understand their work in a holistic context. “There’s a lot of silver-bullet thinking in this space — this idea that if we just get money out of politics, we will significantly solve the problem, and I think that’s just manifestly not true,” he said. “We want people to understand their work as part of something broader.”

Berkowitz also called my attention to two more recent publications — “Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy,” a “call to action to imagine what our democracy could become,” and “What Happens If It Happens Here? U.S. Philanthropy, Civil Society, and the Authoritarian Threat,” which looks at how philanthropy can reverse the trend of democratic backsliding.

“A very chaotic field”

When I spoke with Berkowitz, he cited two key obstacles democracy funders face right now. First, “a lot of donors have a very hard time distinguishing their politics from their democracy work.” To be clear, Berkowitz believes there’s nothing wrong with either approach, but said that donors can unwittingly undermine their civic-minded efforts by supporting politicians or PACs that advance hyper-partisan legislation and exacerbate ideological divides.

“We mix those two things together without realizing it,” he said, “and it makes it harder to actually build a democracy agenda that people from different political backgrounds can get behind.” DFN works with donors to help them navigate this tension.

And secondly, while the post-2016 explosion of new democracy organizations was a good thing, Berkowitz said funders can be overwhelmed by thousands of similar-sounding organizations with similar-sounding missions. “When you talk to leaders in this space, there’s concern that there’s a ton of overlap. It’s hard to get a clear sense of what organizations are doing differently.” As a result, donors can misallocate resources. “It’s a very chaotic field that donors have a hard time navigating,” Berkowitz said.

“Democracy funding” can mean many things

So how can democracy nonprofits distinguish themselves from the pack? First, Berkowitz encourages nonprofits to join donor networks. “It’s a more efficient infrastructure for trying to get in front of lots of donors at once,” he said.

Leaders should also gain a deep understanding of funders’ focus areas. This sounds self-evident, but as we’ve seen, there’s considerable nuance, mission overlap and semantic ambiguity across the field. A nonprofit focused on, say, campaign finance reform may have little luck appealing to a funder primarily focused on voter registration or building social cohesion. “In a field this big, funders are not going to care about every bit of ‘democracy’ work,” Berkowitz said. Organizations need to “do their homework and pay attention to the distinctions.”

A few days after our call, DFN announced its Funders Summit on Resilient and Enduring Democracy. The event, which will be held from June 20 through June 22 in St. Louis, will convene donors across the field to discuss “near-term priorities and what it will take to build a democracy that can endure for the next century.”

Ahead of the summit, Berkowitz again stressed the need to bring all types of democracy funders under one roof. “It’s important that election integrity funders know what journalism and pluralism funders are thinking about,” he said. “People have to understand their work in a broader context if we’re going to not just address the problems that are in front of us, but change the fundamental trajectory that we’re on.”

For further reading, check out IP’s State of American Philanthropy white paper on giving for democracy and civic life.