What Philanthropy’s Response to Changes in Washington Means for Civic Engagement

This post originally appeared as a submission to the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog on May 30.

PACE responds to the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s report, “Shifting Winds: Foundations Respond to a New Political Context,” highlighting the potential and need for robust civic engagement philanthropy.

It doesn’t take a meteorologist to reveal the shifting winds in America. CEP’s aptly-titled report illustrates the sentiments many foundation leaders have felt as we make sense of the swiftly changing context in which we work. Its findings are illuminating, indicating that nearly half of foundation CEOs believe our current presidential administration will make their work more difficult. And 36 percent of CEOs report that they are either in the process of shifting — or are planning to shift — their programmatic strategies accordingly. Many of them have been reaching out to us at Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), and this data provides helpful context and grounding for the questions we’ve been receiving.

PACE is a network of funders committed to civic engagement and democracy, so it’s no surprise that we’ve been fielding questions about the implications of this political and social moment on our civic fabric. More foundations are exploring civic engagement work with renewed urgency and are considering taking the next steps in their investments in this area (or starting to invest for the first time). In an effort to support the growing exploration and spark a dialogue, we created the Civic Engagement Primer — or #PACEprimer, for short. The primer is a tool designed to help philanthropies focus in on the potential value of utilizing civic engagement — both as a means to achieve their broader programmatic goals, as well as a means unto itself — to heal the fractures in our communities and our democracy.

PACE’s working definition of civic engagement takes a wide-angle lens on the scope of work our field encompasses. We define civic engagement as the process of helping people be active participants in building and strengthening their communities, whether you define “community” as a place or a shared identity or interest. This definition comprises the spectrum of ways people can participate in self-governance, from interactions with government to voluntary associations, and everything in between.

It’s worth noting that, while the CEP report finds that 36 percent of foundation CEOs are actively incorporating a shift in their programmatic strategy in response to the current administration, an additional 31 percent indicate that it’s too soon to tell whether they will be modifying their strategies. In other words, more than two-thirds of foundations are either presently considering, or open to considering, new strategies against the backdrop of this rapidly changing environment. The questions PACE has been receiving suggest that greater attention to civic engagement and community involvement is one way many funders are considering shifting their focus in response to the current political upheaval, and a strategy others might wish to explore.

The tenor of the narrative responses to CEP’s survey suggest a sense of gravity — a realization that this moment is unprecedented in many ways. But it is important to note that the administration is not the only factor influencing America’s current political shift. In fact, the very elements of the administration that have caused frustration and altered the landscape for philanthropic progress may have also ignited a potential source of strength — citizen power. While many respondents cited the political climate as problematic, respondents also suggested that the surge in civic activism in response to it is a potential source of strength. As one respondent described in an open-ended response published in the report, “The opportunity lies less in anything the administration is planning than in the counter-narrative and countermovements it is sparking.”

Foundations in PACE’s network are already responding to the rapidly shifting political landscape, deploying new funds to amplify the work of grassroots efforts already addressing the repercussions of our current political and social climate. Our members’ work reflects multiple important priorities, which are even more critical in the shifting winds of today: working across differences, supporting marginalized communities, and working with the best information possible in a sea of unknowns.

For example, the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust launched the Helping People Get Along Better Fund to support national and local efforts to build relationships across difference. The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region and the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation co-launched the Resilience Fund and the Whitman Institute deployed a rapid-response fund — both designed to support and protect vulnerable communities. The Knight Foundation, Rita Allen Foundation, and the Democracy Fund launched the Prototype Fund, which is an open call for ideas to address the spread of misinformation and reinforce trust in quality journalism — a pillar of a healthy democracy. These are a few examples among many of how foundations in our network are responding to this moment with strength and optimism, placing civic engagement at the core of their strategies.

CEP survey respondents who cited the intention to implement programmatic shifts indicated priorities such as advocacy and public policy at the state, local, and national level. But priorities also included increased collaboration with other funders, convenings, and movement building. It’s worth noting that these activities exist on the Civic Engagement Spectrum that we designed as part of the primer, which illustrates the scope of activities that comprise our multifaceted field. In other words, these priorities indicate a clear sense that progress in civic engagement and robust civic participation are critical for moving forward. They also indicate a clear sense of community — both within and beyond the philanthropic sector — and a realization that if we are to find our stride and move past the political divisions of today, it will take as much commitment as collaboration, and equal parts passion and partnership.

At the core of PACE’s mission is a belief that our democracy will be healthier, more successful, more resilient, and more productive if the office of citizen is treated as central to how it functions. The shifting winds in Washington, and across America, have sparked a new conversation about civic engagement and democracy. While there is still much to navigate, we hope the journey we are taking will impart a renewed sense of urgency and purpose for navigating a meaningful path forward and creating a healthy civic life for all Americans.

Read CEP’S Shifting Winds Report