PACE 2018: A Year in Review

Dear Colleagues,

I’m reminded often that philanthropy is the love of humankind. Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) and its members exist at a natural intersection between philanthropy and democracy — a system of government that draws its strength from the participation of its people. Active civic engagement, for us, means ensuring the humanity at the heart of democracy.

2018 was a year of democracy — with a swell of debate, concern, and prophecy on its health, challenges, opportunities, and future. PACE and its members believe American democracy will thrive when all of its people are informed and engaged in the process of creating it. And amid the turmoil and uncertainty (and at times, also hope) of 2018, this vision has remained our guiding star.

PACE exists to help organizations who invest in civic engagement work do more of it, do it better, and do it together. This year, we’ve delved deeper into our three strategic questions, focused on bridging divides, health and safety, and information and education that support active civic engagement. And the community of funders that have joined us has grown as well; we welcomed 11 new organizational members in 2018. In the pages below, our team shares more about what has taken shape in these explorations as they’ve expanded into their second year — what we’ve learned, what’s surprised us, and what’s next. I encourage you to keep reading.

PACE and its members believe American democracy will thrive when all of its people are informed and engaged in the process of creating it.

As we’ve leaned into our role of supporting funders who see themselves as a part of civic engagement and democracy work, a parallel goal has evolved to connect with funders who don’t… yet. In this political and social moment, the urgency to invest in the sustaining elements of our democracy continues to grow. At the same time, civic engagement can — and should — take many forms, and the path toward beginning that process doesn’t always feel clear. In that spirit, in addition to supporting our members, PACE also serves as a space to help funders understand why democracy matters, why civic engagement and small “d” democracy are worthy of philanthropic investment. We want to show how it can be integrated into — and support — existing funding priorities for many funders.

In many ways, 2018 has been a reckoning for democracy — and in these moments of challenge and uncertainty, it’s important to return to what’s most essential: the values that guide you. This year, with input and guidance from our board and members, the PACE team completed a careful process of refining our organizational values. While staying true to our mission, we wanted to be sure that the fellowship, learning, equity, honesty, and action that have become pillars of our work were clearly reflected in the guiding values of our community. One thing has always been true about PACE: we value not just the learning that happens here, but how we come together to do it. A spirit of collaboration and shared commitment is central to democratic practice, and is also how our community thrives.

PACE’s objective to deepen philanthropy’s practice of democracy and civic engagement has sparked new initiatives this year, including a Civic Learning Funder Affinity Group and, most recently, an exploration into the perceptions of language associated with civic engagement and democracy. A response to challenges our members were facing in their work, the language project aims to gain a fuller understanding of what ideas like civility, activism, and patriotism mean — alongside democracy, civic engagement, and common good — to Americans in everyday life. Our hope is that what we learn will help inform how funders and practitioners communicate beyond the scope of our field. This exciting research is already underway, and we look forward to sharing full results with you in a report to be released early this new year.

The culmination of several additional research initiatives we’ve led this year will also become public in 2019, and the snapshots below will give you a preview of what’s coming. We look forward to sharing more with you soon, and encourage you to subscribe and follow us here on Office of Citizen for continued updates. Thank you for all you do in service of our shared democracy and vibrant civic life.

Yours in Service,

Kristen Cambell

Executive Director, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)

Credit: AJ Colores

1. How can philanthropy create spaces for people to come together around complex and divisive issues?

Decker Ngongang, PACE Fellow

PACE’s exploration to gain a deeper understanding of the civic divisions facing our democracy — and what philanthropy can do to help — began early in 2017. Since then, as civic tensions have continued to surface and evolve, it has become increasingly clear that we are experiencing symptoms of a deeper affliction affecting our democracy. Public discourse reflects the health and wellness of our democratic system, and this year has further illuminated its vulnerabilities, presenting PACE and its peers with a unique opportunity to help guide our sector’s response to this moment of reckoning.

If we think of democracy as a living thing, its current condition is not unlike a critical illness. And civic leaders and institutions will need to move beyond speaking to and addressing the most apparent symptoms (division and incivility) to truly understand the context (complex history and social dynamics) and ultimately analyze the relevant systems (democratic institutions) to understand the root causes of this illness.

With our collective desire to mitigate the current climate of division and rancor, comes a tendency to default to immediate solutions, including strategies for finding and practicing “civility”. The more methodical work of understanding our civic condition and truly healing the factors that have contributed to it, may not bring the gratification of immediate action — but are critical for building a new and resilient civic culture.

While our sector has heard a multitude of calls for “civility” across difference, what we’re hearing is that mere civility is insufficient in the face of what are truly complex and overlapping sources of division. Furthermore, calls for civility and bridging divides often come with a framing of difference across lines of political affiliation, race, gender, and other binary identifiers, but this framing not only oversimplifies the social fractures we’re experiencing — more importantly, it risks minimizing the multifaceted humanity of the American people.

The work of bridging divides might be technical, but it must also be personal. And creating spaces for people to interact fully and authentically with one another will be critical for moving forward together as Americans. Each of us has personal histories and perspectives that inform and impact the way we experience everyday life. Bridge building initiatives are most powerful when they make room for these complex social identities to exist fully, which also helps ensure they don’t risk deepening existing divisions.

This reality is a key opportunity for our sector to take leadership and lean into our roles as conveners. Philanthropic institutions can begin to shape a more holistic approach to engagement and debate, embracing the opportunity in this political moment to better understand the seeds of division and transform the culture of civic dialogue from one of fear, blame, and self-interest into a culture of diversity, imagination, and connection.

The work of bridging divides might be technical, but it must also be personal.

This spirit and possibility of connectedness is not a pie-in-the-sky notion, but instead a necessary precondition to healing our civic divisions. If philanthropic and civil society institutions can create spaces for Americans to exist and engage with one another authentically, where honesty and respect can coincide, we will also be creating space for the humanity that is so lacking from our public discourse. Furthermore, spaces like this will serve to create a baseline for identifying bad faith actors — those that deny another’s humanity. This standard has often been lacking from public discourse, to the detriment of all, but especially historically marginalized populations.

Today, millions of Americans are going about their lives with wildly inaccurate perceptions of one other. My experience throughout this process is that despite America’s profound polarization, there are many more opportunities to strengthen our civic fabric than conventional wisdom suggests. And philanthropic and civic engagement institutions will be crucial to supporting healthy civic habits and norms, and, where necessary, the establishment of new ones.

Throughout this exploration of this question, we spoke with PACE members, experts, researchers, and influencers leading a spectrum of bridge-building initiatives, and in 2019, we’ll share what we’ve learned in a series of essays. A central lesson has been that detailed observation and reflection must be as much a part of the solution as action itself — one must inform the other, especially in the urgency of this moment.

History illustrates that moments like this are more the rule than the exception, and we’ve gotten this far as a nation because we’ve become a little better every time at honest reflection. PACE’s exploration and the forthcoming essay series will serve to inform this process for our sector, but we also envision this as the beginning of a conversation. Democracy is nothing if not the sustaining of a shared reality, and creating space for humanity within it is a responsibility for all of us. In that spirit, we welcome your reflections as well, and look forward to engaging with you in the months and years to come.

Credit: Vitaliy Paykov

2. How can investments in civic engagement increase health and safety outcomes for communities?

Marian Mulkey, PACE Fellow

At the heart of our nation are its people and the communities they live in. Their vibrance, strength, and resilience are mirrors of our American civic landscape — and a natural connection point for PACE and its members to explore. Our Health and Safety Working Group came together to delve into the relationship between civic engagement and health and safety outcomes in American communities. Our hope is that what we learn in this exploration will deepen the impact of civic engagement funders as well as those whose mission primarily involves health and/or safety initiatives. Civic engagement is a worthy end in itself, but is also a critical means to advance health and safety outcomes that matter to all Americans.

Originally formed in 2017, the working group is made up of a diverse set of foundations and funders, nonprofit organizations, researchers, and thought leaders made possible with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation. Participants represent a range of perspectives and geographic areas but share a passion for and curiosity about the intersections among civic engagement and health and safety in communities, a connection point that seems intuitive but has not yet been fully understood.

Given the relatively uncharted territory we were setting out to explore, the opportunities for focusing our work were abundant. Ultimately the group chose to focus its exploration on our nation’s youth: in particular, relationships among youth civic engagement and community health and safety outcomes. This focus reflected the priorities and interests of many working group participants, as well as a recognition that opportunities and challenges involving youth have long-term implications and disproportionate impact on community health, safety, and equity.

The group has commissioned two projects intended to advance knowledge and inspire action: a literature review of youth civic engagement to improve health and safety outcomes, and a series of structured interviews of leading nonprofits and funders working at the intersection of youth civic engagement, health and safety. We look forward to a public release of the literature review and a report summarizing insights from these interviews early 2019. Below is a sneak peek of what we’ve learned from each of these endeavors so far.

From the literature review, we have learned that:

  • Communities with stronger civic infrastructure support better health for the individuals who live there, but opportunities exist to better tease out structural versus social aspects of civic involvement.
  • Individual youth who engage in civic life (certainly through volunteering, perhaps also through community activism) tend to experience healthier outcomes, but the directionality of the effects is not yet fully understood.
  • Engaging youth in community health and safety initiatives tends to enrich organizations and improve community health and safety outcomes.
  • In sum, there are many opportunities both to engage youth more effectively and to better document the effects of such engagement.

From the second project, we have learned that many leading funders and community-based organizations are convinced that investments in youth civic engagement improve health and safety outcomes; in fact, the two efforts are often defined in overlapping ways. Practitioners and funders point to benefits that include better problem and goal definition, enhanced persuasive power, creative solution identification — as well as both individual health improvement and system change.

Opportunities and challenges involving youth have long-term implications and disproportionate impact on community health, safety, and equity.

Leading efforts share common features including attention to trust-building; the need for long-term investments facilitated through backbone organizations, coalitions and/or robust civic infrastructure; and attention to multi-generational approaches that assure participating youth exercise power, influence decisions, and are supported and protected.

Fundamentally, it has become increasingly clear that civic engagement is vital infrastructure to support and sustain community progress across multiple domains, including health and safety outcomes. Civic engagement can be a means to move from incremental progress to system-wide change and can empower youth and community members to take charge of their futures.

As we wrap up the initial activities of the group, members are encouraging us to ensure the approach and idea will continue to be advanced, and the PACE team is exploring avenues to do that in conjunction with the next phase of our strategic plan. Through the Health & Safety Working Group, we are charting new territory; the group has supported new relationships and new insights that will enrich its participants and inform the field. We hope to spur collective action and expand the set of tools available to our field in its continued effort to support a resilient democracy and a healthy civic life for all Americans.

Credit: Jason Corey

3. How can philanthropy invest in information and education that prepares people for active civic participation and sustains their involvement over time?

Janice Lombardo, Director of Member Engagement

PACE believes not just in active civic engagement, but informed engagement — and in the critical role of both quality information and education in a robust and resilient democracy. Our investment and support of these topics within and beyond philanthropy have taken shape in a variety of ways this year, beginning with a continued focus on supporting access to civic education for all our nation’s young people.

In 2018, in partnership with the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), PACE led an inquiry into the connection between civic learning and racial equity. On March 1, the collaboration culminated in an event entitled “Exploring Civic Learning as a Pathway to Equity and Opportunity.” It brought together civic learning funders, practitioners, thought leaders, and community members from across the country for an in-depth, day-long exploration of the ways in which efforts to improve civic learning outcomes for our nation’s young people can also serve as a pathway toward bridging racial inequities.

Central to our exploration were the following understandings: First, we know that access to quality civic learning directly correlates to increased, lifelong civic engagement. We also know that stark inequities in civic learning access exist in our country, largely along lines of race and class. Given both of these realities, how can efforts to increase access to civic learning also help transform persistent social inequities? A synthesis of the learnings and recommendations from the event can be found in a recommendation paper.

Beyond that, across our sector, a renewed urgency to increase and improve civic learning has emerged, and inspired PACE to create spaces for deeper exploration, collaboration, and action within philanthropy. PACE is represented on the advisory board of the CivXNow Coalition, a diverse, cross-partisan coalition of civic learning providers, funders, research institutions, and other civic learning supporters committed to the shared goal of improving the state of U.S. civic education.

How can efforts to increase access to civic learning also help transform persistent social inequities?

In coordination with the coalition, PACE has also created a community of support, fellowship, learning, and collaboration for funders to discuss successes, challenges, and opportunities for sustainable, scalable, and equitable civic learning initiatives. The inaugural Civic Learning Funder Affinity Group is now in full-swing, with thirty-two organizational participants so far. There has been great interest and momentum in the group within a short period of time, and PACE is eager to continue its leadership in 2019 with webinars, regular email communication, and exploration of partnerships with outside groups.

In the spirit of an informed and engaged American citizenry, PACE has also renewed its focus on our nation’s information landscape, beginning with the re-release of Infogagement: Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection at the First Amendment Forum in Pittsburgh this summer. Originally published in 2014, this 2018 edition was made possible with support from the Rita Allen Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and includes a new introduction by author, Matt Leighninger of Public Agenda. This new edition was also released with a series of commentaries by thought leaders in the fields of journalism, technology, and civic engagement.

As these fields collide against America’s challenging political context, the implications for democracy are increasingly urgent, and the paper aims to spark conversations among funders and practitioners about how best to respond. The paper and its contributors discuss a range of approaches to reforming our public square — from re-invigorating youth engagement to tackling the plague of online disinformation, reforming the trust deficit in big data, and more.

PACE and its partners aim to continue advancing learning and action at the intersection of civic engagement and information. After the initial re-launch, we have continued to expand the publication with additional contributions and have also begun hosting a series of webinars, including an introduction to infogagement, and a discussion on re-envisioning America’s public square. We look forward to continuing these conversations and deepening our exploration in 2019 and invite you to join us.