For a community of funders seeking to maximize their impact on democracy and civic life in America, the year 2020 could be considered our most mission critical yet. Reviewing a year like this one offers an overwhelming abundance of reflections; it is almost hard to know where to begin.
Within the span of twelve months, multiple generation-defining events seemed to emerge in parallel. As one PACE Member put it, “It feels like there are four crises happening simultaneously: a global pandemic, a racial reckoning, an economic crisis, and a democratic crisis.” Like many of you, we started the year thinking our work looked one way, but very quickly, these events painted a new reality for us and the world to navigate.
Additionally, two other factors made 2020 feel different for PACE. First, we launched our new, three-year strategic plan at the start of the year, which evolved PACE’s mission to become a philanthropic laboratory. While we are still settling into this identity, we have been reflecting on how our first year has deepened our understanding of and appreciation for the value and design of a philanthropic laboratory — especially as a way to be responsive to the changing needs of the world and the field of philanthropy. To us, a philanthropic laboratory is a collective space for philanthropy where learning is participatory and actionable. We took intentional steps this year to enable a culture that shifted from saying “That was interesting and gave me a lot to think about” to “That was interesting and gave me an idea of how to move forward with my work differently.” The strategic plan also articulated the principles PACE will center in its work and operations (power of the collective, experimentation, learning outside the bubble, responsible philanthropy, diversity), which served as our headlights in an otherwise dark and difficult-to-navigate year. Everything we did this year was crafted with these core values in mind.
Second, we expanded our community. PACE’s membership stands at 56 institutional members, and we welcomed new team members: Amy McIsaac serves as our Director of Learning and Experimentation and Jaime Herrero serves as our Operations Administrator. We also engaged consultants on key strategy and program areas: Diane Douglas to lead our Faith In/And Democracy initiative, Danielle Marshall to lead our racial equity strategy, and Marian Mulkey to lead our measurement and evaluation efforts. This expanded capacity and leadership in key areas further reinforces our principles as an organization, our priorities as a community, and our ability to move nimbly in an environment requiring rapid iteration.
As a philanthropic laboratory, we seek to do two things with excellence: (1) deliver high-impact member services, with the goal of helping our members be better at their jobs related to civic engagement and democracy, and (2) lead learning programs, with the goal of guiding the PACE community — in ways that are informed by the community — into different streams of work for collective learning and action.
Member Services in 2020
PACE is a membership organization of funders and grantmakers, and we are successful in our jobs when our members are successful in their jobs. We consider it a privilege to support our members in their work, and this year — perhaps more than ever — connection and support was an asset fully realized. Here is a sampling of ways PACE supported its members this year:
- Hosted three Member Meetings. These two-day virtual events gave members an opportunity to step into a community to listen and learn. We listened to each other and to outside experts on topics such as how to incorporate a “dual pandemics” frame to grantmaking, the importance of imagination and faith as civic muscles, the civic bright spots from the election season, the demographic story-lines underneath the high voter turnout in the 2020 Presidential Election, the influence of toxic polarization and hyperpartisanship and the rise of anti-democratic tendencies (disinformation, suppression, and interference), the civic investments that made a difference in 2020, and the ways we might sustain civic philanthropy’s investments moving forward.
- Organized rapid response efforts in the face of various crises. At the outset of COVID-19, PACE moved quickly to lead efforts to coordinate its members and broader philanthropy in how to respond. We hosted three calls to provide support and guidance on actions, released pieces like 5 Learnings from Funders as They Respond to COVID-19 and Impact of COVID-19 on the 2020 Election, Census & Civil Service, and curated member statements and updates. We also developed Crisis as Catalyst: A Conversation Starter for Re-Imagining What’s Next, which is a tool for funders to guide discussion of the role civil society institutions play in disaster and crises. In response to the uprising against racial injustice, we served a similar role and also invested in extra support to provide guidance on how PACE can incorporate a racial equity lens in its work for and with members. In regards to the Presidential election and its resulting transition, PACE hosted Pre- and Post-Election Calls to support philanthropy (collectively and individually) in finding their role in an otherwise chaotic election season and issued pieces like 5 Things to Think About 5 Days Before the Election. We also played a coordinating role in collective efforts to affirm democracy in the weeks leading into Election Day and in the aftermath of the Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
- Served as a coordinator around philanthropy’s role in civic learning. We continued to play an informal role in organizing a group of ~60 funders who are interested in advancing philanthropy’s role in civic learning. We hosted discussions, shared resources, and fielded exploration calls from funders interested in formalizing this work in their grantmaking.
- Provided one-on-one support and thought partnership. Certainly, the changing world meant changing priorities for our members, and concept papers and discussions about new ideas were blossoming. PACE’s team kept its door wide open to serve as a sounding board and thought partner as new portfolios and strategies were being developed. In some cases, we organized “peer consults” for PACE Members who wanted to brainstorm or bounce developing ideas with peers. We were thrilled to support many members in this way.
- Curated pertinent and important civic philanthropy knowledge. We continued our bi-weekly member newsletter to provide the latest updates from the philanthropy and civic engagement space. When there was a topic that merited further investigation or reflection, we published a story on PACE’s Medium page: Office of Citizen. In total, we released over thirty reflections on Office of Citizen in 2020. The top five most read stories of 2020 included:
5 Learnings from Funders as They Respond to COVID-19
From restructuring grantmaking to operational shifts, here are 5 thematic takeaways from funders as they respond to the…
Scaling Faith-Based Civic Engagement
The Democracy Fund’s Chris Crawford offers a funder’s perspective on the Faith In/And Democracy pilot funding…
It’s All About Relationships: Systems-Based Changemaking
John Esterle of The Whitman Institute joins Malka Kopell and Palma Strand of Civity in exploring the role of…
Looking Back: A reflection on the challenges and opportunities for faith to strengthen civic life
Michael Wear of Public Square Strategies reflects on the initial gathering of the Faith In/And Democracy Initiative’s…
Pooled Funds: A Tool For Aligned, Strategic Impact In a Fast-Paced Moment
This guest piece is from our friends at Democracy Funders Network, as contributed by their Program Director, Emily…
Learning Programs in 2020
In 2020, PACE focused its learning in two major areas. First, we continued our efforts to explore the intersection of faith and democracy with our Faith In/And Democracy initiative. In August, we wrapped up the first year of the initiative, and over the summer, we ran our second competitive grant process to select a cohort of six organizations to join our Learning Community in year 2. The focus of the initiative is to understand how we might invest in faith communities as viable sites for bridge-building in our democracy. In other words, how do we use faith as a tool to encourage and support more people to build relationships and work with people who come from different racial, religious, cultural, and/or political backgrounds and perspectives? The richness of the learnings over the last year have been beyond our expectations and highlights include:
- Nothing Does What Faith Does the Way Faith Does It
- Building Bridges Among Bridgebuilders
- How can faith increase our capacity to shape society for the better?
Second, our work to support members around the COVID-19 crisis and the racial reckoning left us to question: can a “new normal” help make the impossible possible? What if these crises meant that instead of unwillingly being pushed into a future that no longer serves us, we could intentionally create the future state we want to embody?
With this in mind, PACE committed a significant portion of its 2020 learning capacity to understanding civic imagination more deeply and designed programs to give its members a way to participate in and practice imagination. We developed a new program module for us and the field, Imagination Sprints, and hosted imagination sprints on topics such as civic learning, trust, and relationship infrastructure in crisis response. We iterated on our own model by converting the sprints into Imagination Workshops for rapid deployment post-election on topics such as voter turnout and mis/dis-information. We are taking a tremendous amount of learning about these topics and the civic muscle of imagination forward in our work:
- What Could We Imagine? Trusted Relationships in a Diverse and Pluralistic Society
- What Could We Imagine? Relationship Infrastructure as Central to Crisis Response
- What Could We Imagine? Civic Learning Without Disparities in Access
- Preparing for “Not Normal” Times: An Experiment in Civic Imagination
Perhaps our greatest learning this year was about the importance of adaptability and flexibility. We always considered ourselves a responsive and nimble organization, and this year we really learned the value of a “quick pivot.” As we reflect on the experiences over the last year, we honor the ways that our “quick pivots” remained steadfastly aligned with our core values. We never lost sight of our mission and commitment to the PACE community, and while we know it’s important we evolve to new realities, it is also important how we get there — supported and together.
That is the spirit we are taking into 2021. Thank you for all you do in service of our shared democracy and vibrant civic life.
Yours in service,
Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)