Transparency Talk

Category: "Elections" (3 posts)

Beyond Money: Foundations Can Create Change by Building Communities
December 3, 2015

(Mark Schmitt directs the political reform program and is director of studies at New America, an independent think tank and civic enterprise. He is a former editor of The American Prospect and has been a program director at the Open Society Foundations and worked on Capitol Hill. Follow him on Twitter at @mschmitt9. This post originally appeared on Philantopic. It is the 10th and final post in a series about U.S. democracy and civil society.)

Schmitt headshotThe world of foundations and the work they fund has for too long been shrouded in obscurity. While many foundations boast a commitment to transparency and release lists of their own grants, it has been far too difficult to see who funds an entire field, or understand how a foundation-backed policy idea made it onto the agenda. Given that foundations can be at least as influential as big political donors, driving policy initiatives such as charter schools and health reform, there should be resources that open up the sector to journalists and activists, as well as grantseekers interested in understanding the often mysterious question of who got what.

But that’s only part of the question. Even the most complete list of grantees and grant dollar amounts tells us only so much about the work and the vision: What does restoring American democracy mean, in practice? Can this mapping resource help answer that question?

Foundations do more than just give money to worthy projects. At their best, they make at least two other vital contributions: They help build a community — that is, the whole network of sustainable, adaptive organizations, from research projects to grassroots activists, that can further a cause — and they create connections, across issues and communities, in order to make each one stronger and more vibrant. So in looking at the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool, I wanted to ask those questions: Where have foundations built strong communities around democracy issues? And have they created the kinds of connections — between, for example, nonprofit journalism and efforts to reduce the role of money in politics — that strengthen these communities and the cause?

Schmitt_blog_image
The “constellations” section of the tool doesn’t fully answer these questions — to do so would require much deeper analysis and for foundations to provide more complete and plain-English descriptions of the “why” of their grantmaking — but it provides some useful clues. For example, one can see a distinct community of organizations working on election administration and access-to-the-ballot issues — a relatively small number of sizable organizations, with reliable support over several years, often in the form of general-support grants. Closely aligned to these core groups is a larger group of smaller organizations focused on a single state or a particular constituency. (This community would be even larger if the substantial and central contribution to the field made by the Pew Charitable Trusts were included. While grants to its elections project from other foundations are listed, its self-financed work is not.) It is probably no accident that despite the partisan acrimony over voting and significant setbacks to the voting rights movement, there has been significant progress and consensus on ideas such as early voting, online voter registration, and other aspects of election reform.

In a 2013 article in Democracy, Nick Penniman and Ian Simmons argued that the $45 million a year that foundations and other donors were investing in efforts to reform the role of money in politics was too little, and that if they wanted to advance progress on the causes they care about, individual and institutional philanthropists ought to commit one percent of total private giving, or $3 billion annually, to causes such as fixing the corrosive role of money in politics. This tool extends the point made by Penniman and Simmons to show that not only is total funding for campaign reform inadequate to the challenge, the community engaged in that effort is diffuse, the core organizations comprising that community are hard to identify, and the grants awarded in support of that cause are relatively small and often for specific projects rather than general support.

Moreover, in neither case does there seem to be much connection to other issues of democracy or to efforts such as improving journalism or civic education. Each of these issues, such as funding for innovations in public service journalism or for the Newseum in Washington, DC, seems to attract a unique set of funders who do little or no giving for other democracy issues.

Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy is not the definitive answer to the questions about how funding works and whether it has built effective communities around democracy issues. To really see foundation funding for democracy and how it has worked requires a deeper investigation and the kind of real journalistic scrutiny that foundations rarely get. But much like the databases we rely on to understand the influence of money in democracy, this tool is a start and provides valuable clues and an outline for those who want to follow the money.

--Mark Schmitt

Living Up to a Legacy of Glass Pockets
November 5, 2015

(Deanna Lee is chief communications and digital strategies officer at Carnegie Corporation of New York.)

Deanna LeeWhat does a website redesign have to do with “glass pockets?” For Carnegie Corporation of New York—whose mission is to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding—it goes far beyond a general use of the Internet to transmit information. “Glass pockets” is a defining principle of who we are, and thus a defining principle that has guided our entire web redesign process.

First, some background. In the 1950s,  Carnegie Corporation chair Russell Leffingwell testified before Congress that “foundation[s] should have glass pockets,” allowing anyone to easily look inside them and understand their value to society.  A legacy of transparency connected to dissemination continued through Corporation president John Gardner, who advocated for energetic dissemination of activities, to current president Vartan Gregorian, who has emphasized our “legacy of glass pockets” as an ideal and a guidepost for “communicating as clearly and in as much depth as possible how the Corporation conceives of its mission.”

Today’s digital landscape means that we can realize this—reaching and engaging more people, with more information about what we do—as never before. We think of web channels, tools, and design, not as new, “disruptive” technologies, but rather as evolving (and exciting!) opportunities to realize a 100-plus year-old mission.

And so, the redesign process for Carnegie.org began with a largely internal branding exercise to further define our longstanding mission. With the great folks at Story Worldwide, we articulated a core narrative with “pillars” or key principles, including a sense of stewardship to the legacy of Andrew Carnegie, a focus on expert knowledge, a “selfless” emphasis on program grantees and their work, and a commitment to serving as a convener of grantees in like areas of knowledge, and of knowledge-based communities.  These organizational principles were central to how design firm Blenderbox went on to imagine and develop the website layout and user experience.

At the same time, we conducted surveys and interviews with multiple stakeholders and audiences about the old site. As Chris Cardona of the Ford Foundation has written on the Glasspockets blog, we have to be open to failure, and be willing to look at what works and what doesn’t.  Also important, as emphasized in Glasspockets’ transparency indicators, is sharing the results.

What wasn’t working? People said they did not have a clear sense of our program areas.  With information and stories ranging from international peace and security to voting rights to standards in K-16 education all “mixed together,” they found it difficult to delve into their areas of interest.  Also, grantees wanted to be able to connect with peers, and to learn about each other’s activities.

This is why the new Carnegie.org immediately presents a clear depiction of our core program areas (arranged, in homage to Andrew Carnegie, like library book spines). 

1-600px
 

Each program folds out into a preview of a mini-site, with separate subdomains or “hubs” for Education…Democracy…International Peace and Security…and Higher Education and Research in Africa. 

2-600px


Enter a program hub, and a simple layout shows the overarching goal of the program and its focus areas (or, in terms of Glasspockets indicators, grantmaking priorities).

Beyond that, each program boasts its own flavor and kinds of content that emphasize those mission pillars—expert knowledge, convening, an emphasis on grantees, and stewardship of our history:

3-600pxInternational Peace and Security currently features commentary on this policy question of the day: Should the U.S. cooperate with Russia on Syria and ISIS? Answers are “convened” as a compendium of multiple grantee experts, scholars, and policymakers—a forum bringing together leading worldwide thinkers and opinions. 

Education features an interactive, multimedia presentation (we call it a Fable) on STEM education—showcasing our historical work on math and science education, including Carnegie Commission reports that set the framework for today’s Next Generation Science Standards, and visual case studies of grantees like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Democracy’s Fable takes an extensive look at the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Plus, at a time when nearly one in four Americans is not registered to vote, we wanted to convene communities and engage the public with our grantees’ work.

4-600px“Your Vote—Your Voice” showcases tiles of leaders of the New Americans Campaign weighing in on why it's important for recently naturalized citizens to vote. 

Good digital strategy also employs community, in the form of partnerships. We’re pleased to have worked with TINT to convene live social media compilations, including the feeds of more than 40 partners of National Voter Registration Day. And, a Genius version of the Voting Rights Act allows for annotations by experts at the Brennan Center for Justice and others.

Finally, we at the Corporation are, first and foremost, stewards of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy. Nearly 10 percent of visitors to our old site came for biographical information about him. To meet their needs more fully and to meet our mission, our Andrew Carnegie Fable includes embeddable elements key for students preparing multimedia presentations, with timelines, quotations, audio and film of Carnegie, infographics on his wealth, and connections to our family of 26 Carnegie institutions worldwide.

This is just the beginning. We’ll soon unveil features allowing program officers to share their experiences, video forums, and more.  It all comes down to glass pockets—using information and the presentation of information to openly share how we meet our mission responsibilities of serving as convener and champion of expert knowledge and change-making grantees. Carnegie.org aims to clearly present our intent, our priorities, and our work, and most of all to be a living—and evolving—expression of our mission to advance and diffuse knowledge and understanding.

--Deanna Lee

Philanthropic Dollars Also Shape Electoral Outcomes: Here’s How…
October 28, 2015

(David Callahan is founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy. Previously, he was a senior fellow at DemosThis is the fifth in a series of 10 posts about U.S. democracy and civil society that will be featured on PhilanTopic in the run-up to Election Day, and beyond. This post first ran in PhilanTopic.) 

Callahan Headshot%2c 1With another presidential campaign season under way, we’re again hearing a lot about the mega donors and Super PACs that fuel modern politics. But this isn’t the only stream of money that influences how elections unfold in the U.S.; philanthropic dollars also play a key role, with foundations supporting a range of activities that affect how our democracy functions and what happens at the polls.

Understanding the flow of these grants isn’t just helpful for nonprofits hoping to get a piece of the pie. It’s also super useful for journalists or others keen to see how foundations — which, by law must be nonpartisan — are deploying funds in ways that can sway electoral outcomes.

Let’s take the area of voter education, registration, and turnout as an example. It’s no secret that who turns out to vote, and where, can make a big difference in determining which candidates win on Election Day. If more African Americans turn out in swing states like Florida or North Carolina, for instance, that’s good news for Democrats. If the electorate tilts toward older and white voters, Republicans stand to gain.

Campaigns and Super PACs spend mightily to shape who votes. But what have foundations been doing? Well, Foundation Center’s newly launched Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool offers some answers to that question.

Consider the state of Florida, a fiercely contested battleground in both presidential and off-year elections. Drilling into the data, where grantmaking can be easily segmented by the populations served, we find that five funders have given over a half million dollars in grants in recent years to seven groups that work with “ethnic and racial groups” on voter education, registration, and turnout. For example, the Florida New Majority Education Fund pulled in $200,000 in grant money from the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Proteus Fund in 2012 and 2013. Casey has described this group as working to “increase the voting and political power of marginalized and excluded constituencies toward an inclusive, equitable, and just Florida.” Historically, these constituencies have supported Democrats at election time.

Other Florida groups that have received money for voting work, according to the database, include the Farmworker Association of Florida and Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast.

Screenshot_Callahan_1

Moving to another swing state, North Carolina, we find a similar pattern: Nearly a half million dollars in grants have been made in recent years for voting work with racial and ethnic groups. The biggest recipient here was Democracy North Carolina, which has lately been at the forefront of efforts to defend voting rights amid a legislative push in that state to restrict the franchise in ways that research has found tends to reduce turnout among African Americans, Latinos, and young people.

Speaking of efforts to restrict the franchise, it’s important to note that not all grantmakers in the democracy space have sought to make voting more accessible by historically marginalized groups. Some have supported work to require voter identification at the polls and to roll back  measures such as early voting and same-day registration, which advocates have pressed for in many states as a way to expand and diversify the electorate.

In North Carolina, the John William Pope Foundation has long been known for its support of tougher voting rules that it says are needed to protect against voter fraud. What exactly has this entailed? The data shows 61 grants totaling more than $2.4 million by the foundation in North Carolina since 2011 that relate to democracy issues.

The Pope Foundation — controlled by Republican activist Art Pope — has been one of the top funders in the democracy space in recent years in North Carolina. But two other funders have given more: the Triad Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. Other big funders of democracy work in the state include the Z. Smith Reynolds and Ford foundations.

There are a lot more examples we could dig into to illustrate how funders are shaping voting work at the state level in ways that can and do affect electoral outcomes. All this grantmaking is officially nonpartisan and perfectly legal, but little of it is actually impartial.

And herein lies an important truth about how money influences America’s democracy. Yes, there is a vast and swollen river of cash flowing into political campaigns. But another, separate tributary of philanthropic money related to elections has also been growing. In fact, Foundation Center reports that funders have made grants totaling nearly $300 million since 2011 specifically for work in support of campaigns, elections, and voting.

That amount is nothing compared to the more than $6 billion that political contributors gave in the 2012 election cycle alone. But it’s still serious money that deserves close scrutiny.

 --David Callahan 

Share This Blog

  • Share This

About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

    If you are interested in being a
    guest contributor, contact:
    glasspockets@foundationcenter.org

Subscribe to Transparency Talk

Categories