A philanthropic approach to strengthening democracy

To counter hyperpartisanship and government gridlock in the United States, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy’s latest guide points to increasing civic engagement and reinvigorating local media.

A grouping of colorful people in the shape of a United States map.

For the past several decades, there’s been a marked decline in how much U.S. citizens trust the country’s democratic process. The majority of Americans say it’s of utmost importance for them to live in a democracy, but a 2018 survey from the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy & Global Engagement and others revealed that 55% of Americans feel democracy in the United States is currently weak. 

With this as a backdrop, Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) created its latest guidance, to help people better understand the issues at play and to show how they can help. This week, the Center released the toolkit and its anchor publication, “We the People: A Philanthropic Guide to Strengthening Democracy.” 

“The guide follows the trajectory of all of the Center’s work. There’s a big problem that people are concerned about, but they’re not sure how to help,” says Katherina M. Rosqueta, CHIP’s founding executive director. “Hyperpartisanship, government gridlock, the breakdown of civil discourse—these are all symptoms of a decades-long decline in a trust in our democracy. If you are concerned and you have some money to give philanthropically, whether that’s $10 or $1 million, here’s how can you help.” 

The report calls out five core elements of a robust democracy: Empowered citizens, fair processes, responsive policy, information and communication, and social cohesion. “They work together and reinforce each other,” Rosqueta says. 

For example, “empowered citizens” describe people whose individual rights are protected and who not only vote but work together to solve problems and hold political representatives accountable. Citizens focused exclusively on their own political party winning the next big election can lead to a breakdown in social cohesion, what CHIP defines as a society in which “members recognize each other’s right to a voice in the political process and are willing to collaborate for common ends.” 

To bolster the five elements in this framework, CHIP recommends two ways funders can help.

One is to increase civic engagement, which includes anything from donating to a charity to running for office. Specifically, the report touches on a trio of opportunities—encouraging civic membership by supporting civics education and membership groups, sponsoring public forums that give people a chance to learn and converse with fellow citizens and elected officials, and participating in broad-based voter engagement efforts, not just for big, national elections but for smaller, local elections, too. 

The second is to reinvigorate local media. This means not only larger newspapers and television stations that cover the area, but also hyperlocal websites and other communication outlets that tell a community’s stories. “Healthy local media ecosystems are at the heart of all five elements of a well-functioning democracy,” the report reads. “Journalists provide transparency into elections and legislative processes to ensure their fairness, in addition to elevating the viewpoints of citizens so policymakers can be responsive.” 

At the heart of it all is getting people to give philanthropically, but Rosqueta stresses that the amount doesn’t matter, and that this toolkit is a resource intended to help all donors cut through the noise and make a faster impact. “We’ve done the legwork to orient donors to some of the best ways to offer philanthropic support,” she says. “As with all of CHIP’s work, our goal is to help people turn their concern, good intentions, and charitable dollars into positive social change.”

The toolkit and report, “We the People: A Philanthropic Guide to Strengthening Democracy,” were a collaborative effort led by CHIP project manager Conor Carroll; Hanh La, CHIP director of applied research and analysis; Penn postdoctoral fellow William Berger; and CHIP’s founding executive director, Katherina M. Rosqueta. Funding came from the Democracy Fund.