After months of unprecedented energy, citizen participation, and investments of every kind, the 2018 midterm elections are behind us. Beyond the still-developing stories of the individual races, these elections saw several important developments for our democracy, including a nationwide wave of new and diverse candidates, a dramatic increase in first-time voters, and a raft of ballot measures in states around the country that will help preserve and expand the pillars of our democratic institutions and processes.
In many ways, the level of civic energy and community engagement we witnessed this year has been unprecedented, leading to the highest turnout numbers for a midterm election in decades. Funders now have a window of opportunity to build on this energy and engagement—to combat polarization, to champion public interest legislation and serious policy solutions, and to support the new civil society leaders and political entrepreneurs emerging from this cycle. As my colleague Shelley Whelpton recently argued, donors have crucial roles to play in supporting a new and fast-developing ecosystem of people, organizations, ideas, and tools with the potential to revolutionize our politics and strengthen our democracy.
Based on more than 20 years in the sector, I believe the opportunity here is immense and that funders who are concerned about the future of our country should seize it. What can they do? As we pivot away from the midterms and look to federal, state, and local legislative and policy work, community building, and what will surely be a rapid ramp-up of 2020 campaigns, they can start with the following four suggestions.
#1 – Continue to invest in the grassroots advocacy and civic engagement infrastructure, especially in states.
The increased funding that front-line groups received during the midterm cycle allowed them to dramatically expand their reach, internal capacity, and program prowess. Many are now orders of magnitude stronger, smarter, and more effective than they were 18 months ago. Yet, if this post-election funding cycle follows previous patterns, donors will now cut funding to grassroots and civic engagement organizations. As a result, much of the scale and talent these groups built over the last 18 months will disappear—and need to be rebuilt from scratch in two years.
Retaining and further engaging tens of thousands of energized community and issue leaders, many of whom now have the skills, relationships, and ambitions to carry on the work that brought them to the election in the first place, can help revitalize the country’s troubled public sphere. With steady financial support, groups can identify and train new talent, continue to strengthen organizational capacity and outreach, and help equip communities with ever-greater voice and understanding of the policies that affect them. This is the unique and invaluable role of public charities that do civic engagement and grassroots organizing—groups that maintain authentic, intimate, day-to-day ties to communities and their priorities. The stronger such groups’ off-cycle community engagement is, the better prepared they will be during the next election season, and the more they can do to help repair our public sphere in the meantime.
#2 – Support policy organizations and think tanks, especially in states.
In addition to front-line groups that engage the public, organizations that engage legislators and officeholders are also critical. When donors think about the social change infrastructure, especially in states, they often overlook the analysis and oversight these groups provide both to public officials and to advocacy groups. These are the groups, for example, that help ballot measures overcome legislative resistance and administrative lethargy to advance the will of the people. With hundreds of new people taking office–including governors, state legislators, and other state, county, and municipal officials–the work of nonpartisan policy experts who can help connect the dots between public officials, the public will, and intelligent policy is crucial.
#3 – Continue to support capacity building and technical assistance, especially data, research, and other digital tools.
In the last decade, nonpartisan civic engagement and grassroots organizing groups have benefited from a growing ecosystem of digital tools and apps, rich data sets and lists, and messaging and targeting models that help them better reach and serve their constituencies. Most of these tools were originally designed for voter engagement, but they have now become essential year-round platforms for running every kind of education, mobilization, advocacy, and power-building program. Simply put, we are on the path to putting tools, technology, and infrastructure that was once available only to billion-dollar presidential campaigns and corporate marketers into the hands of front-line groups, and networking them through information-sharing hubs and platforms that can greatly expand their collective knowledge, responsiveness, and impact.
#4 – Invest in strengthening the pillars of democracy and democratic institutions.
In addition to the important work described above, the pillars of our democratic institutions and processes need to be defended and strengthened. Several pro-democracy ballot measures passed, in both red and blue states. These will need to be implemented. And there is much more to do. As we saw again this cycle, in many jurisdictions, voting is needlessly complex and difficult. Outdated and burdensome procedures, technologies, and security assumptions effectively discourage participation. Implementing reliable alternatives such as automatic voter registration, portable registration, election-day registration, and easy to obtain voter IDs are all nonpartisan, low-cost, and commonsense avenues donors can support. States that have modernized their registration and voting processes in these ways see the highest voter turnout rates.
Perhaps the most important near-term civic event is the 2020 Census, which will produce the data set that will inform redistricting efforts in 2021 and provide the basis for determining future government support programs. Both national and place-based philanthropic support for the Census will be crucial to ensuring a fair and accurate count.
These are just a few of the avenues donors and their grantee partners can pursue to build on civic engagement progress made during the midterms. We are reminded today and continually that democracy and its well-being is our endless task: there is no off season. Philanthropy, and the independent sector broadly, by virtue of its tax-exempt status and public interest mandate, has a special duty to support democracy’s health and functioning. In the current moment, funders have an opportunity to answer that call in new ways, build on growing levels of engagement and interest, and help strengthen our democracy for future generations. They should take it.
If you or those you know would like to learn more about how philanthropic funders and investors can help strengthen civic engagement, contact us.