Bettering Political Civil Discourse in Your Community - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Bettering Political Civil Discourse in Your Community

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

No matter your political or philosophical orientation, nor how you voted in the election, we can likely agree on the continued polarization and erosion of civil discourse in our country.

There are any number of factors exacerbating our inability to talk to one another in a civil way: political upheaval, increased racial tensions, the economic and social impact of the pandemic, social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and the list goes on.

It’s easy to despair and watch from the sidelines. But there are ongoing efforts to counterbalance the trend. And philanthropy can cultivate a more civil dialogue in our communities and country.

This August, Exponent Philanthropy convened a Virtual Roundtable for members to explore their concerns and ideas, and to tap into the wisdom of two national thought-leaders working in this field: Malka Ranjana Kopell, co-founder and CEO of Civity; and Jonathan Lever, chief operating officer and EVP of the Fetzer Institute.

I interviewed Malka and Jonathan following the roundtable to delve deeper into how lean funders can better influence political civil discourse.

Would you talk about some of the ways you encourage people and communities to move toward a more civil discourse with each other?

Malka and Jonathan: Civity’s mission is to create a culture of relationships based on respect and empathy across difference. The Fetzer Institute’s mission is to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. We both fundamentally understand polarization as a heart-level challenge. Too many of us have closed and hardened our hearts toward those on the other side. Too often, we engage them not as fellow citizens who deserve our respect and solidarity, but as hostile strangers to be met with suspicion and fear.

In retreating to our tribal bunkers, we have lost any sense of a shared moral vision for what America ought to be. The loss of solidarity has pushed us into a zero-sum us versus them politics. It’s increasingly destroying our national capacity for a strong, common action to address any of our social pathologies.

We also see political polarization as connected to deeper, long-standing challenges, particularly those of racism and marginalization based on other social dividing lines that create winners and losers. These power differences: race, class and immigration status to name a few, are baked into American society and have been since the county’s founding.

The twin pandemics of 2020 — the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on underserved and BIPOC communities, and the recent killings of African Americans by police — have further exposed these power differences. And they underlie and complicate the red-blue divide. But we can’t address one without addressing the others.

Fortunately, this bridging is possible. While efforts to address isolation and polarization in America can seem overwhelming, the exhausted majority has more in common than we may realize.

According to the Hidden Tribes Report, more than three in four Americans “believe that our differences aren’t so great that we can’t work together.” And Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki says empathy is a skill anybody can learn — and it is catching, in The War for Kindness.

As we explore the never-ending work of profoundly opening our hearts, we realize that healthy encounters across difference have the power to transform how we view and treat others. This is supported by Putnam and Campbell’s findings in American Grace: associating with someone across difference increases your attraction to not only that person, but their entire identity group.

Similarly, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey found that despite deep differences, a high level of trust and goodwill emerges when college students have positive and proactive encounters with “others.”

Individual connections also have powerful, systemwide effects. Our culture is based on and created by relationships. Transforming those relationships can eventually transform the system. Not all super spreading is bad!

Can you share a few examples of communities successfully improving the state of civil dialogue?

Jonathan: Within Fetzer’s own staff community, we gather weekly (now via Zoom) for one and a half to three hours to explore and deepen our own spirituality, and build a culture of authenticity and trust. We want to internally model the kind of relationship building we aspire to externally.


  • OnBeing airs on more than 400 public radio stations, and the podcast has been played/downloaded 200+ million times.
  • StoryCorps has more than half a million individual stories to “strengthen and build connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.”
  • The Solution Journalism Network offers a different perspective on journalism, and how we might find solutions to pressing societal ills.


  • The One America Movement trains local community leaders on how to overcome division through education on the neuroscience and social science of conflict and polarization.
  • The Millennial Action Project brings young conservative and liberal lawmakers together to “bridge the partisan divide and transform American politics.”
  • Braver Angels’ Red and Blue workshops are structured so Republican and Democratic-leaning citizens can talk and listen to those on the other side. The organization has held 947 workshops run by 458 Moderators for its 10,715 members.


  • Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement’s Faith In/and Democracy initiative supports faith communities with relationship building and working with people from different racial, religious, cultural, and/or political backgrounds.
  • The Aspen Institute’s Inclusive America Project convenes a Religious Pluralism Funders Circle to share best practices and encourage collaboration at the intersection of religious pluralism and democracy.

Malka: Civity works within a complex, adaptive systems frame; transforming relationships transforms culture. Taking a page from John Paul Lederach’s The Moral Imagination, we work with community leaders who are the “critical yeast” because of who they are and how they’re connected. These leaders have the capacity to make change grow exponentially.

Some examples: a prominent lawyer with scores of civic responsibilities; the director of the community library system; the head of the local youth leadership program; the CEO of a local nonprofit; the president of the local SRHM; the YMCA’s program director; and the Mayor’s diversity and inclusion officer.

These leaders needn’t create community infrastructure, networks and influence from scratch — they’ve already done so. This strategic way of scaling lets us operate with a relatively light touch and lean staff, much like Exponent Philanthropy members.

Through workshops and follow-up coaching, we help these leaders build civity-grounded relational infrastructure into existing community networks to better understand those on the other side of power divides. We also help leaders create spaces and opportunities in their communities for others to connect across differences.

What actions can lean funders take to initiate or support efforts to create healthier civil discourse in their communities? 

Jonathan and Malka: The good news is that lean funders don’t have to recreate the wheel. There’s a growing network of organizations focused on bridging divides, including power-based differences from race and class.

A great starting point is the Greater Good Science Center’s Bridging Differences Initiative. Lean funders can support existing organizations in this space, and join emerging donor collaboratives that pool resources for greater leverage.

And finally, lean funders can do what they do best – model by example. As Jenn Hoos Rothberg, Executive Director of the Einhorn Collaborative said, “A new Relational Era is now ours to build.”

Malka Ranjana Kopell is co-founder and chief executive officer of Civity, a national nonprofit organization focused on fostering relationships of respect and empathy across divides of race, class and culture. She brings over 30 years of experience in the civic engagement field, including serving as program officer for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and founding managing director for the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

Jonathan Lever is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Fetzer Institute, a private foundation based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with a mission to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. The institute’s work seeks to enable a critical mass of persons around the world to embrace love as the guiding principle and animating force for living in sacred relationship with spirit, self, others and the natural world.

Jeffrey M. Glebocki is the founder and lead advisor of Strategy + Action/Philanthropy, and foundation coordinator for the Doll Family Foundation.


  1. Rand E. Morgan

    This very issue is why our community foundation began a podcast to bring local folks together, to build community, to re-discover that we’re more alike than we are different. Here is where our local effort begins:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *