Investing in Democracy: Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement - Exponent Philanthropy
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Investing in Democracy: Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement

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At PACE, we believe in the power, potential, and responsibility of people to come together to discuss and address the problems they see around them. As a diverse philanthropic network with members of many sizes, strategies, and geographies, we share a core belief: America will be healthier and more successful, resilient, and productive, if democracy is strong and the office of citizen is treated as central to how it functions. We believe that democracy will be stronger when all people are informed and engaged in the process of creating it.

PACE works to create a wide and pragmatic aperture for funders to see the value of investing in democracy, and to envision their role in it. These three beliefs led us to embrace this as an organizing statement.

#1 Democracy Is a Verb

It can be easy to think about democracy as the systems, structures, and institutions of representative government that happen over there—whether that be in DC, a state capitol, or city hall. But democracy is also the practice and culture of self-governance, which you can see in the choices people make to contribute to their communities. This is why we emphasize the office of citizen as paramount. Democracy isn’t something that happens to us, it’s something we are together.

#2 Democracy Is a Process

People need democracy to deliver fair policies, effective services, and many other things. But too often, people conflate democracy with politics, and it’s not about winning. Democracy is about ensuring decision making processes are representative and fair, even if they don’t deliver what one side may want. This is why we use words like successful, healthy, and resilient to describe the ideal outcomes of democracy. These conditions matter for everyone in society and are widely shared values.

#3 The Office of Citizen Belongs to All of Us

We recognize that we need to increase peoples’ ability to embrace the office of citizen thoughtfully and effectively. No one is born knowing how to be a citizen and many collective ideas of what good citizenship is continually evolve. This is why we articulate the need to be both informed and engaged in democracy. There isn’t one right way to be a citizen, except to say it’s an active, deliberate, intentional role; not a passive or static one.

A Call to Action for Philanthropy

Philanthropy means “love of humankind.” Democracy is a system of governance that derives its strength from its people. I believe this means philanthropy can ensure humanity is at the center of how society operates. In the late 1800s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed how voluntary associations were unique to America’s young democracy and allowed people see how change happens by being part of it. If philanthropists believe our mission is to support egalitarian progress, then we have a responsibility to equip, empower, and resource people to be the catalysts of change.

Strengthening Civic Society

Democracy is about more than politics. Political forces are strongly resourced and incentivized to divide us. To keep power and access in the hands of some to the detriment of others. While business has a role to play in strengthening civic life, it’s not the primary purpose of the private sector to address public problems. So, if philanthropy doesn’t work to ensure representation, inclusion, and participation for all within our communities, who will?

Philanthropy, nonprofits, and community groups make up civil society, a sector devoted to solving problems. This sector helps develop personal civic agency and a community’s ability to adapt and thrive amidst constant change. It also serves as a guard against authoritarianism. When civil society solves problems, people are less likely to support leaders with authoritarian or dictatorial tendencies. And when people feel a sense of belonging to their community and to each other, they are more likely to support democracy.

Ideas for Lean Funder Support

Lean, place-based funders tend to have proximity and trust from the communities they seek to serve. And efforts that cultivate belonging, support community listening, and help people develop civic skills are a great place to start. There are tons of ways funders can invest in democracy and civic engagement. Here are a couple examples that may interest Exponent members.

A better future for our democracy is possible, which is at the heart of PACE’s belief statement. As Rachel Klienfeld wrote in a blog, “It’s time for the democracy movement to spend a lot more effort stretching beyond reaction into creation.” Let’s use our power as philanthropic leaders to spark imagination and possibility and bring people together to envision systems, practices, and cultures that work for their communities.

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About the Author

Kristen Cambell is CEO of PACE, a philanthropic laboratory for funders seeking to maximize their impact on democracy and civic life in America. Previously, she held roles at the National Conference on Citizenship, the Case Foundation, and Points of Light Foundation. Kristen is an AmeriCorps Alum and serves on the board of United Philanthropy Forum and Citizen University. 


  1. Jeffrey Glebocki

    Thank you so much, Kristen, for painting such a clear picture about the absolute critical need during these times for lean funders to support democracy-strengthening efforts – locally, regionally and at the national level.

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