Can Philanthropy Save Democracy?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Northwest Health Foundation has a full plate. It makes grants to education and health programs in Oregon and Washington State, advocates for people with disabilities, and tackles other issues to advance its mission. 

But it recently decided to add another priority: It will spend $5 million over five years to boost turnout at the polls and help people, particularly minorities, get more involved in policy debates. That’s a significant sum for a fund with $55 million in assets, and a sign of how important it thinks it is to get more Americans to vote and show where they stand on a range of national and local public-policy issues. 

“Health is far more than health care,” says Jesse Beason, the foundation’s president. “The primary drivers of health are giant issues like education, economic opportunity, and racism.”

In other words, helping democracy work better, especially for the poor and disenfranchised, isn’t mission creep for Northwest Health; it’s mission critical. 

A growing number of grant makers are reaching the same conclusion and diving into work to strengthen democracy for the first time or expanding existing efforts.

Foundation support nationwide for democracy projects jumped 34 percent in 2017, to $553 million, according to Candid, which tracks grant-maker activity. Those are the most recent figures available, but all signs suggest that spending is on the rise.

The heightened philanthropic interest in bolstering work on democracy has no political or ideological boundaries. Donors backing democracy efforts through their foundations range from George Soros to Charles Koch.