Photo: vasilis asvestas/shutterstock
Photo: vasilis asvestas/shutterstock

As the nation continues to process the events that occurred in Washington D.C. on January 6, one thing is clear: the violence at the U.S. Capitol building constituted a failure of civil society. That’s true in the broad sense, in which a sizable part of the population now appears to inhabit an entirely different factual universe than the rest. It’s also true in the narrower sense of civil society as a third sector financed by philanthropy.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, funders were pretty much unanimous in their condemnations of the violence, sharing sentiments of outrage, and, as many of us felt that day, the sense that democracy in the U.S. is teetering on the edge. But foundations and major donors are in a privileged position: their pocketbooks let them set the course and tone of civil society debates. As such, they bear some collective responsibility—both direct and indirect—for a frayed democratic order that resulted in the unthinkable.

Over the past year, we’ve been chronicling philanthropy’s efforts to safeguard the 2020 presidential election. Over the past four years, we’ve covered the “Trump effect” on philanthropic giving—and just how much funders have been willing to take on the outgoing president’s volatile and dangerous movement. While the funding world’s reckoning with January 6 is only beginning, many funders who prize democracy work, racial justice and anti-authoritarianism have already started speaking out about philanthropy’s responsibilities and its shortcomings. What many of them have to say isn’t flattering.

To get a better sense of those critiques, Inside Philanthropy reached out to democracy funders and grantmakers who’ve been sounding the alarm on Donald Trump’s anti-democratic propensities. Their reflections on what funders should have done better in the lead-up to January 6, and what they can do now, cover a lot of ground and reveal some common themes. We hope this conversation will deepen as philanthropy comes to terms with a shocking but predictable end to a most turbulent American presidency.

What went wrong

Against long odds, the 2020 election was conducted with minimal disruption. That prompted a moment of celebration for some democracy funders back in November. But Trump’s insistence that the election was “stolen,” based on wishes and hearsay rather than fact, drove a months-long campaign to invalidate the results that culminated in the attack on the Capitol and threw cold water on democracy advocates’ momentary confidence. It’s no surprise, then, that philanthropic timidity was a common refrain when we asked folks what the sector got wrong.

Carmen Rojas of the Marguerite Casey Foundation leveled a pointed critique at faint-hearted funders. “Over the last four years, it has been difficult to watch the line in the sand shift for philanthropy as it sought to relate to the current administration, its supporters and enablers,” she said. “As a sector, we acted powerless, resourceless and constrained. As a sector, we allowed the leaders of the organizations we support to [bear] the brunt of right-wing attacks while standing by in silence. As a sector, we preferred polite conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion as opposed to the necessary conversations about reparations, racial justice and shifting power.”

Rojas’ comments bring to mind the early months of the Trump presidency when we wondered whether philanthropy would stand up to the new president’s corrosive agenda. To their credit, many funders did just that, galvanizing a progressive critique of the sector’s hierarchal status quo that has helped fuel more holistic funding practices and rising attention to racial equity. Nevertheless, January 6 was a sign that much more could have been done.

The most frequent theme we heard was philanthropy’s insufficiency in the face of white supremacy, which many democracy advocates view as a clear hindrance to their goals. “The greatest threat to American democracy has always been white extremist violence. It is a tale as old as time,” said political scientist Megan Ming Francis, who studies philanthropy’s role alongside racial justice movements in American politics. Characterizing racist voter suppression as a manifestation of that violence, Francis pointed to four years of “violent mobs, mass shootings, [and] the incendiary rhetoric from President Trump.” She went on, “And there has been near silence from donors, as if these eruptions are all aberrational and not indicative of a deeper democratic crisis.”

Many of the funders we heard from agreed. Both Paul Di Donato of the Proteus Fund and Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund pointed to an overall lack of investment in democracy work. “Less than two percent of all foundation grantmaking dollars supported democracy, in the broadest sense of the term, over the last decade,” Heintz observed. And Di Donato said, “Philanthropy, like many other sectors, made a very bad assumption not just in the last four years but the last few decades, frankly, that U.S. democracy is somehow self-correcting and self-sustaining. It isn’t.” Di Donato characterized the fight against racism as “completely intertwined” with guaranteeing a functioning democracy.

The wealth and whiteness of most philanthropic spaces is one reason why few funders have prioritized assertive democracy work that combats structural racism and economic inequality. Another big reason is philanthropy’s customary caution around anything that smacks of politics, even though civic engagement and movement funding are more than fair game for foundations. The Trump presidency, culminating in the Capitol insurrection, has made it clear to many funders that the bloodless, technocratic giving of yesteryear is woefully insufficient in a time of deep values-based conflict. “We are being honest with ourselves that this is a fight and like every fight, there are sides,” Rojas said. At Proteus, Di Donato also stressed the need to pick a side. “It’s a pretty basic question… you’re either for a robust democracy or you are not; you’re either against political violence and intimidation, or you are not,” he said.

Doubling down against white supremacy

In the immediate wake of January 6, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker wrote that just as he sees white supremacy as the greatest threat to democracy, “What has become clear during recent weeks—and all the more apparent yesterday—is that the converse is also true: Democracy is the greatest threat to white supremacy.”

While overt white supremacism may not have motivated every member of the mob, disturbing images like a man parading the Confederate battle flag through the Capitol, or another man sporting clothing celebrating the Holocaust, were hardly incidental. White supremacists invaded the Capitol, where the work of democracy was playing out, in part because racist ideology is ultimately incompatible with democratic governance. For Ford and many other funders, the best way to safeguard U.S. democracy in the future is to do a better job tackling white supremacy. “We believe the fight for racial justice is what will bring about a fully functioning democracy, not the other way around,” Rojas said.

Going forward, democracy givers like the foundations and donors involved with Solidaire plan to double down on racial justice movements. Rajasvini Bhansali, who leads Solidaire, emphasized the importance of funding Black-led organizing in particular. “Ultimately, Black-led social change forges alliances that propel broad and deep societal transformation, and yet philanthropy withholds the resources needed to fully power movements,” she said. “Philanthropy must incur far greater political and financial risk to repair ongoing harms of its disinvestment from Black, indigenous and people of color organizing.”

Crystal Hayling of the Libra Foundation, a partner to and participant in Solidaire’s donor organizing mission, linked the idea of a peaceful transfer of governmental power with the transfer of power “from the elites to the communities,” including in the often paternalistic world of philanthropy.

For some grantmakers, a model for what that power shift might look like in the political sphere was close at hand. The day before the Capitol attack, after all, racial justice movement organizers succeeded in overcoming state-level voter suppression to power record turnout in the Georgia Senate runoffs. Don Chen of the Surdna Foundation wrote, “The organizers who spent a decade registering voters in Georgia—especially Black voters—have shown us a different vision of a peaceful, just, equitable and prosperous multiracial democracy.” Joe Goldman, who heads Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund, shared something similar on Twitter the day of the attack. “While we witnessed the worst of our democracy today, it was only yesterday that we witnessed some of its best with historical levels of civic participation in Georgia. We are better than this.”

As we’ve seen, patient philanthropic funding helped build up key movement organizations that drove turnout in Georgia. Those grants arguably achieved more dollar-for-dollar impact than the hundreds of millions of last-minute campaign cash that poured into the state following the general election.

Paths forward
Calls for greater investment in racial justice organizing are hardly new—Inside Philanthropy has been covering the rising chorus of funders in that space for a while, and echoing many of their arguments. In addition to efforts to extricate white supremacy from the fabric of this country—or as a part of that work—funders pointed to related strategies philanthropy can adopt in the wake of the Capitol attack.

First and foremost, philanthropy must stop actually funding right-wing extremism. “Whether directly, or unwittingly, philanthropic resources continue to line the coffers of hate groups,” said Way to Win’s Nicole Boucher. Though their resources are limited, several philanthropies do deploy tax-deductible funding to back racist talking points. And far more such funding likely flows through DAFs, which let donors retain their anonymity. The “dark money” groups that actually funded Trump’s now-infamous January 6 rally are 501(c)(4) organizations.

On the other side of the equation, January 6 highlighted the need for personal security on behalf of movement leaders, especially those pushing to secure voting rights for people of color. Dimple Abichandani of the General Service Foundation has advocated for more attention to that emergent need, both in the lead-up to the November 3 election and in the aftermath of January 6.

Several funders also pointed to ways in which institutional power has already sought to leverage recent unrest to entrench regressive policies. In a statement, the Proteus Fund called attention to how “several states, including Florida, are actually using the events of this week to introduce or re-introduce legislation to criminalize peaceful protest.” Proteus’s Piper Fund supports advocacy to uphold Americans’ first amendment right to peaceful protest, a right that some state legislatures have moved to chip away over the past several years.

A similar dynamic is at play in the realm of voting rights. According to Laleh Ispahani, managing director of Open Society-U.S., “Sadly, we see Georgia Republicans respond to the loss of two Senate elections by planning to introduce bills to restrict the vote and roll back recent extensions of access to the ballot, after Blacks and BIPOC voters turned out in record numbers.” As other state legislatures seek to double down on voter suppression laws, Ispahani urged funders to back advocacy for 2019’s H.R. 1, the For the People Act, and for H.R. 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act. Both would help the federal government implement the Voting Rights Act of 1965, whose enforcement mechanism functionally died with the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013.

Beyond actual funding, foundations and donors can do quite a bit to utilize their social capital and elite status on behalf of a peaceful, inclusive democracy. That soft power was the subject of an interesting discussion that Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement conducted with Over Zero. The folks at Over Zero, a Democracy Fund grantee that applies communications techniques to oppose identity-based violence, argued that funders should “use their civic leadership and social capital.” For instance, “Many funders have branch operations or are connected to networks that provide political funding—they can use these operations to take a stand.”

By asserting their influence on other leaders in society, Over Zero says, philanthropic leaders can increase the pressure for accountability and “reinstate a positive norm—that when leaders use dangerous rhetoric, deliberately sow conspiracy, or attempt to undermine democracy, they violate core tenets of democratic leadership and these are actions that cannot be dismissed or written off.”

Violence at their doorstep

The events of January 6, unheard of in the Capitol since the War of 1812, was a powerful reminder for those still inhabiting comfort zones about political violence. In that way, it resembled the authoritarian Donald Trump’s rise to power itself. “Overnight we have watched astonishing scenes as hundreds of thugs incited by a criminal president invaded a country’s legislative chambers and caused mayhem and death in an effort to overturn the result of a democratic election,” said Mark Malloch-Brown, OSF’s new president, in a statement. “Until four years ago I suspect few at the Open Society Foundations would have expected to use such words of condemnation about America.”

In a joint letter, over 75 philanthropic organizations laid responsibility for the violence at Trump’s doorstep and decried “a painful break in the peaceful transition of power that has been a defining hallmark of American democracy for more than 200 years.”

As funders come to terms with the jarring events of January 2021, it’ll be crucial for them to keep in mind that philanthropy is itself inherently undemocratic, while at the same time-dependent in this country on a functioning American democracy. The reactions many funders have shared point to an increasing politicization of philanthropy as funders get more assertive about “picking a side” and backing their core values. In so doing, some may seek to cede power, though it’s still unclear how that might look if it became a dominant form of philanthropy.

Few of these funders mentioned it except in passing, but it’s also clear that big tech and the media landscape will play a key role in how American democracy evolves—for good or ill. More funding for journalism strategies that boost factual debate and minimize extremist rhetoric is probably a good idea as well.

The ultimate effect of January 6 on philanthropy may very well be the realization that, yes, homegrown terrorism and racist political violence can plunge even the most elite spaces into chaos. As Francis put it, “Charlottesville (2017) to DC (2021) is all part of one continuum; the problem is that too many donors have had blinders on and refused to see what was staring at them because they never really believed it would be at their doorstep.”