Against a backdrop of record-breaking fires, hurricanes, and a global pandemic that rages on in the United States, people across the country are rising up to demand justice for another Black father gunned down by police after a summer defined by sweeping protests calling for change. Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black father in Wisconsin, was shot seven times in the back, and even after miraculously surviving, now sits handcuffed to his hospital bed in a final, dehumanizing act of violence by the state. Activists and protestors alike consider this reality untenable and unacceptable.
At the same time, the upcoming 2020 election, a prime opportunity for the voices of millions who have been hurting to be heard by those in power, is under threat, not just in the streets, but in a solemn space: the voting booth. This provides a clear mandate for philanthropy: Do even more than has already been done to address these compounding crises, starting with the upcoming election.
Without a functioning democracy, we cannot hope to meaningfully address the wide range of social and economic challenges we’re being faced with, and this is where philanthropy can have some of its greatest impact, especially if our funding for democracy is funneled toward Black- and brown-led organizers working in communities that are most under threat from bad actors seeking to suppress the vote. Without trust in our election process, the underpinnings of the work we do across all issue areas will be shattered.
For too long, we’ve held back our assets in moments of crisis. While many organizations have been willing to part with additional funding in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice uprisings, there is still a major gap in funding for the election, as many foundations remain gun-shy over perceptions of partisanship or politicization. Yet the work of philanthropy is inherently political, because it is about power.
Much too often, philanthropy has misused its power, prioritizing the comfort of the status quo over the real, human needs of the people and communities philanthropy claims to serve. We must be the sector that strengthens democracy at a time when it’s holding on by a thread. Even the most depoliticized and revered institutions like the U.S. Post Office are facing attacks, and this level of vitriol has arisen before a single ballot has been counted. We must act now. Otherwise,we will merely reinforce the old balances of wealth and power that have proved so destabilizing.
What it means to protect democracy might look different across organizations. Regardless, make sure your strategy includes programs that expand voting opportunities, fight election interference from foreign actors online, and support Black, brown and Indigenous organizations that advocate for civil and voting rights. Wherever possible, seek opportunities to move funds into the hands of organizers and activists of color, and get that flexible funding distributed as soon as possible. Make sure that funding is actually reflective of the scale of the task at hand. Listen to your existing grantees—they are as concerned with the state of the world as you are, if not more so. Ask what they need and find ways to provide it, without strings or hoops to jump through. Expand where you provide funding, explore options that protect our civic foundations so that the grantees you already support have a basic, functioning civil society in which they can carry out their work.
I’ve argued before that the institutions of philanthropy are experiencing a serious (and somewhat overdue) reckoning for our sector’s long history of complicity with racism and white supremacy. The rise of billionaire philanthropists has largely been met with derision, as giving fails to keep up with escalating wealth inequality. The dominant assumption that philanthropy is inherently a force for good is being tested, and rightfully so.
Now is our moment to prove our value, not only to the wider world, but to ourselves. We can step up now, with the full force of our institutional knowledge and wealth, and take definitive action to protect democracy.
What we do from now until November will shape the next decade. We are at a moment of incredible uncertainty and mounting crisis, and many of us haven’t allowed ourselves to imagine the possibilities of what could come out of November. Now is the time to get our heads out of the sand and to start preparing for any eventuality. We must all consider how our funding can step in to protect democracy—it’s time to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Edgar Villanueva is the author of “Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance” and the founder of Liberated Capital, a philanthropic initiative designed to practice the values of reciprocity and equity outlined in the book.