A $100 Million Commitment to Healthy Democracy​

June 26, 2018

This Fourth of July, Democracy Fund will celebrate its fourth anniversary as an independent foundation. Little did I know in the summer of 2014 just how profound the threats facing our country would turn out to be or the degree to which the health of our nation’s political system would become a near-universally recognized problem. Lately, I find myself thinking that this organization was created for this moment — though I did not realize it was coming.

Fittingly, July Fourth will also mark an important milestone in our growth as an institution — $100 million in grants made to organizations strengthening U.S. democracy. It has been our privilege to make these resources available to a remarkable group of leaders working to ensure that our democratic institutions deliver on their promise to the American people.

While Democracy Fund’s core mission has not changed from its founding, this organization looks very different from four years ago when we had a staff of three and a dozen or so grantees. The events of the past two years demanded that we clarify our core convictions and to dramatically expand our commitment to strengthen American democracy and defend the United States Constitution.

The purpose of this open letter is to share how we have changed, to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to our core programs, and to explain why we think it is so important that philanthropy stand up patriotically in this moment.

With today’s publication of our vision for a healthy democracy, I acknowledge that our commitment to bipartisanship cannot come at the expense of our core values. Indeed, we believe that being bipartisan cannot mean being neutral when actions are taken that threaten our republic.

At Democracy Fund, we believe a healthy democracy requires at least two competitive political parties — and that democratic institutions work best when they have broad support from across the political spectrum. We deeply value our ability to work with Republicans, Democrats, and independents to find ways to ensure that our democracy works for all Americans.

But we also believe in the dignity of every individual and in the equal protection of their rights under law. We believe that checks and balances, as well as respect for the rule of law, are critical to protect against abuses of power. We believe that political leaders bear an uncommon burden to act with integrity. And we believe that threats to the health of our democracy — as well as solutions to these — can come from all sides of the political spectrum.

Over the past two years, I have seen alarming and sometimes unprecedented violations of our country’s democratic norms. For an organization committed to strengthening democracy on behalf of the American people, this isn’t just disturbing — it’s humbling.

Over the past two years, I have seen alarming and sometimes unprecedented violations of our country’s democratic norms. For an organization committed to strengthening democracy on behalf of the American people, this isn’t just disturbing — it’s humbling.

With this in mind, Democracy Fund convened its National Advisory Committee and board of directors in the early months of 2017 to consider how we would stand up to urgent, new threats facing our Constitution.

Our first priority was to articulate the beliefs that underlie our work, and clearly assert those core democratic principles for which we stand. Working with our advisors and a diverse group of scholars, we created a healthy democracy framework to help explicate the values that motivate our efforts. The framework will serve as a compass, inform decision-making, and provide clarity about the principled positions underlying our actions for ourselves and others.

Having articulated these beliefs, we knew that staying the course in the face of new and widening gaps between our vision for a healthy democracy and the realities of America today was not an option. We rebooted some of Democracy Fund’s core programs and added new, bipartisan initiatives to stop abuses of government power, secure our elections, defend press freedom, and combat misinformation. We increased our staff by more than 40 percent and tripled the size of our grantmaking budget. We also created three new special projects that include two-year commitments of:

In addition, we launched the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group to help policymakers keep in touch with the beliefs and attitudes of ordinary Americans.

Even as we continue our ongoing work to strengthen American democracy, we’re taking a stand against real and direct threats to our Constitution.

Combatting the Abuse of Power

Core to our understanding of a healthy democracy is the notion that constitutional checks and balances protect against abuses of power and preserve the rule of law. Over the past year, Democracy Fund has worked to reinvigorate government accountability in a challenging environment in which government leaders have openly flouted ethics rules and challenged the independence of everything from the courts to the Justice Department.

Democracy Fund’s grantees are fighting back aggressively. Collectively, they have participated in more than 35 lawsuits targeting government corruption, secrecy, and ethics violations. In addition to exposing abuses, these legal actions are helping to protect institutions that have come under attack. For example, a FOIA lawsuit filed by Lawfare helped secure the release of 100 F.B.I. emails that contradicted the White House’s false narrative that former F.B.I. Director James Comey had lost Bureau support before his firing.

Other grantees, like the National Security Archive, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), and the Government Accountability Project, have filed more than 2,300 FOIA requests to expose government corruption, misconduct, waste, and conflicts of interest. Work by POGO and Open the Government has led the Department of Homeland Security to release an Inspector General report criticizing initial implementation of the Muslim travel ban.

POGO, the Lugar Center, and the Levin Center are also continuing to encourage bipartisan congressional oversight by training nearly 300 Hill staffers on how to hold the executive branch accountable. In addition, POGO and the Government Accountability Project have distributed whistleblower education materials to more than 2,100 federal employees, NGO employees, journalists, and engaged citizens.

Another grantee engaged in especially urgent work is the Protect Democracy Project, which was established in February 2017. In its first month of operation, the Project successfully helped force the Trump administration to release a policy restricting communications between the White House and the Department of Justice. Then, it helped expose instances in which the White House had violated those restrictions. In just a year, the Protect Democracy Project has forced important public disclosures on issues ranging from potential executive overreach into a major healthcare merger, to alleged intimidation of federal workers, to the legal rationale behind military strikes in Syria.

Three grantees of our affiliated 501(c)4, Democracy Fund Voice — R Street Institute, Stand Up Republic, and the Niskanen Center — are working to build bipartisan networks to push back against threats to our democracy. These networks are working to stand up for democratic norms while building consensus on a vision for American democracy over the long term.

To stop the abuse of political power, our grantees are cutting deep into the weeds of government. But we are confronted by threats that go deeper still, undermining the most basic feature of our democracy: free and fair elections.

Securing Our Elections

We believe that voting is the cornerstone of our democracy; but when it comes to elections, Democracy Fund worries less about who wins than about whether people have faith in the outcome. False claims that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in 2016 have the potential to undermine faith in our elections — while creating a spurious justification for erecting barriers that make it more difficult for Americans to vote.

M.I.T.’s Election Data and Science Lab and the Center for Election Innovation & Research played a leading role in pushing back against these false claims that the Pence-Kobach Voter Fraud Commission sought to justify. These efforts to correct the record — alongside legal actions by Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Campaign Legal Center, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, and others — contributed to the eventual dissolution of the Commission.

We believe that voting is the cornerstone of our democracy, but when it comes to elections, Democracy Fund worries less about who wins than about whether people have faith in the outcome.

At the same time, we know malicious foreign actors made a concerted effort to undermine the 2016 presidential election and that the security of our next election cannot be taken for granted. For more than 12 months, Democracy Fund Voice worked with its partners to persuade Congress to provide state and local election officials with the resources and training necessary to maintain the highest possible security. This work paid off last month, when Congress included $380 million in grants to the states to improve cybersecurity, replace paperless voting machines, and perform post-election audits (among other measures). Lawmakers also approved $10 million in funding for the Election Assistance Commission — a 10 percent increase — and provided the F.B.I. with an additional $300 million to bolster election cybersecurity.

Democracy Fund grantees have also found innovative ways to get ahead of the next attack on our election infrastructure. The bipartisan duo of Robby Mook and Matt Rhoads (former campaign managers for Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, respectively) launched a new program at Harvard to help campaigns and election officials protect sensitive data against intrusion. The effort is organizing “tabletop exercises” that simulate attacks on election systems — and allow election officials and security experts to practice their response.

Additional grantees with a focus on money in politics have also played important roles. The Campaign Legal Center (CLC) developed a symposium and report about whether current laws are sufficient to prevent or deter future intrusion. Campaign finance complaints filed by CLC and Common Cause forced other actors, including President Donald Trump’s lawyer, to disclose more information about alleged foreign interference than otherwise known. Additionally, CLC and others have done important work to promote greater disclosure on social media platforms.

Defending the Fourth Estate

At a moment when journalists face profound economic and political threats, Democracy Fund is helping to ensure our fourth estate remains free and resilient. In the healthy democracy framework, we assert that journalists provide a critical check on power, holding our leaders accountable and revealing corruption, wrongdoing, and conflicts of interest. They provide Americans with the information they need to uphold the promise of a democracy of, by, and for the people. That’s why Democracy Fund has made a two-year commitment of $11 million to strengthen investigative reporting. It’s also why we’re supporting press freedom watchdogs, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Reporters Without Borders, and the Student Press Law Center.

Grants to the nation’s premier investigative watchdogs have enabled these nonprofit newsrooms to pursue a wide range of stories that have held administration officials accountable for wrongdoing, forced divestitures, and changed laws.

ProPublica has taken on biased algorithms, forced changes in Facebook’s advertising rules, and prompted New York City lawmakers to pass the country’s first bill to address discrimination produced by social media algorithms. And Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross divested from his global shipping company after an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity showed significant conflicts of interest.

Too often, journalists become targets for threats and abuse as a result of their work to advance the public interest. Trump administration officials have gone so far as to call out Democracy Fund grantees by name. One grantee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom ProPublica, faced a cyberattack that took down its entire email system — an attempt to silence ProPublica journalists in retribution for hard-hitting reporting on hate crimes and extremists groups. In the face of these attacks, Democracy Fund’s support provided these grantees with the resources and independence they needed to stand firm, fix their systems, and continue their indispensable work.

Local newsrooms are, in many ways, the building blocks of our democracy, covering stories that matter to residents and holding local leaders accountable in a way that no other organizations can.

Local newsrooms are, in many ways, the building blocks of our democracy, covering stories that matter to residents and holding local leaders accountable in a way that no other organizations can. Yet, across the country, we’ve seen an increase in “trickle-down” attacks on the press, where those in power use their positions to undermine — or even encourage violence against — local journalists. These attacks have come at a time of severe economic turmoil for many local newsrooms, when their business models are failing — and their continued viability is in serious question.

That’s why Democracy Fund has worked hand-in-glove with peer funders to launch NewsMatch — an unprecedented campaign to strengthen nonprofit journalism and make 2017 a record-breaking year for giving to local investigative news. With the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and a partnership of five additional funders, we matched donations to nonprofit newsrooms for the last three months of 2017, helping journalists raise more than $4.8 million. Among the more than 100 nonprofit newsrooms that participated, nearly all raised more dollars from more donors than ever before.


Even as we work to ensure that all Americans have access to quality local news and investigative reporting, Democracy Fund’s grantees are also striving to combat the misinformation that pollutes our public square. For instance, long before Cambridge Analytica captured national headlines, we published a report examining the ways in which social media platforms exacerbate information disorders, spread hate, and threaten our democracy.

But declining trust in media is not only a product of this political moment. It also stems from the ways journalism has at times stood apart from communities and failed to deliver stories that matter to them. Grantees in our Engaged Journalism portfolio continue to experiment with tools that foster a deeper connection between newsrooms and the public. In the context of that work, we’ve made significant commitments to making newsrooms more diverse and representative of their readership.

Through all of our efforts in this space, Democracy Fund is working toward a future where we can trust the headlines we see — and the democracy we shape together.

Protecting the Dignity and Rights of Each Individual

First among our core beliefs is a fundamental dedication to the dignity of every individual in our democracy, and the protection of their rights under the law. Without a recognition of our common humanity and a common American identity, our democracy cannot function. All too often, however, divisive rhetoric targeting Muslims and immigrants — rhetoric that has been embraced, over the past year, by policymakers, government officials, and media figures — encourages bigotry among the public while creating political momentum for policies that demean individuals and threaten to violate basic civil rights.

Nationally, as well as in individual communities throughout the country, Democracy Fund grantees are fighting for greater inclusion — and pushing back against policies that undermine what it means to be an American. While some leaders in government and the media blamed the hate-motivated violence we saw in Charlottesville on “both sides,” Democracy Fund grantees like Faith & Public Life were training clergy in nonviolent strategies to protect peaceful demonstrators from gun-wielding white supremacists. In the aftermath of that conflict, Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) acted to prevent it from happening again. ICAP lawyers discovered provisions of Virginia law — dating back to 1776 — that prohibit “paramilitary activity.” This discovery became the basis of a 79-page lawsuit ICAP filed in Charlottesville last October.

As activist groups, members of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian (MASA) communities, and allied organizations came together, over the past year, to challenge the Trump administration’s Muslim and refugee ban, the Proteus Fund’s Security & Rights Collaborative (SRC) played a critical coordination role. Through the #NoMuslimBanEver campaign, SRC helped facilitate mobilization efforts across the country — and also provided direct monetary and strategic support to MASA organizations. Their and their grantees’ work continued this spring, when ICAP’s Neal Katyal, a former acting U.S. solicitor general, argued against the ban before the Supreme Court.


In our effort to maintain a just and inclusive society, Democracy Fund has also partnered with Freedom to Believe, an organization that brings people of all faiths and backgrounds to mosques to learn more about Islam and forge connections with Muslim communities. Similarly, our grantee Veterans for American Ideals is using proven strategic communications tactics to promote tolerance. Their #WhatIFoughtFor campaign showcases moving collaborations between refugees and military service members that are helping to make America, in every sense, a more perfect union.

In recent months, Democracy Fund staff have also worked closely with Civic Nation and NBCUniversal to support the re-launch of their “Erase the Hate” campaign to combat prejudice, hate crimes, and the spread of hate speech online.

Understanding the American Public

The concept of robust representation is embedded throughout our healthy democracy framework and is fundamental to the proper function of our democratic republic. In this unique and consequential moment, it is as important as ever before that America’s leaders — in public office and at every level of civil society — hold a nuanced understanding of the American public, their experience and preferences, and how their changing attitudes are reshaping our politics. To this end, Democracy Fund created the Voter Study Group to dig deep into public opinion data — and then to analyze and share those results with policymakers, government officials, and the media.

There are two key attributes that distinguish the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group from other polling efforts. First, the group itself is made up of a diverse group of scholars from across the political spectrum, ranging from the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution on the left to Heritage Action and the American Enterprise Institute on the right. This remarkable diversity of opinion not only increases the quality of our analysis; it also means we have been able to gain attention and interest from media and policymakers in important and unusual ways. Second, the use of a longitudinal dataset — which surveys the same group of people who have been questioned since 2011 — has yielded deep insights into how the American electorate is changing in ways that are quite unique. We believe that the collaborative nature of this project lends itself especially well to the vigorous, informed dialogue across ideological difference that is necessary to sustainable policy and sustainable politics.


Since its launch, the Voter Study Group has released ten reports. Initial analyses focused on understanding the 2016 electorate, examining the composition of President Trump’s political base, and considering how party coalitions are changing. More recently, the group published “Follow the Leader,” a report that sought to assess the health of American democracy by better understanding authoritarian attitudes among the public.

What we found was alarming. Nearly one in four Americans say it would be good to have a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections. Nearly one in five say the same of military rule. In aggregate, 29 percent of respondents showed at least some support for an authoritarian alternative to democracy.

And yet, the cause for hope was clear: when offered a direct choice, the overwhelming majority of Americans chose democracy. Moreover, we didn’t see a correlation between dissatisfaction with democracy and support for authoritarian options.

Frustration and anger at the state of our democracy are well founded; openness to autocracy is not. The big question for us — as an organization and a leader in the philanthropic space — is what more we can do to strengthen our democracy, both for the next election and for the next generation.

Our Commitment to a Healthy Democracy

We live at a time when the principles articulated in our healthy democracy framework are threatened by uniquely dangerous circumstances. At Democracy Fund, we firmly believe these threats demand a full-throated response.

Admittedly, the approach I have outlined above is far more aggressive — necessarily so — than the one we took during our first few years of operation. In the face of unprecedented threats, philanthropists — including Democracy Fund — can’t just do what we’ve been doing. This moment demands something more than business as usual. That’s why Democracy Fund is calling on our peer organizations to take action — and why, moving forward, we will be proud to serve as a partner and resource to any funder willing to stand up and speak out for our Constitution.

Even as we respond to the current crises, we know the conditions that gave rise to this moment will still be with us for the foreseeable future. So we all need to commit to the long-term health of our democracy. Beyond the work outlined in this letter, Democracy Fund continues its work to reduce polarization, modernize elections, diversify newsrooms, and perform other essential tasks to strengthen our political system. Our hope is that peer funders will also join us on these longer-term projects.

At a time when our political institutions are under tremendous strain, Democracy Fund and its partners have been inspired by ordinary Americans who are standing up in extraordinary ways to help protect our republic. Their examples are proof that the vision outlined in our healthy democracy framework is not too much to hope for. That is why we’re rallying experts, activists, political leaders, and patriotic philanthropists to renew their personal responsibility for the greater good of our democracy.

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