Open ballot boxes before the voting started” by Anthony Karanja

March 16, 2017; Knight Foundation

The current political climate in our country has served as a catalyst for renewed citizen engagement across a wide range of issues. We’re witnessing it in real time, on a daily basis, and on a nationwide scale—in states of varying political leanings and municipalities of all sizes. From marches on Washington to standing-room-only community town halls, there’s no doubt we haven’t seen this heightened degree of civic participation in some time. While that’s all good and great, one nonprofit is underlining the critical importance of participation earlier on—specifically, in the voting process—and they are getting the transformative philanthropic support to help move their mission forward.

NPQ has written on Democracy Works before: It’s a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) that encourages more people to participate in the democratic process and equips them with the tools necessary to do so. For example, its hallmark piece of technology, TurboVote, tracks pertinent election-related information and sends voters email and text reminders about important details such as registration deadlines. The young team of self-described “software developers, public policy wonks, and civic organizers” has reason to celebrate, as it was announced this morning they are the recipient of a $2.5 million investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The matching grant, an atypical gift structure in the civic tech space, will support the overall mission and strategy of Democracy Works as it aims to achieve its primary objective of making voting fit the way ordinary citizens live their day-to-day lives. According to the organization’s CEO, Seth Flaxman, the Knight gift will specifically position Democracy Works to take already successful projects to scale, deepen its presence in the election administration space, and expand its partnerships with other entities through the sharing of data that can be passed on to voters.

“In order to get to our goal of increasing voter participation to 80 percent [by 2020], we are going to have to get the attention of the 230 million people who are eligible to vote and get them connected to our services or other services that we are helping to power,” Flaxman said. “This gift is the rocket fuel to get us there.”

The Knight gift is not only a game-changer for Democracy Works but also helps set a new way to look at the intersection of philanthropy and democracy. Both organizations recognize the crucial role technology plays in the modernization of the democratic process, and their partnership is one shining example of what needs to be done in order to “improve the basic fabric of voter participation,” as John Bracken, VP of Technology Innovation at the Knight Foundation, puts it. “Our overarching mission is to ensure citizens have access to information so that they can fully participate in democracy, and technology is a big part of that.”

Will gifts like Knight’s investment in Democracy Works also send a bold message to individual donors, who, for the most part, have structured their giving in a straightforward, issues-based way? That is certainly Flaxman’s hope.

Still, we must keep a few things in mind. Philanthropy has been encouraging the vote for many decades, and there are many other players in this space both on the nonprofit and philanthropic sides. We have previously written about the Knight Foundation’s reported penchant for “bright and shiny” new technology solutions to problems. This grant may or may not have the kind of transformational effect Flaxman hopes for, but we might suspend judgment for a while as the effort moves forward to prove itself among its many partners.

“This gift will be transformational in having the philanthropic sector realize that no matter what area they care about, they also have to care about having a working democracy,” says Flaxman. “Issues don’t just exist in a vacuum.”—Lindsay Walker