Democracy is under attack around the world, and many foundations are rallying to its defense. Yet at the same time, many foundations in their mode of operations are practicing and reinforcing the anti-democratic ideology of the attackers. By preaching democracy externally but practicing oligarchy internally, funders undermine their investments and our democracy.
To confront the crisis of democracy, directing external funding to pro-democracy groups and causes is not enough. Funders must also undo their internal anti-democratic practices. This means ending top-down decision-making by a small ruling elite. It also requires shifting power to communities. Fortunately, we already have models for how to do this.
Democracy or Oligarchy?
The recent attack on the US Capitol was one of the most dramatic results—so far—of a growing movement to replace democracy (rule by the people) with oligarchy (rule by a small elite), in the United States and elsewhere. While this insurrection failed, the broader movement has been wildly successful at eroding democratic norms and institutions. It has scaled back voting rights and opportunities, made it easier for the wealthy to influence elections, consolidated the power of ruling minorities through gerrymandering, and widened the income and wealth gap by undoing progressive taxation and limiting social support programs and the minimum wage.
This revolution has been funded. For half a century, right-wing funders have directed billions of dollars to think tanks, university centers, media, and organizations to build a broad movement against democracy, as documented in Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains and Jane Meyer’s Dark Money.
This movement, known as “neoliberalism” by its critics and “public choice” by its supporters, advocates an ideology of individual liberty over majoritarian rule. In practice, this has mostly meant the liberty of privileged white men to maintain their supremacy at others’ expense, dressed up in prettier language. It seeks to overturn democratic institutions, practices, and norms—to prioritize individual interest over the public good.
Ingeniously, neoliberal advocates rationalize their anti-democratic actions in the name of democracy. As we saw at the US Capitol, their movement justifies attacks on democracy as efforts to reclaim government “by the people” (understood as “the historically privileged minority”). It aims to Make Democracy Great Again.
The Capitol insurrection was possible because this movement has been deeply successful. It has implanted its ideology in influential policy organizations, universities, media, political parties, and the police. These institutions have trained us to distrust democracy. And foundations have reinforced this training.
It’s an inconvenient truth, but foundations are one of the most durable bastions of oligarchy. They are generally governed by a small group of benefactors and professionals, who are disproportionately white, wealthy, and male. Like the public choice movement, they staunchly defend the right of this ruling elite to make funding decisions that affect us all. Each year, they teach thousands of employees and grantees to accept oligarchic rule as common sense. Like the Capitol insurgents, they justify anti-democratic practices in the name of democracy.
This massive anti-democracy training undermines grants to promote democracy. For every grant aiming to lay a stronger democratic foundation, funders tear out a brick from this foundation by practicing and promoting oligarchy.
Such contradictions are not new for philanthropy. Foundations have funded climate change advocates while investing endowments in fossil fuels. They have pledged support for racial justice while maintaining internal racial hierarchies. And social movements have pushed back, calling on funders to divest from fossil fuels and tear down internal racial inequities. The same must happen for democracy: pro-democracy foundations need to abandon anti-democratic decision-making.
How Philanthropy Can Be Pro-Democracy
A growing movement is calling for the democratization of philanthropy. Advocates of “participatory grantmaking” call on foundations to cede decision-making power to the communities impacted by funding decisions. These calls are gaining traction even if what qualifies as a participatory process varies. Some examples include Grantcraft’s Deciding Together, Cynthia Gibson’s Participatory Grantmaking—Has Its Time Come?, Hannah Paterson’s Grassroots Grantmaking: Participatory Approaches, and Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey’s Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control.
Like demands for climate action and racial justice, calls to democratize philanthropy have met mixed reactions, which often fall short of real democratization. Many funders have done nothing. Others have offered token responses, publishing blog posts about the importance of listening to communities, without changing practices. Some have taken more meaningful steps toward engagement, such as consultations or feedback processes, but without shifting power. And several funders have indeed shared decision-making power, paving a