America’s democracy is in trouble. Given the current government shutdown, the rancor of our political process, the likelihood that we will go on lurching from crisis to crisis, and the low level of confidence Americans have in their government, that observation probably won’t stir much controversy. But it ought to be a call to action. As citizens, we should be deeply concerned that our political system is failing. As donors, we should be equally engaged. Philanthropic foundations pride themselves on taking on urgent and significant challenges. They don’t come more urgent or significant than the future of our republic. The malaise of representative democracy in this country is not only a betrayal of American ideals and principles. It has real and negative effects on our economy, the health of our institutions, and our standing in the world. Why should we in philanthropy get involved? Because it is in our interest.
To do our best work, philanthropy needs both a healthy public sphere and sound public policy. We seek solutions to complex issues like climate change, criminal justice, health, and human rights. For all of them, effective public policy is critical. A range of options needs to be widely aired and analyzed. Then credible proposals must be translated into sound public policy that will further the common good.
Yet at present, our public debate is shrilly partisan, grounded too often in ideology rather than evidence. Professional lobbyists and big donors wield disproportionate influence fighting for their narrow interests rather than the public interest. Our legislators appear unable to hold meaningful negotiations or to broker agreements. Indeed “compromise” has become a dirty word to many elected officials. This is no way to make sound policy or to run a democracy.
There are direct consequences for philanthropy. When the policy environment is dysfunctional, our grant making loses value—we get less for our money. The problems we care about are large in scale and cannot be fully addressed without supportive public policy.