Our Divided Nation: Is There a Role for Philanthropy in Renewing Democracy?

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American democracy faces challenges that raise difficult questions for philanthropy. Has the foundation world done everything it can to shore up democratic values and aspirations, or has it pursued its own ideas of the public good and turned a blind eye to these challenges? To what extent can philanthropy’s efforts to strengthen communities and rebuild public trust be effective in the face of stiff headwinds? How can it be more responsive to the needs of a democratic society? And what role does the public play, if any, in defining the priorities of grantmaking organizations?

This report from the Council on Foundations and the Kettering Foundation summarizes a two-day symposium the two organizations convened in May 2018 to wrestle with these questions. A group of prominent foundation leaders working at the national, state, and community levels explored how philanthropy can narrow the gap between people and institutions, strengthen public engagement, build civic capacity, and generally bolster democratic norms and practices in the United States.

As the report points out, foundations often stress the importance of advancing democracy and serving the common good, yet there is no real consensus in the field about what this means in the context of a divided public or how it is to be achieved. One of the challenges facing philanthropy today is to figure out what kind of democracy it wants to support and how best to go about doing that.

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