Foundations Steer More Money to American Democracy Instead of Their Sending Funds Abroad, More US Charities Are Supporting Homegrown Political Causes

Article excerpt

Earlier this decade, the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of America's large philanthropic foundations, saw in the rubble of the Soviet empire a chance to build democracy in central and eastern Europe. Dollars and energy were funneled abroad to help build the kinds of institutions taken for granted in the United States.

Today, fewer are taking those institutions here for granted. Pew's philanthropic dollars are staying home, part of a growing trend by the nation's largest foundations to invest in American democracy.

The reasons are several, but the prime motivator is a conviction that the democratic process in this country needs sustained help. As Pew president Rebecca Rimel puts it: "It's quite disturbing when you look at the number of people who have checked out of the civic process." Last month's election, for instance, showed a continuing decline in voting among almost every demographic group. A surge in giving is aimed at increasing public confidence and engagement in governance through a wide range of initiatives, including improving campaign conduct, political leadership, and the understanding of money's role in politics. Data released this week by the Foundation Center, the New York- based research arm of the nation's largest foundations, show giving to "public affairs" initiatives jumped 80 percent since 1992, far faster than philanthropic giving as a whole. In this category, gifts by the large foundations that the center surveyed now total about $1 billion annually. This flow of philanthropic dollars is giving birth to a number of new programs and initiatives - groups like Washington-based Public Campaign. Dedicated to campaign-finance reform, it was founded last year with $9 million in grants from the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. Another recipient is the Alliance for Better Campaigns, based in Washington, which opened this year with a $3.7 million pledge from Pew. Its mission is to encourage broadcasters and politicians to do a better job of communicating issues during campaigns. It has begun pilot projects in 10 states to act as a "a catalyst to tweak the political culture a bit," says ABC executive director Paul Taylor. For many in the foundation world, the 1990s produced some sea changes that left them feeling out of touch. …


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