Bookmark and Share

Work in Progress

The Hewlett Foundation Blog




What are Foundations Doing to Support U.S. Democracy? A New Tool for the Field 

June 9, 2014 — By Kelly Born

When the Hewlett Foundation first began considering work in the democracy reform space in 2012, we had the same question that every new funder has upon entering a field: “Who is funding whom, to do what?”

We wanted to ensure we had a good feel for the landscape before we got too far out into it—both to avoid duplicating efforts and to enable more effective teamwork with other foundations. Not knowing the answers to these basic funding questions makes coordination, let alone collaboration, unnecessarily difficult. It can take dozens of calls with other funders to begin even to get the lay of the land. Details learned are often forgotten, so every time there is a funder convening, or every time a new funder comes along, the landscape analysis must be redone. It wouldn’t surprise me if, when we were first entering the field, there was a collective groan from longstanding democracy funders—yet another freshman to educate!—who nonetheless graciously helped us get up to speed.

With all this in mind, in 2013 the Hewlett Foundation and seven other democracy funders joined together, under the guidance (read: leadership, execution, and pretty much everything else) of the Foundation Center, to begin to answer these questions—and to incorporate the answers in a form that would be readily accessible and continually updated. Our foundation partners were the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The JPB Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Omidyar Network’s Democracy Fund, Open Society Foundations, the Rita Allen Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

The first step was to craft a taxonomy to help structure and organize the funding data. As you can imagine, there were a lot of vexing questions and perspectives here: from what was in or out of scope and what the main categories should be all the way down to the specific wording of each primary, secondary, and tertiary category. We laughed. We cried. We iterated—and then we repeated the process. Along the way we received enormously helpful input from dozens of experts and observers in different parts of the field, on both the funder and grantee side. In short, a crazy amount of collaboration happened.

The result is an online, interactive, data-based visualization tool: Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy. Using the Foundation Center’s data set for 2011 (which was used in the search pictured below), along with partial but growing sets of data for subsequent years, the tool allows users to map, chart, and filter data to gain a deeper understanding of the democracy funding landscape. While it remains a work in progress—necessarily, but also by design—it already offers a powerful new vantage point to consider the resources flowing from foundations to nonprofits working to strengthen democracy in the U.S.

Foundation Center President Brad Smith has a blog post summarizing his observations about the process and emerging patterns in the data. For my part, I will simply encourage you to start tooling around the site. Try out a few searches and get a feel for what it has to offer.

We will be helping all of our grantees familiarize themselves with this tool. Indeed, as useful as this data set and visualization will be for foundations already working in the field or new funders considering entering it, the real killer app for this work will be to help grant seekers. They can use it to answer questions like: who is funding the work we do, in the way and / or in the places that we do it? What are the areas of focus, key grantees, grant sizes, etc. of [insert your favorite] foundation? Which foundations are we best positioned to approach for support? What other nonprofits out there share our goals and could be good partners?

The tool provides data that is very valuable to foundations. It provides information that is both important and indeed urgent for nonprofits working to secure and expand the resources they need to advance their missions to improve the health of our democracy. And that, ultimately, is the whole point!