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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




What Went Wrong with Our Democracy Grantmaking? 

May 14, 2014 — By Daniel Stid

In last week’s post I described the premortem that our team had worked through with some key outside colleagues and partners. The goal of the exercise was to surface potential blind spots and shortcomings in our  strategy at the outset of the democracy initiative so that we could address them before they became big issues.

In this week’s post, to give you a feel for what the premortem revealed about “what went wrong” with our strategy, I wanted to share some verbatim comments written on post-it notes during the session.

Here for example are some observations regarding challenging dynamics in the political system:

  • “Even when enacted, reforms make no difference. It’s the [Steve] Teles thesis: so long as the mobilized political elite is polarized, they can (and do) capture or co-opt any reform to preserve their advantages.”
  •  “Mobilizing moderates pushes them further to the poles”
  • “Polarization has continued to spread from Congress down to the states, making it unrealistic to think we can attain state-level reform”
  • “Citizenry is becoming polarized but our work fails to address; approach is too elite”
  • “Millennials drop out / civic engagement collapses”
  • “Journalism biz model collapses = no watchdog function and decreased citizen engagement”

There is clearly a lot here for us to chew on, especially with respect to the relationship between the civic engagement (or lack thereof) of citizens at the grassroots level and the quality of representation in Congress.

Even more telling were the challenges the group flagged regarding capacity—of our grantees, the philanthropic sector, and ourselves:

  • “Spread bet approach will not lead to sufficient grantee or strategy cohesion so that the sum is greater than the parts”
  •  “Even if experimental grants show something works, the pathways and infrastructure needed for scaling them enough to gain traction are not plausible”
  • “Funding (writ large) has increased, but it is not aligned and is exacerbating polarization”
  • “Funders can’t agree on anything!”
  • “The Initiative lacked the flexibility to pivot to new priorities and missed an opportunity to support the ‘true’ solution to polarization”
  • “No anchor grantees emerge b/c we are too busy to proactively help build the field”

What was interesting about this bundle of capacity issues was that the sub-set of the group we had charged with developing the positive, high impact scenario had identified several developments that were effectively mirror images of the “failure“ group on this dimension, e.g.:

  • “Marshaled political scientists at leading academic centers to focus work on solving key problems of democracy and they have firmed up what is possible”
  • “Strong evidence for success in building capacity and creating ‘fields’ in current ‘gap’ areas”
  • “Successful grants that strengthen and grow early stage orgs / programs”
  • “Developed productive alliances with foundations on right and left concerned about health of democracy”
  • “Initiative brings and creates more collaboration w/in phil. sector in the same strategic directions; goal of shared tools, taxonomy, spirit is met with enthusiasm.”
  •  “Took advantage of blue chip developmental evaluators to learn and course correct our strategy (and inform field along the way)”

I thus came away from this exercise determined to focus more clearly on questions of institutional capacity—for current and potential grantees, to be sure, but also for the community of funders and, not least, ourselves.

I cannot begin to fully summarize a half-day’s work in a few bullets, but I wanted to give you a sense for at least some of the issues we are talking about. Feel free to refer back to this post in three years to review what we got right and what we may have missed or over-emphasized. I know I will! In the meantime, please add your input to our premortem in the comments box below.