Over the past few years, foundations have increasingly embraced a systems approach, formulating longer-term strategies designed to solve chronic, complex problems. We value foundations for having strategic patience and being in it for the long haul. But what happens when they carefully craft a set of strategies intended for the long-term, and the context of one or more the interconnected problems they are trying to address changes considerably? Our experience at Democracy Fund, which aims to improve the fundamental health of the American democratic system, provides one example and suggests some lessons for other funders.
My colleagues and I chronicled the systems-thinking journey of Democracy Fund as we went about creating initiatives. After becoming an independent foundation in 2014, we went through a two-year process of carefully mapping the systems we were interested in shifting and then designing robust strategies based on our understanding of the best ways to make change. Our board approved our three long-term initiatives—elections, governance, and the public square—in 2016.
The 2016 election and its aftermath
It would not be an overstatement to say that the context for much of our work shifted considerably in the months leading up to, during, and following the 2016 US presidential election. Our strategies, as initially developed, were not fully prepared to address emerging threats in the landscape of American democracy, including:
- The massive tide of mis- and dis-information
- The undermining of the media as an effective fourth estate
- The scale of cybersecurity risks to the election system
- The violation of long-held democratic norms
- The deepening polarization among the electorate, including the extent to which economics, race, and identity would fuel divisions
During and after the election, we engaged in a combination of collective angst (“How did we miss this?”) and intentional reflection (“How can we do better?”). We came out of that period of introspection and planning with three clear opportunities for our work that we carried out over the next few months.
Ramp up our “system sensing” capabilities. We realized we needed to be much more diligent about putting our “ear to the ground” to understand what was going on with the American electorate. Our sister organization, Democracy Fund Voice, was already doing research that explored why many Americans were feeling disconnected and disoriented.
Building on those lessons, we founded the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, a bipartisan collaboration of pollsters and academics that seeks to better understand the views and motivations of the American electorate. It explores public attitudes on urgent questions such as perceptions of authoritarianism, immigration, economics, and political parties. We also ran targeted focus groups and conducted polling around issues of press freedom, government accountability and oversight, and the rule of law. Collectively, these gave us (and the field) insights into the underlying dynamics and voter sentiments that were shaping the democratic landscape.
Create an opportunistic, context-responsive funding stream. Our long-term initiatives, while highly strategic, did not leave many discretionary resources for needs that arise in the moment. Hence, with support from our board, we launched a series of special projects—time-limited infusions of resources and support to highly salient, timely issues.
Our special project on investigative journalism supports and defends the role of a robust, free press in America’s public square. Our special project on fostering a just and inclusive society seeks to protect those whose civil rights and safety seem endangered in this emerging landscape. And finally, our special project on government accountability, transparency, and oversight aims to strengthen the checks and balances that help Americans hold their leaders and government accountable. Taken together, these projects address urgent issues undermining the foundations of our democracy.
Codify our convictions. As a bipartisan organization, we believe that sustainable solutions require broad buy-in, and we strive to incorporate good ideas wherever they originate. However, in the midst of multiple violations of democratic norms in the heat of the 2016 election, we asked, “Does being bipartisan mean being neutral?” In other words, we questioned whether our positioning prevented us from taking a stance. The answer was a resounding no. But we also felt we needed a point of reference from which to act.
We then set about creating a healthy democracy framework that codified our core convictions—a framework that would allow us to take principled positions, speak out when needed, and act by putting our resources to work. The framework articulated a set of beliefs, including the importance of respecting human dignity, the role of checks and balances, the significance of a free press, and the expectations of elected leaders to act with integrity. These beliefs act as a filter for what fits or doesn’t fit our general frame for action.
Lessons for other funders
Based on conversations with other funders, I know our experience is not unique. The field, as a whole, is trying to understand what it means to be strategic at a time of unprecedented change. Below are a few lessons that may be helpful:
Recognize that “both/and” is the new normal. Rather than see the dynamic between the long-term and the immediate as an either/or, foundations need to adapt a mindset of both/and. The urgent needs are in many ways symptoms of systemic failure, but they do need dedicated responses and resources in the short term. Our attention is our most precious resource, and foundations need to constantly calibrate theirs to make sure it is appropriately focused.
Go beyond adaptive learning. Notions of adaptive philanthropy—having clear goals, a learning agenda that tracks to those goals, and experimenting along the way—are helpful and did indeed shape our thinking. At the same time, we and other funders must recognize that adaptive learning, by itself, may not be sufficient when the nature of change is profound, rather than incremental. There may be times when we need to take several steps back and examine core assumptions about our work, as Democracy Fund did with our healthy democracy framework, and the McKnight Foundation did with its strategic framework.
Invest in self-care. This may seem like strange advice in a discussion about strategy, but organizations are made up of people, and people tend to burn out in times of incessant and relentless change. It is important to recognize that we are living in a fraught political environment, and foundation staff, grantees, and partners may need an extra ounce of kindness and grace from others as they carry out their work. This may mean additional capacity building support for grantees, wellness counseling for staff, and an organizational culture that promotes empathy and understanding.
Foundations are unique in the sense that they have the ability to focus on an issue over a considerable period of time. And the recent strides the field has made on systems thinking have ensured that long-term strategies consider the multi-faceted nature of systems we are seeking to shift. However, we are grappling with the question of what happens when long-term thinking bumps up against immediate and acute needs.
In Democracy Fund’s case, building better system-sensing capabilities, creating a context-responsive funding stream, and codifying our convictions have equipped us to better respond to changing context. Our journey is by no means complete and we have a lot to learn, but we hope that our experience gives others—especially foundations wrestling with how to address immediate needs without abandoning their core priorities—an emerging roadmap for moving forward.