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Guest Post: To Strengthen Democracy in America, Think Tech

By Micah Sifry / 2016 January 5th

A decade-and-a-half into the digital century, the vast majority of large foundations concerned with strengthening American democracy don’t seem to get tech. According to the new Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool recently launched by Foundation Center, out of a total of 18,446 grants awarded since 2011 by more than 1,300 funders focused on the broad range of issues and efforts related to democracy, just 962 have been focused on technology.

What’s more, that represents only $215 million out of a total of $2.435 billion awarded to study and/or reform campaigns, elections, and voting systems; expand civic participation; research or upgrade government performance; and/or study the workings of the media and improve public access to media. The Foundation Center tool also reveals that the universe of foundations making technology-related grants is much smaller, at 186, than the overall funder pool, as is the recipient base.

I should note that the data in Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy includes grantmaking by the thousand largest U.S. foundations and several hundred smaller funders. Because much of the data are drawn from IRS tax returns, there’s a considerable lag involved in the IRS making the returns available to Foundation Center. As a result, the data set is only complete through 2012. The fact that the $78 million awarded for technology funding in 2011 declined to $61 million in 2012 and $58 million in 2013 does not necessarily indicate a trend. New data will be added to the platform on a weekly basis, and the totals for 2013 and 2014 are likely to increase.

Still, there are a number of things to be learned from this interactive mapping tool about how the philanthropic sector views technology as a strategy for supporting U.S. democracy, especially compared to other strategies such as coalition-building, litigation, grassroots organizing, advocacy, research, and general/unrestricted support.

First, and most glaring, is the fact that, as late as 2012, the vast majority of foundations concerned with some aspect of democracy in the United States made no grants for technology. As my Civic Hall co-founder and colleague Andrew Rasiej likes to say, “Technology isn’t a piece of the pie, it’s the pan.” Apparently, most American foundations still think it’s just a slice of the larger picture rather than a set of tools and capacities that can change the whole landscape.

Second, of the 186 funders who understand the potential of technology to multiply the impact of their grantees’ efforts, just 17 are responsible for half the total number of grants included in the data set. They include many names familiar to anyone who has tried to raise money for nonprofit tech work: Ford, Knight, the California Endowment, Open Society, Gates, Irvine, the Comcast Foundation, Sloan, Omidyar Network, McCormick, Kellogg, Levi Strauss, MacArthur, Surdna, VOQAL, and Hewlett. Six of them — Knight, Ford, Gates, Omidyar, the California Endowment, and Sloan — provide more than half of the money tracked, which means many grantees could be thrown for a loop if any one of those six decided to sunset or stop funding tech. At the same time, many other high-profile funders allocate relatively small amounts to tech-related grantmaking.

The failure of most American foundations to add technology to their grant portfolios is surprising, especially this far along in the digital age. I suspect it’s because many foundations are still averse to new approaches, viewing them as risky and unproven. That said, tech-savvy foundations have a lot to be proud of. Support for projects like Creative Commons, the Sunlight Foundation, Code for America, the Center for Civic Media at MIT, the Voting Information Project, Patients Like Me, the Citizen Engagement Lab, and Democracy Works/TurboVote has paid huge benefits, fostering a worldwide ecosystem of shareable knowledge, a burgeoning open data movement, the launch of the U.S. Digital Service, the creation of online digital movements engaging millions of active participants, and the provision of timely voter registration and polling place information to tens of millions of people. Our democracy is measurably stronger because many more people and organizations have greater and more affordable access to the political process as a result.

Recently, a number of major foundations — Knight, Open Society, MacArthur, and Ford — announced the Netgain Challenge, a major new commitment to support the open Internet. It’s great they’re doing this, but they are all among the usual forward-thinking foundations you’d expect to be involved in such an effort. While I applaud their vision and intent, I also believe it’s long past time for some of the other heavy-hitters in the sector to step up, stop editing risk out of their portfolios, and make some big bets on tech.

Micah Sifry is the co-founder and executive director of Civic Hall, a community center for civc tech based in New York City and a Democracy Fund Grantee. This is a repost of the second in a series of ten posts on the Foundation Center’s Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy tool, of which the Democracy Fund is a supporter.

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