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. Though they exist to promote social good, a number of foundations felt their work was not relevant enough to social trends, like the devolution of federal-government involvement in large social programs such as welfare, and the electoral trends of falling turnout and rising campaign spending.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation launched a large initiative in the mid-1990s with a $50 million grant to more than 19 different organizations in 40 states, all working on aspects of government devolution. The overall aim is to "build a knowledge base about what works and what doesn't" when the government steps away from social programs, says Kellogg director of marketing Karen Lake.
The Center for Policy Alternatives will receive about $4 million of Kellogg's money for its program to develop leadership among state officeholders. Each year, it selects 35 second-year officeholders from around the US and works to develop and spread their policy successes.
The boost in funding of public-affairs initiatives comes from foundations of all stripes, though the types of programs they favor varies, says John Walters of the conservative Philanthropy Roundtable. While most foundations are precluded by law from lobbying and electioneering, in recent years there has been an explosion of foundation-funded advocacy work, which is legal. Liberal philanthropists say conservatives were the first to use foundation money to advance a social agenda and that liberals have only recently begun to catch up. For their part, conservatives contend the foundation world remains dominated by left-of-center thinking and, therefore, so does funding of public-affairs initiatives.
Some institutions have shifted focus rather dramatically. The Florence and John Schumann Foundation, for example, moved in 1994 from emphasizing funding of environmental programs to what it calls "democratic renewal," a variety of efforts to gain and spread knowledge about money's impact on politics.
"If you go out and talk to anyone on the street, there is an almost universal sentiment that politics is in one way or another corrupt, and sold to the highest bidder," says John Moyers, Schumann executive director. "Foundations, faced with the realities of an unhealthy democracy, cannot avoid getting involved any longer," he adds.