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What Can We Learn from How Two Regional Funders Are Confronting Challenges to Democracy?

Between ample mainstream media coverage and philanthrosphere-specific campaigns like the recent All By April funder initiative, the sector is hardly blind to the overt threats to voting rights and civic engagement that loom over the 2024 election. But voter suppression doesn’t have to be as overt as the outright passage of state laws that erect barriers between voters and the exercise of their franchise.

It can also be as simple and devastating as watching your elected officials leave the room while you’re trying to speak to them. That’s what happened to a young Latina woman from Planada, California, when she went over an arbitrary, two-minute time limit to address Merced County’s board of supervisors about the impact of a historic, devastating flood on her small town last year.

The James B. McClatchy Foundation’s new All In For Central Valley Democracy Fund, launched in February, reflects the regional funder’s realization that, to be successful in confronting new threats facing Central Valley voters, it would need to address a system that has been discouraging civic participation for multiple decades. The fund was launched with an initial $500,000 investment and a commitment by the “sunrising” foundation (its term for “sunsetting”) to recruit additional funders.

McClatchy’s new civic engagement work in the democracy-friendly state of California, along with the decades-long efforts of another regional funder, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, to overcome the ever-changing hurdles placed in the way of voters in North Carolina, offers a demonstration of the breadth of nonpartisan democracy work that foundations can engage in. Although challenges to democracy vary state by state and region by region, the urgency and importance of philanthropic investment, this year in particular, is a constant.

“Disengagement and disconnection” in California’s Central Valley

The Merced County Board of Supervisors’ behavior in the face of concerned residents is just one example of the many interlocking hurdles that residents of California’s Central Valley face when they want to advocate for their interests, but it’s a powerful example of just how high those hurdles can be.

Much of the population of Planada is made up of Latino migrant farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented, said McClatchy Foundation CEO Priscilla Enriquez. Officials’ conduct at the county board meeting was uncalled for, Enriquez said: The entire board left the room the moment the woman speaking to them went over her allotted time. The woman “wasn’t screaming or shouting,” Enriquez said. “She was
speaking to them like I’m speaking to you.”

For Enriquez, the Planada incident demonstrates how the Central Valley’s “agricultural power structure that [has] extracted labor from immigrant group after immigrant group after immigrant group” has influenced the way municipal governments there treat the area’s residents. The feeling seems to be mutual. Residents are clearly unengaged with their elected officials: According to voting totals for the 2024 primary provided to IP by McClatchy, voter participation in the Central Valley ranged from a “high” of just over 30% to a low of just over 20%.

As a place, the Central Valley is very different from the coastal cities that people from outside of California hear about all the time. Encompassing 20,000 square miles, it’s a fast-growing, ethnically and racially diverse region that, like many, mainly rural areas of the country, struggles with higher levels of poverty and lower levels of education than much of the rest of the state. Those struggles, coupled with unresponsive local governments, can make civic participation feel futile.

That’s exactly what seems to have happened. Thanks to decades of local officials’ “disengagement and disconnection” from marginalized residents in these communities, “some of the organizers we speak with admit their family has never voted before,” said McClatchy Chief Impact Officer Misty Avila. “I don’t think it looks like voter suppression in the very kind of obvious way — it’s almost an entrenched system where there’s just invisibility and complete disconnection.

” A sense of “invisibility” among voters in the area was also a theme during IP’s recent coverage of the Latino Community Foundation’s voter engagement grantmaking. “I believe that sometimes the Latino community is invisibilized or taken for granted,” LCF’s CEO Julián Castro said. The community foundation’s most recent tranche of voter mobilization grants includes support for a number of Central Valley organizations.

Of course, the Central Valley is also at risk from more direct threats to election integrity, including disinformation and election interference. For example, Enriquez said a local elections official told her about a “civic organization” that demanded to personally watch the processing of 2020 election ballots. But the unique hurdlesfacing disengaged communities in the Central Valley mean that standard get-out-
the-vote messaging doesn’t work. Instead, McClatchy is funding organizations like Breakbox Thought Collective, whose work includes digital storytelling, and Hmong Innovating Politics, whose mission is “to strengthen the political power of Hmong and disenfranchised communities through innovating civic engagement and strategic grassroots mobilizations.”

Enriquez said that, overall, “We’re very fortunate. We have a governor and leadership that cares about community and voter engagement and facilitating laws and policies that support inclusion. But there are certain parts in any state, really, that don’t do that.”

When “no big deal” really is one

Of course, there are also entire U.S. states that, arguably, “don’t do that.” One of those states is North Carolina, where the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has been funding civic engagement since the 1980s. The funder’s Strengthening Democracy initiative, which is housed within its broader State-Level Systemic Change strategy, has one goal: To make voting easier.

Voting sounds “simple at first glance,” said Reynolds’ director of strategy and learning, Sorien Schmidt. “Like going to vote [is] no big deal. And then you start looking at all the pieces of information you need to do it,” including whether or not the voter has transportation, knows where to vote, or has accurate information about what’s on the ballot in the first place.

On top of those usual hurdles, North Carolina’s “five-alarm fire” for voting rights includes gerrymandered districts and other laws that seem designed primarily to make it harder for people to vote. With all that in mind, supporting nonprofits whose mission is to keep track of and help voters navigate the ever-shifting hurdles in front of them is practically a 101-level decision for any funder that cares about democracy.

To that end, Reynolds moves a portion of its $11 to 13 million State-Level Systemic Change budget in two- to three-year general operating grants to organizations like NCVoter.org, an online clearinghouse for up-to-date voting information, and Disability Rights North Carolina, which works with people in nursing homes and residential care facilities to help seniors navigate the state’s changed laws surrounding mail-in ballots.

“We see this as an ongoing infrastructure that needs to be in place all the time; not just once every four years or every other year,” Schmidt said. That’s partly because there are elections every year, including smaller-scale local contests. “We’re investing multi-year, general operating support to build and maintain this infrastructure and this ecosystem of work because [the problem of changing laws and increasing restrictions] is ongoing, year-round at this point.”

August will be too late

In talking with McClatchy’s Enriquez and Avila and Reynolds’ Schmidt, several themes emerged that may help guide funders in 2024. One we’ve already heard: Start moving money now.

Enriquez, who said that other funders’ response to McClatchy’s efforts has been “kind of slow,” pointed out during our conversation that it was almost May. “My fear is that funders will wake up by August, maybe, and it’ll be too late” to avoid doing harm to communities and the nonprofits that serve them, due to funders “showing up at the 11th hour and saying ‘OK, now work your butts off 24/7.’”

McClatchy and Reynolds’ initiatives also both demonstrate the importance of funding nonprofits that are serving communities in specific ways that work for those communities — rather than adopting cookie-cutter, catch-all tactics — whether by, say, addressing longstanding bad civic practices that cement voter apathy or making sure that nursing home residents’ ballots aren’t invalidated because the mail is
delivered a few hours late.

Another aspect to consider is that civic engagement work has major implications for most other issues that foundations are working on — even areas seemingly unrelated to “democracy.” Schmidt pointed out that no matter what issue a funder cares about, that issue will almost certainly be impacted by government in some way. “Even if you’re not working specifically in democracy, who votes really impacts what happens on your issue,” she said.

Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind that even in places like California that have democracy-friendly state governments, there are regions and localities where conditions don’t lend themselves to democratic engagement. It may be easy to write off the Central Valley and other areas of the country, particularly rural and low-income areas, as relatively unimportant. Doing so, though, may well have helped create the five-alarm fires that are blazing throughout the U.S. right now. What is certain is that the crises facing us with the 2024 election took decades to create. They will take decades to fix. What isn’t known, yet, is how many foundations and other funders will maintain the dedication and discipline required to help fix them.

To read Inside Philanthropy online article click here.