Big Philanthropy to the Rescue? Think Again.

by Jeffrey Cain at

As the media and elites across America take up a fight to “save democracy,” Big Philanthropy is casting itself in the role of superhero. Since 2011, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy reports, some $5.7 billion has gone to programs supporting U.S. democracy, with grant announcements that often depict foundations as stepping up to forestall a doomsday.

The Carnegie Corporation, warning of a “fragility of our democracy … unimaginable just a few years ago,” has pledged to strengthen social cohesion and combat polarization. The MacArthur Foundation is partnering with Carnegie and the Ford and Knight foundations, among others, in the $500 million Press Forward effort to “address the crisis in local news.” As Knight president Alberto Ibargüen put it to the New York Times: “There is a new understanding of the importance of information in the management of community, in the management of democracy in America.”

Even those typically allergic to Big Philanthropy want to affix capes to the shoulders of megadonors. “Big philanthropists have a potentially transformative role to play in rehabilitating our democracy,” wrote philanthropy scholar Rob Reich and his Stanford colleagues in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

There is a strong temptation to dismiss Big Philanthropy’s “transformative role in rehabilitating democracy” or, as Ibargüen put it, “managing democracy,” as a thinly veiled partisan and politically liberal effort to manage electoral outcomes.After all, the “fragility of democracy” seems to have first appeared around the time George W. Bush ascended to the White House in 2000. Democracy made an extraordinary eight-year recovery during the Obama presidency but became even more frail when Donald Trump won election in 2016. Now democracy itself, as President Biden has campaigned, is on the ballot in 2024.