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Tackling Political Polarization Through Philanthropy

Steps funders can take to tackle partisan gridlock and solve social problems at scale.

SSIR x Bridgespan: Giving That Gets Results SSIR x Bridgespan: Giving That Gets Results Giving That Gets Results is an eight-week series of voices from the vanguard of giving. Philanthropists and foundation executives share how they are adapting their strategies, aiming for results, and measuring their impact to learn and improve. #givesmart

The resources available to the Hewlett Foundation, while substantial by many measures, are miniscule in relation to the problems we take on. Success for us, as for many foundations, depends on harnessing the aid of government to support best practices that show evidence of delivering effective solutions. What, then, if the political process becomes so dysfunctional that evidence and proven solutions no longer matter?

Such is the situation we face today. Solving problems at scale has become nearly impossible now that political polarization has all but extinguished rational debate and  smothered any ability to compromise. The resulting hyper-partisanship and gridlock have incapacitated our national government’s ability to do anything about serious matters, including climate change, immigration, and the national debt. No one wins in these circumstances, neither Democrats nor Republicans, and especially not the American people.

Whatever foundations do to cope with polarization in the short run, there can be no doubt that everyone’s long-term welfare requires taking action to alleviate it. For this reason, the Board of the Hewlett Foundation recently agreed to explore an initiative to tackle polarization head on.  It’s a daunting proposition given the size of the problem. Yet it’s the kind of challenge the philanthropic sector is uniquely situated—indeed, has a responsibility—to address. (See video presentation.)

Make Multiple, Small Bets

The measure of a democratic government’s effectiveness is whether its representative institutions are addressing problems in ways the public supports or comes to support. By this measure, our government is currently failing. Our goal is to restore public confidence, not to manipulate the process to achieve policy outcomes we like. Our approach to reforming the democratic process will and must be unwaveringly, determinedly, agnostic about particular policy outcomes. As one expert put it, a diehard baseball fan can root for his or her team while having an independent interest in ensuring that the rules of the game make the competition fair for everyone.

Achieving reform will not be easy. Even apart from the opposition of entrenched interests, work in this arena presents unique challenges. To begin, the conventional logic model of strategic philanthropy, which rests on an idea of linear causation, is mismatched here. The democratic process is an incredibly complex system of systems, interrelated and interdependent on each other in ways no one fully understands or can predict, partly because each subsystem is itself dynamic. Moving an organism of this size and complexity requires a different approach, one more fluid and experimental in nature. We need to begin with a variety of small bets, looking to foster change in ways and in places we think could help. We must closely track and monitor these experiments to see what they teach so that we can change courses or lean in, as the case may be. Flexibility, nimbleness, and willingness to adapt are essential. And we know from prior reform efforts that we must expect unanticipated consequences.

As important as flexibility is openness to new ideas and new solutions. There is, sad to say, an enormous body of conventional wisdom—endlessly regurgitated in the media—that is not supported by, and, in some cases, is contrary to, the evidence. This is true of such pundit favorites as gerrymandering, top-two primaries, and term limits. Likewise, a great deal of effort is being expended in areas like campaign finance and voter access on solutions that, whether or not they could work in theory, stand no chance of being adopted. We need new thinking, and we as funders need to be open to changing our current strategies and tactics.

Further complicating matters is the very real risk that grantmaking intended to reduce polarization will itself become polarizing. This is certainly the case when democratic reforms are a proxy for underlying substantive agendas by a particular group.

Build Bridges

The time frame in which we assess reform plays an important role here, too. Liberals and conservatives have already lined up on opposite sides of issues such as voter access, campaign finance, and districting reform. That’s because the status quo invariably is seen as favoring one side or the other. Pushing or opposing reform of any sort, on any issue, can thus be challenged as favoring Democrats or Republicans. But parties and politicians are by nature shortsighted, concerned more with immediate electoral prospects than with the long-term health of the system.

In the long run, democratic reform is not partisan. It favors neither Democrat nor Republican. Rather, democratic reform will require both parties to respond to the American public in a manner that is more pragmatic and more open to compromise and problem-solving than the current polarized environment permits. This is a point we must press insistently against the inevitable attacks of myopic partisans anxious to preserve or enlarge their party’s current prospects.

There are, moreover, additional steps that can blunt the force of this criticism. Most important is to work with grantees that straddle the political divide—especially those who, while they may identify with a side, appreciate the need to build bridges and work productively with opponents. Developing a portfolio that is balanced in the aggregate will not be easy, especially at first, given profound mistrust on both sides for organizations that have (deservedly) partisan or ideological reputations. But progress is unlikely unless we get past the idea that democratic reform is a zero sum game, a fight to the death in which “our” win is “your” loss, and vice versa.

Dig in for the Long Run

Equally crucial will be finding partners to provide the necessary resources for this effort (again, hopefully, encompassing a range of political perspectives). The scope and scale of the problem are vastly larger than any foundation could ever hope to address alone. We need to enlist the support of a broad set of national, state, and local foundations, along with high-net-worth individuals. We must do so in ways that align resources around broadly coordinated strategies. Otherwise we risk making no forward progress because everyone is pulling in different directions. Collaboration among foundations and funders is notoriously difficult to achieve, but it’s essential if we are to succeed.

Lastly, funders must be prepared for a protracted effort. The problems we seek to unravel took decades to develop, and they are not susceptible to quick or simple fixes. Yet surely it’s worth the exertion. Every funder and every grantee—whatever their politics—who believes that government has a role, any role, in solving society’s problems has a stake here. A nation with our resources ought to thrive, not scrape by. Yet that’s the best we can expect while lurching from one gridlock-induced governance crisis to the next.

What bets do you think could break the cycle?

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