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Saving Democracy: Champion in Stanford Social Innovation Review

Lukas Haynes, a seasoned donor advisor, outlines strategies for donors, and some great organizations to support, to protect and then strengthen democracy in his piece on philanthropy to protect democracy. In the piece, he highlights Champion.

" will offer small donors advice on where their gifts to support local candidates and organizations will make the biggest difference to defend democracy. It will find local races that are inexpensive to run and where small donors' gifts will make a difference for candidates who promise to defend election integrity and voting rights."

Inserted tweets and links our own.

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Philanthropy to Protect US Democracy

Originally published in Stanford Social Innovation Review

Twenty-one months after the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, American democracy faces a crisis even more dire than the 1,200 angry rioters who breached the Rotunda and sought to prevent the constitutional certification of a duly elected president. One measure of that crisis is public opinion: In a national Quinnipiac University poll in August, 67 percent of adults surveyed said that US democracy was “in danger of collapse.”

For two years, former President Donald Trump, the de facto leader of the Republican Party, has denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election and President Joe Biden’s victory while denigrating the officials who administer state elections. Trump has amplified this campaign by endorsing a nationwide slate of election denier candidates who seek control over state election machinery. Among 550+ Republican nominees running for office this year, 200 “fully denied” the legitimacy of the 2020 election and “either clearly stated that the election was stolen from Trump or took legal action to overturn the results,” according to FiveThirtyEight. This includes 139 Republican members of the US House who voted against certifying Biden’s election last year.

Jeremy Renner highlights Mark Ruffalo's democracy slate built with Champion.

Meanwhile, state legislatures controlled by Republicans have passed dozens of new laws to make voting more difficult, especially in majority communities of color. Now we are seeing grassroots campaigns across the country to disqualify tens of thousands of registered voters, intimidate those who use ballot drop boxes, and challenge election counts in thousands of precincts and counties. All of this combines to undermine voter confidence and almost guarantee election-related disputes and lawsuits in 2022.

How can democratic institutions and public faith survive when one of our two major parties attacks both the legitimacy and the machinery of the electoral process?    

In January 2021, this journal addressed the democracy challenge and published a prescient article entitled “How Can Philanthropy Help Rehabilitate US Democracy?” (Mookim, Reich, Roumani and Vig) noting that:

“US democracy is faltering on many fronts…our democracy’s most fundamental principles are under challenge…philanthropists can play an essential role during moments of crisis by filling the gaps left open by a fragile democracy.”

Philanthropists and foundations have responded since 2021 with robust funding for organizations and initiatives to fortify our democratic infrastructure. Over 250 individual and institutional grant-makers have supported over 2000 grantees with over $1 billion in the last two years, according to the Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy database. Over $100 million has gone into the broad data category of “Elections and Voting” from major foundations like MacArthur, Carnegie, Hewlett, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, in the form of things like local election administration, voter education, registration, and voting access.

The nonpartisan giving strategies discussed in the 2021 SSIR article, however, rely on good faith in both political parties to assist voters and election administrators, certify results after lawful recounts, concede electoral defeat, and eschew intimidation and violence in our electoral process. By statute, the dominant mode of nonpartisan philanthropy to these 501(c)(3) organizations cannot take sides in politics—even when the candidates of a major party reject democratic norms. 

It should now be clear that tax-deductible philanthropy is insufficient to protect American democracy. While long-term nonpartisan efforts remain vital, the nature of the current crisis demands that donors engage in politics, especially from 2022-24, if democracy is to be defended against multiple threats. Anti-democratic candidates must be defeated at the ballot box; new state legislative majorities who are on the side of voters must be elected; and the infrastructure and pipeline of election administrators who are committed to the rule of law must be rebuilt.

The good news is that well-intentioned defenders have stepped up and this crisis is a generational opportunity to reform and modernize our democratic system.

The Worsening Crisis    

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 19 states passed a rapid series of 34 laws restricting voting access in 2021 alone. More than a third of all restrictive voting laws enacted since 2011 were passed in the last two years. Common tactics being deployed in states controlled by Republicans include eliminating secure drop boxes, restricting voting-by-mail, and otherwise limiting ways to assist those challenged to submit timely ballots, including Americans living and serving in uniform abroad and voters with disabilities. These undemocratic laws are an affront to all citizens and should anger donors across the political spectrum.

Many of those intent on making voting more difficult have placed 2020 election denial at the center of their campaigns despite dozens of state and federal court decisions confirming the legal integrity of the 2020 election. The Big Lie narrative undermines elected Democrats, but it also does a disservice to hundreds of Republican lawmakers who were duly elected in states where Trump won by large margins. As one nonpartisan Texas county election official told the Associated Press this fall, “That’s the one thing we can’t understand. Their candidate won, heavily. But there’s fraud here?”

Benjamin Ginsberg, a veteran Republican lawyer who resigned from representing the Trump campaign wrote in The Washington Post in 2020, “Calling elections ‘fraudulent’ and results ‘rigged’ with almost non-existent evidence is antithetical to being the ‘rule of law’ party.” And deeply respected conservatives, such as federal Judge Michael Luttig, have called Trump and his allies “a clear and present danger” to our democracy.

Intimidation and Violent Threats

A disturbing result of the Big Lie is the physical danger it has brought about for the dedicated nonpartisan officials who run our elections. Benjamin Hovland, with the US Election Assistance Commission, told The New York Times: “This isn’t a red-state issue or a blue-state issue. This is a national issue, where the professional public servants that run our elections have been subjected to an unprecedented level of threats, harassment, and intimidating behavior.”

In November 2020, the Maricopa County election counting center in Arizona was surrounded by a crowd of Trump supporters, some of them armed, so last year it assembled a 10-foot-high security fence, installed 23 security cameras, and hired security patrols. Michigan’s top election official, Jocelyn Benson, now has a security detail after a December 2020 episode in which an angry armed group came to her Detroit home and demanded she overturn Biden’s victory.

In August, three Texas election officials resigned, including Anissa Herrera, the Gillespie County elections administrator, who told The Fredericksburg Standard-Radio Post: “I got the death threats…I’ve been stalked, I’ve been called out on social media. And it’s just dangerous misinformation.” The US Department of Justice (DOJ) brought charges the same week against a man who threatened an election official in Arizona, one of many cases made public by a DOJ task force created in 2021 to investigate such intimidation.

Just this month, US Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) echoed the concerns of her Democratic colleagues about the growing threats of violence against Members of Congress. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a senator or House member were killed,” she told The New York Times. “There’s been a sea change in that we now see this constant escalation and erosion of any boundaries of what is acceptable behavior, and it has crossed over into actual violence.”

Extreme individual behavior is a recurring feature of US political history and fringe candidates often seek media attention by making outrageous claims. What makes the current crisis so dangerous is a grassroots movement—fueled by lies and amplified by Trump’s media megaphone—in multiple states which will likely determine the 2024 presidency.

Shattering of Democratic Norms

Sixty percent of all Americans will have a 2020 election denier on the ballot this fall according to FiveThirtyEight. The Associated Press found that nearly 33 percent of Republican candidates for statewide office “supported overturning the results of the 2020 presidential race.”

Healthy parties in a democratic system must abide by three baseline norms, says Ian Bassin, co-founder and executive director of Protect Democracy. First, parties and their candidates must accept electoral defeat. Second, they must eschew violence. Finally, they must unambiguously break with anti-democratic extremist groups.

The Republican Party has abandoned all three norms since November 2020. Not only did Trump refuse to concede the election, but he broke the long history of peaceful presidential transition by rallying a mob on January 6—which he knew to be armed—and then waited hours to address them even after his closest advisors begged him to stop the violence in Congress. Now his refusal to concede has infected the current election cycle.

In September, six Republican nominees for governor or US Senate, including candidates in Arizona and Michigan, refused to commit to accepting this year’s election results. Rather than rallying around party members who stood up for the rule of law—like Rep. Liz Cheney and seven other House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after January 6—the Republican Party has watched them lose to Trumpists in the primaries or created the conditions that forced them to retire.

Mark Ruffalo uses Champion's democracy slate tool to promote pro-democracy local election officials

The 2024 Endgame

The election denier candidacies of 2022 present a grave threat to a free, fair electoral process in 2024 because the governors and secretaries of state elected this year will oversee state elections for federal office in two years.

It is quite likely that the 2024 Electoral College count will be as close as those in 2000, 2016, and 2020. It is easy to imagine the same razor-thin voting margins in key states and the same spate of election lawsuits we saw in 2020. But in 2024 we run the risk that state officers with less integrity than the 2020 Republican election administrators in Georgia and Arizona—who withstood intense Trump campaign pressure—will use their new powers to disqualify thousands of votes.

In 2020, the system was strained but held up because of election officers with integrity in both parties. Next month, however, 18 state ballots will include a Republican nominee for governor who qualifies as a 2020 “election denier,” according to States United Action. In 11 states the Republican nominee for secretary of state is a denier. If these candidates win, subversion of the electoral machinery for partisan gain is all too likely.    

Just last weekend, Nevada Secretary of State candidate Jim Marchant spoke to a Trump rally about a whole slate of election denier candidates he helped organize: “President Trump and I lost an election in 2020 because of a rigged election…and when my coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected, we're going to fix the whole country and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024.”

Marchant, who is linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, is leading in the polls against his Democratic opponent.

From Philanthropy to Political Giving

Given the threat of election subversion, philanthropists who care about democracy across the political spectrum must now deploy donations as effectively as they can. In their seminal book, Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy, Paul Brest and Hal Harvey argue that generating “alternative solutions” to hard problems “requires creativity or innovation akin to that of a scientist or engineer—creativity that is goal-oriented, that aims to come up with pragmatic solutions to a problem.”

In seeking the most effective solutions, Brest and Harvey do not find that nonpartisan, charitable efforts are the only legitimate form of strategic giving. Instead, they encourage donors to identify clear problem-solving goals, sound strategy, and clarity about risk tolerance.

Given the concerted attack on democratic norms by political candidates, there is no more effective alternative at hand than using political donations to defeat those candidates. If it is not already part of donors’ philanthropic toolkit to protect democracy, it needs to be and soon.

Once Big Lie-promoting candidates win and take power over elections, it will be too late to repeal their authority, especially in states where Republicans control the state legislatures. Should they successfully subvert a national presidential election in a deeply polarized nation, the United States will have crossed an undemocratic Rubicon no well-intentioned American wants to witness. So what are the most effective ways for political donors to respond to this perilous moment?

Urgent Needs

Donors across the political spectrum need to defeat election deniers in the most competitive states in 2022 and 2024. These include Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and there are dozens of political organizations coordinating proven strategies to turn out voters.

National organizations like America Votes, Everybody Votes, Family Friendly Action, Working America, Voto Latino, Voter Participation Center, and League of Conservation Voters work with hundreds of state and local partners. They coordinate to motivate potential voters, including young people who usually turn out at lower rates in midterms and may be less knowledgeable about candidates or voting. These “canvassing” programs knock on tens of millions of doors, multiple times, to maximize the likelihood of voters casting ballots.

Then there are state-based initiatives to protect voters from the undemocratic forces working to disenfranchise them. For example, in Michigan, donors are addressing the most racist forms of voter suppression. In Detroit, in 2020, partisan mobs stormed an election center to stop the counting of valid votes in America’s largest majority Black city. Partly in response, a nonprofit coalition formed to create “Promote the Vote 2022,” a constitutional amendment campaign to improve voter access, including protections for overseas and military voters, while addressing voter suppression techniques and post-election certification challenges.

The campaign submitted 669,000 signatures for a fall 2022 ballot, the third most popular ballot campaign in Michigan history. When similar pro-voter protections were on the ballot in 2018, they won support from 80 out of 83 Michigan counties. This shows the popularity of sensible voter protections even across the growing urban-rural partisan divide.

Promote the Vote 2022’s proposed amendment is still not a slam dunk on next month’s ballot. The amendment is fiercely opposed by Michigan’s Republican party, and an opposing proposal to sharply limit ballot access received significant financial support from a Trump-related PAC. Republicans in the state legislature have advocated for unfounded election audits and a rewrite of state law to allow partisan state legislators to choose electors for the Electoral College. These anti-voter initiatives were followed by the nomination of Republican attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno, an election denier whose website features the Orwellian banner “The 2020 Election Fraud Defense Fund.” Trump endorsed DePerno as well as Michigan secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo, who embraced the absurd lie that Trump won Michigan in 2020 (despite a 150,000+ vote loss) and has made election conspiracy claims the center of her campaign.

Fortunately, donors in the Michigan Donor Alliance have circled the wagons. While the Alliance, whose membership includes “individuals, organizations, foundations, corporations, and labor organizations,” does not officially support or oppose candidates or ballot measures, it works with donors individually to optimize tax-deductible and non-deductible 501(c)(4) giving and makes research-based recommendations for the most impactful political contributions. As of October, they still reported a $3.2 million gap in funding needs which include urban canvassing and paid media.

One positive sign is that informed donors are contributing to pro-democracy state election candidates across the country at historic rates. According to Democracy, the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State and affiliated groups expected to raise $15 million before the election in November—“ten times what they collected four years ago.” But late giving will pour in on both sides, especially from corporate interests aligned with the Republican Party.

Donors may worry that partisan giving further politicizes state election offices, but they have long played an influential role in our politics. It was Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, who in 2000 famously certified the state’s election results in favor of George W. Bush despite ongoing recounts and legal challenges. According to the nonpartisan Election Reformers Network, one-third of the 137 elected secretaries of state serving since 2000 have endorsed a candidate running in an election they supervised.

There is a critical difference, however, between secretaries of state engaged in traditional partisan activity, like Harris in 2000, and the current slate of candidates who deny the fact of Biden’s victory, talk about returning Trump to the White House, and threaten to take over elections and rewrite state election laws.

Defending democracy does not necessarily mean limiting donations to Democrats. In January 2021, Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger declined then-president Trump’s request to “find 11,780 votes” in his favor. Raffensperger was a fellow Republican and won his 2022 primary against a Trump-endorsee who cast doubt on the 2020 election.

To make sure dollars flow most efficiently to impact races that matter, new donors can benefit from organizations that align new dollars with needs. For example, the Committee on States works across at least 30 states on research to align the giving and strategies of donor alliances. It also makes relatively small donations more impactful with an average donor alliance budget of around $380,000 and donor contributions as low as $5,000. This is a cost-effective way for donors to pool and invest millions more without hundreds of separate calls to groups in the field. As of October, the Committee was highlighting gaps in funding for critical outreach to young people, communities of color, and undecided voters. It found shortfalls in Georgia ($5.3 million), Nevada ($3.2 million), Pennsylvania ($2.6 million), and Wisconsin ($7 million).    

State Legislative Bargains

How can donors protect elections even if election deniers win races this fall?      

The best strategy is to invest in the small number of state legislative races that may determine the balance of power in key states. According to The New York Times, “44 percent of Republicans in crucial swing-state legislatures used the power of their office to discredit or try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.” Both Democrats and Republicans will be competing between now and 2024 to flip crucial legislative chambers in states like Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. These new state legislative majorities will have the power to protect voters’ rights and may very well control the appointment of electors to the Electoral College in 2024. As a result, The States Project is investing $60 million to defeat “radical state lawmakers” who threaten to upend historic checks and balances on state legislatures and rewrite election laws according to the “independent state legislature theory” going before the US Supreme Court this session.

Here again, modest donations will go a long way. The Project’s Give Smart campaign, co-created with Data for Progress, allows donors to aggregate their giving to high-value state campaigns which usually cost less than 10 percent of a competitive US House race or 3 percent of a US Senate race. It uses district-level modeling, electoral and demographic information, and in-state networks to recommend races where donations make the most difference.

Long-Term Giving

The threats to democracy will not be stamped out next month so long-term investment will also be necessary to strengthen and modernize the electoral process. Pro-voter election administrators are the first line of defense to ensure voters can overcome regressive voter policies and benefit from new innovations that equitably improve the voting experience. Groups such as Center for Civic Design and U.S. Digital Response accelerate improvements in the most important parts of our election system. A collection of organizations led by Center for Tech and Civic Life is also collaborating directly with election administrators and experts. They provide vital technical assistance on topics ranging from ballot design to language access, to the implementation of election reforms.

Donors also need to help replace election deniers and undemocratic candidates on local election administration ballots. Critical local, county, and city races will be up for re-election in 2023, which will also determine voter access and election integrity in 2024 and beyond. Organizations like Run for Something Action Fund and Country First Academy are building pipelines of recruitment to strengthen election administration. will offer small donors advice on where their gifts to support local candidates and organizations will make the biggest difference to defend democracy. It will find local races that are inexpensive to run and where small donors' gifts will make a difference for candidates who promise to defend election integrity and voting rights.


To get in touch with these organizations and learn from peers, donor forums such as the Democracy Alliance, Strategic Victory Fund, and One for Democracy (where the author is a board member), offer learning and advice from experienced practitioners of both giving and campaigning.

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If ever there was a moment for new donors to consider making a political contribution, this is one that requires more from all of us. It requires us to think anew about what we are all prepared to do as American democracy approaches its 250th birthday.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln challenged Americans to see a different national crisis with clarity and rise to the occasion with new ideas and action:

“The occasion is piled high with difficulty. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

Now we must disenthrall ourselves of the idea that democracy will endure without new strategies and substantial interventions. Those of us working in philanthropy need to be clear-eyed about the limits of tax-deductible giving and defend democracy with both urgent political donations and long-term investment.

The enemies of democracy are running for office, suppressing the vote, organizing to mob ballot boxes, and directly threatening election workers and elected leaders with violence. They need to be defeated by the ballot over the next three Novembers in order to buy time for long-term reforms.