July 2020

The Case for Political Philanthropy

Whether it's healthcare, education, or the environment, dysfunctional governance impacts every issue Americans care about.

Over the last few decades, as polarization and partisanship have increased, the ability of politicians to create lasting bipartisan policies has decreased.

Our political dysfunction isn't the result of one single politician, party, or political leadership; instead, the political gridlock that is wreaking havoc in our government is the result of misaligned incentives for politicians, with an ever widening gap between what it takes for politicians to govern and what it takes for them get re-elected.

Whether it's gerrymandered districts that all but ensure political victory for one party or another, closed primaries that allow only the most dogged partisans to participate, or the election systems that undermine majority rule, our elections have allowed partisan and special interests to gain disproportionate power.

In a new white paper, the Unite America Institute breaks down an emerging area of philanthropy, political philanthropy, that seeks to improve governance by investing in non-partisan political reforms and pro-reform candidates committed to putting country over party.

In 2018, political philanthropists invested $154M to help elect over two-dozen reform candidates to Congress and pass 18 reform ballot initiatives — including ending partisan gerrymandering in five states.

Rather than giving money to one party or another, political philanthropists work to address the underlying causes of political dysfunction by investing in powerful reforms that (i) enact better incentives and (ii) elect better leaders.

Today’s political philanthropy pales in comparison to the amount of money spent on purely partisan politics ($8 billion) or donated to traditional charitable causes ($427 billion). And no philanthropy comes anywhere near the scale of our federal, state, and local spending: $8 trillion.

In other words, 52 times more money is spent trying to influence a broken political system than on trying to fix it — despite the fact that our political system dictates how we spend 20 times more money annually than every single charitable cause combined.

"If we want to make progress on solving any problem we care about, the share of resources being invested in improving our democracy through nonpartisan reform must dramatically increase, from about $150 million annually today to at least $250 million annually, in order to bring the growing reform movement to scale."
Kathryn Murdoch & Marc Merill, Fortune Magazine

In order to make significant change, non-partisan reform is in need of "big bets."

Whether it's the fight for marriage equality in the mid 2000s or the rejuvenation of conservativism in the 1970s and 80s, successful social movements in the US have one thing in common: they were the recipient of a "big bet" — an investment of $10M or more.

New political philanthropy totaling at least $100M by 2022 — including “big bets” of $10M+ by individual philanthropists — have the potential to bring the reform movement to scale.

Over the next two years, this level of funding would help enact significant electoral reform in more than a dozen states and help elect more than two dozen new members of Congress — catalyzing a tipping point for a more representative and functional government.


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