I love working in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and what is sometimes affectionately called the “Land of 10,000 Nonprofits.” We’re an increasingly diverse state with more than 100 languages spoken and home to 11 Native Nations. In Minnesota, we take pride (in our modest Midwestern way) in our high levels of civic engagement. Our state has the highest voter turnout rate in the nation, high levels of volunteerism, robust independent journalism, and more. Still, we are not immune to the polarization and mistrust that have dominated national public life in the past few years.
As of January, Minnesota has the only divided legislature in the nation. This has led many of us in the civic sector to wonder whether the state can still forge bipartisan policies on critical issues — and in ways that result in an equitable social and economic future, given deep and persistent racial disparities across many indicators.
This concern was evident at the annual conference of the Minnesota Council on Foundations (MCF) in January, where the most popular session focused on opportunities to strengthen civic engagement and democracy. It drew from American Democracy in Crisis, a recent study funded by the Joyce, Kresge, and McKnight foundations. Some 80 engaged attendees packed the room. As MCF’s policy director, Bob Tracy, observed, this wouldn’t have happened five years ago.
Times have changed — and public life in Minnesota and beyond is changing as well.
For foundations like ours in the Midwest, where states have increasingly become swing states, the question is more than just what will occur in the upcoming legislative session (important as those decisions are for the communities and issues we care about). Rather, we’re nesting that short-term question into a much larger discussion — one about how philanthropy can strengthen the norms and institutions of a healthy and truly representative democracy.
These questions are hardly unique to this region, and philanthropists from all across the country — and world — will be able to explore this issue this May at the 2019 Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) Conference in Minneapolis–St. Paul, themed Stronger Philanthropy. The conference’s speakers and sessions will help participants look at issues of power, democracy, and civic life on multiple levels and from many perspectives.
One plenary, “The Billionaire-Savior Delusion,” will feature Anand Giridharadas in conversation with Jeff Raikes. Giridharadas is a political analyst and author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, which makes a pointed critique of “how the global elite’s efforts to ‘change the world’ preserve the status quo and obscure their role in causing the problems they seek to solve.”
In a time of gaping income and wealth inequality, I’m not surprised that Giridharadas’s book has struck a chord both within and far beyond our sector. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, a global annual report on the state of public trust, only one in five respondents believed that “the system” was working for them.
This question examined four areas to determine if and how respondents believed the system was failing them:
- A sense of injustice stemming from the perception that society’s elites have co-opted the system to their own advantage at the expense of regular people
- A lack of hope that the future will be better for them and their family
- A lack of confidence in the leaders of societal institutions to solve the country’s problems
- A desire for forceful reformers in positions of power who are capable of bringing about much-needed change
In another plenary, titled “Philanthropy and Policy: Undue Influence or Crucial Strategic Lever?,” CEP staff will share new research on how funders are engaging in public policy, broadly defined, across a wide range of approaches and activities, followed by a discussion among philanthropic leaders. When and how should funders influence policy? What principles should guide funders as they consider the role of policy influence in their strategies? These are two of the key questions the discussion will cover.
In my view, policy is a crucial strategic lever for decision-making in the public interest. Whether it does so depends on a number of factors, such as how we understand power dynamics in society and whether our approaches support and strengthen civic engagement and agency among communities marginalized by history, systems, and dominant narratives. As philanthropic leaders, we need to examine our own institutional exercise of power, but in a way that propels rather than paralyzes.
I look forward to welcoming my peers to Minnesota this May, and reflecting with them on the principles and practices that strengthen our commitment and capacity to be among those who, to use language from the Edelman report, “are capable of bringing about much-needed change.”
Kate Wolford is president of the McKnight Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @KateWolford.