Making progress: Year 1 of SVCF’s Civic Engagement investment

Jack MahoneyIn 2018, community leaders and nonprofits sat down with Silicon Valley Community Foundation to discuss the creation of a new SVCF grantmaking strategy. Participants voiced a need for support for organizations working locally to make sure that community voices shape local governance. One community leader who participated in that meeting, Julio Garcia, Director of Programs at Nuestra Casa de East Palo Alto, recalled later "That meeting was the first time in many years I can remember so many people - from government, nonprofits and others - considered how by working together in the long term we can engage new voices in shaping Silicon Valley."

Following these community conversations, SVCF's new grantmaking strategy, Promoting Civic Participation Through Open Government, was introduced in 2018. With elections, marches, public meetings, new tools, petitions and more, it was a year of residents raising their voices to shape the future of Silicon Valley.

Since the strategy’s launch, we’ve awarded over $2 million to community groups and statewide organizations working to promote civic participation. With our grantees and partners, we’ve achieved great results and gained key knowledge:

  • Thirteen small grants to support voter education and outreach in underrepresented communities reached voters over 75,000 times. Many of these contacts were generated by novel methods, including programs which organized high school and college students to educate their parents and friends who have not voted in midterm elections before. This work helped San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties see significant voter turnout increases San Mateo hit a 38-year high at 73 percent in the November election!
  • The Voters Choice Act (VCA) is a new law, passed in 2016, to make voting more convenient and accessible in California. Research has shown that the VCA is responsible for increased voter turnout, especially in underrepresented communities. SVCF supported an event led by the Future of California Elections for elections administrators, local and state nonprofits, academics and others to get together and share best practices and lessons learned from the VCA in order to implement changes before the 2020 election. Twelve California counties (including Santa Clara and San Mateo) will implement the VCA in the 2020 election.
  • Our support for innovative projects in local government has begun to show dividends. San Jose’s partnership with Niantic has helped mobilize thousands of gamers to attend community events through popular applications like PokémonGO. City Innovate Foundation has signed up three local governments for its Startup in Residence (STiR) program which helps connect startups to local government to build solutions to benefit residents.

Despite these successes, there are still significant challenges facing our work. While local governments have shown an interest in trialing new models of engaging their residents (bright spots include Mountain View’s Spanish Language Civic Leaders Academy and San Mateo County’s Home for All program), there isn’t consensus on how best to engage communities. Local entities disagree on what the roadblocks to success are and persistent barriers remain. Big money still dominates local elections, voting is still challenging for many residents, city government meetings remain inaccessible and some voices continue to go unheard and unrepresented.

SVCF remains committed to figuring out how to best collaborate across the region to transform democracy in Silicon Valley. We’re lucky that we’re not in this alone. Other foundations are increasingly investing in civic participation. We recognize that an actively engaged community is necessary to win reform across the board - in education, housing, transportation and so many other issue areas. In challenging moments, I remain inspired by the many people, of all ages, races and income-levels who I’ve met this year that remain committed to a better, more inclusive future for our communities.