Philanthropy and Civic Participation: Lessons from the 2020 Election

Philanthropy and Civic Participation: Lessons from the 2020 Election

The 2020 election faced obstacles ranging from cyber security to pandemic safety. Yet around the country, local and state election officials rose to the challenge: More than 100 million voters cast their ballots early, either in person or by mail, and total voter turnout increased in every state.

Locally, nearly 85% of registered voters in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties voted, and the typical gap in turnout between white people and people of color narrowed, a testament to the efforts of SVCF’s local partners and grantees who have been working tirelessly to promote civic engagement in our two counties.

“This progress did not happen in a vacuum,” said Nicole Taylor, president and CEO of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, when introducing a post-election webinar for SVCF donors on philanthropy and voter engagement. Around the country, the philanthropic sector stepped up its efforts to protect the integrity of the election, get out the vote, counteract voter suppression, and help fight misinformation.

The post-election webinar for SVCF donors featured four speakers who analyzed philanthropy’s role in the 2020 elections and looked to the future:

  • David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation & Research
  • Rosa De León, organizing director at Californians for Justice
  • Tiana Epps-Johnson, founder and executive director at the Center for Tech and Civic Life
  • Andrea Hailey, CEO of vote.org

An Unprecedented Year

Election experts had long expected the 2020 election to be challenging.

"We had extensive efforts at foreign disinformation campaigns and concerns about the security of our election infrastructure, as well as resource issues," Becker said. "We expected exceptionally high turnout based on polls. And then the pandemic hit, and that brought a whole new range of issues."

Becker’s organization focused on helping election officials across the country secure their systems. The Center for Election Innovation and Research also worked to create a narrative to educate people about the challenges while giving them confidence. The message: “You’re going to be able to vote safely, and your vote matters, and it will count."

As it turned out, the election was overwhelmingly smooth and safe for voters – which Epps-Johnson said was thanks to the efforts of local election officials, private and philanthropic organizations, and volunteers.

“The folks that we generally look to, or might be told to look to, to lead in a moment like this were largely absent or didn’t meet the moment — but everyday folks did, organizations did, and we came out and showed our resilience,” Epps-Johnson said.

One particular challenge: the rapidly shifting environment, with voting laws changing from state-to-state in real time.

Vote.org works to simplify political engagement, making the process of registering or requesting an absentee ballot as easy as possible, then running large-scale get-out-the-vote programs.

“Radio, digital, billboards, texting – you name it, we do it, to follow the voter once they register or request their absentee ballot, all the way through,” Hailey said.

Over 10 million people signed up for Vote.org’s texting and email alert system, so the group could keep voters up-to-date as the pandemic forced changes to voting procedures.

Another way to mobilize voters is reaching them through people they know. In mobilizing support for California’s Proposition 15, which would have raised money for public schools and local governments by increasing property taxes for businesses, Californians for Justice organized high school students. Even those who were not old enough to vote could help by encouraging their parents and other voters to turn out, De León said.

“We were overspent by millions of dollars in this campaign, yet we were able to mobilize many young leaders to make sure that they put forward the issues that were important for them,” De León said of the campaign, which was not successful in passing the proposition.

Philanthropy’s Role

One key lesson from this year’s election: the importance of early and regular support for philanthropic organizations engaged in election work. Historically, just a small percentage of philanthropic dollars has gone to the civic sphere.

“I think everyone thought somebody else had it handled, and this year they realized that that wasn’t true,” Hailey said.

With more donations, programs can hire the right staff, scale up, and be prepared to make rapid changes when necessary.

“Longstanding general operating support from philanthropy let us pivot to meet the moment,” Epps-Johnson said. For example, the 2020 plan for the Center for Tech and Civic Life included developing a three-part cyber security training program that the federal government purchased to train local election officials. “What wasn’t in our plan was developing a dozen webinars on every single portion of how to administer an election in a pandemic. We did that and delivered them.”

Hailey said it is crucial to have a strong team in place before an emergency happens – which, of course, requires money.

“The early money that came in to Vote.org was crucial to our success, because without it, I couldn’t have hired the team that was able to execute at such a high level,” Hailey said.

Philanthropic funding of elections raises a fundamental question, however: Should philanthropy play such a large role – or any role at all – in elections?

“I think we’d all agree that Plan A is that the government provides enough resources to support our democracy, but the government did not step up and do it this year,” Becker said. He hopes that this year’s election will spur more government support. “I think we can now make the case to government that they need to provide more regular support and resources.”

Looking Ahead

The hope, of course, is that future elections will not face pandemics or other emergencies. However, there is a long way to go to have smoothly running, well-funded elections.

“The question is now, how do we transition from the sort of triage mode that we’ve had to be in in 2020, given that we were in essentially an emergency response situation, to tap into this new possibility of the ways that we’ve come together and sustain that?” Epps-Johnson said.

One key issue: cyber security, which Becker calls “a race without a finish line.”

“As you get better and you develop more secure practices, the bad guys are also getting better at what they do,” Becker said. “So, it is true that 2020 was the most secure election we have ever held: more paper, more audits, more security protocols. 2022 will have to be more secure than 2020. There's just no doubt about that. And that takes resources.”

Voter education should also continue between elections, Hailey said – so donors interested in encouraging civic participation should find organizations they trust and continue supporting them.

“We can all take a deep breath, but none of the problems are solved. We’re in for a long-haul fight in the next couple of years,” Hailey said.

SVCF invested in and helped donors contribute to organizations involved in civic engagement efforts both before and after the election, and we are grateful to our many partners across sectors for sharing our ongoing efforts to support civic participation. Following the election, SVCF launched a Community Catalyst Fund to support organizations that are continuing civic engagement efforts in low-income communities and communities of color. We will announce our grantee selection in mid-January 2021.

Curious about how you can contribute to civic engagement efforts in the meantime? Support local organizations featured in SVCF’s Civic Participation Giving Guide. The guide highlights nine of Silicon Valley’s leading organizations working within and on behalf of underrepresented communities to ensure that all voices have a role in shaping our future.

Civic Participation