There’s enough for all of us: More thoughts on philanthropy and democracy
Kristen Cambell

It was an honor and a privilege to keynote the 2023 Philanthropy Day Summit alongside my new friend Robert L. Dorch, Jr. from the Jordan/Snydor innovation group. Our discussion touched on a number of themes, but one moment I particularly appreciated was when we shared a chuckle on this point: “Philanthropists aren’t in the work of strengthening democracy because they love grantmaking.” If the impressive number of questions posed during the Q&A portion tells me anything, it is that philanthropists are truly dedicated to the work of “forming a more perfect union” and kindling a “love of humankind” as much as they are supporting that vision with grant dollars.

One topic I am still pondering from our discussion is the role of disruptors in powering innovative new approaches to strengthening our democracy and achieving equity in our society. Robert is correct that we cannot expect innovation without disruption of the status quo. I suggested a slightly more nuanced vision for challenging societal norms  – responsible disruption – which invites communities to imagine and envision things they might not currently believe are possible (which is disruptive in and of itself) rather than simply breaking things to break them (which is often how disruption is thought about). I have been thinking a lot about a provocation from my friend Eboo Patel in his book “We Need to Build” which suggests that we don’t get the world we want by burning down what we don’t like, but by building and creating what we love.

The opportunity to dive into this exciting and evolving field of philanthropy and democracy together with Robert was such a joy, and I look forward to future opportunities. There are a few questions from audience members that we weren’t able to get to due on Philanthropy Day, and I would like to offer my thoughts here.

Kristen Cambell, sitting on stage, right stage in a black dress with pink jacket, smiling, with Robert L. Dortch Jr. also sitting on stage in a plaid blue suit, turned toward Kristen, listening. A crowd of people watching them in conversation.

How might somebody who is new to the American society and system have a good impact on it?

I love this question, as I have personally done some thinking on this as a dual-citizen of America and New Zealand. I like to think about our citizenship in “small-c terms”… meaning whether or not we were born here, those of us who choose to live here have a responsibility to contribute to society. I love this line from Citizen University’s “Sworn-Again America” oath:

I pledge to serve
and to push my country:
when right, to be kept right;
when wrong, to be set right.
Wherever my ancestors and I were born,
I claim America
and I pledge to live like a citizen.

The second thing that comes to mind for me is the importance of anchoring myself in hope in order to avoid the temptation of becoming apathetic or angry as so many are today. Currently, there are significant incentives out there to become binary and zero sum in our thinking about politics, or to imagine our democracy as a teeter-totter where if one group goes up, the other must go down.

With this backdrop, it’s not difficult to imagine why many are becoming adversarial to defend their position or apathetic by stepping out of the ring altogether. I personally try to imagine democracy as an evolving system by design– one that, if stewarded well, can afford benefits to all (small-c) citizens if we’re willing to put the time and energy into imagining how we can work together to achieve that. In other words, there’s enough America for us all – let’s move forward on that premise, because I think it provides the kind of hope we need to make progress.

It feels as though our nation has taken a step back from becoming a more perfect union. What is the role of philanthropy to get us back on track without being polarizing?

I think the responsibility that philanthropy has in integrating philanthropy and democracy is to ensure that human connection is at the heart of how society functions. Yet, so many Americans do not feel a sense of belonging in their communities, schools, workplaces, and in our nation at-large. Imagining a more perfect union when union is lacking may be putting the cart before the horse. Philanthropy could make a transformative impact on our society if we are willing to promote incentive structures that promote community, collaboration, and partnership, as well as facilitate much bigger spaces where funders and grantees of all identities, beliefs, and persuasions can come together to imagine the best ways to address common problems.

At PACE, we have spent a lot of time thinking and talking about how philanthropy can combat toxic polarization. One of the hard things we’ve heard on this journey is that philanthropy can actually unintentionally make polarization worse. I believe that means we have to be thoughtful not just about what we fund, but how we fund it. I’d suggest funders can engage a social-cohesion mindset in its approach to problem-solving in philanthropy. This approach is about bringing diverse perspectives together to focus on collaborative problem solving and making sure we’re attacking the problem and not people.

A group of diverse people looking intently into the distance (at the stage during the keynote conversation).

Like you mentioned in your talk, apathy is a huge barrier to civic engagement. How do we help people overcome that apathy and show them the impact they can have?

 It is easy to become apathetic when you feel like your thoughts and ideas don’t matter, or you don’t see things changing as a result of your engagement. A lot of times, I don’t know that people are apathetic as much as they might be disillusioned or disempowered – or maybe just overwhelmed by all the challenges and not knowing what to do or how to best contribute. There’s a lot going on, y’all! 🙂

We’ve also learned through our work exploring “civic language” that many people just don’t resonate with the words and phrases that those of us who advocate for civic engagement often use. We can easily be talking past them and failing to meet them where they are– they might be engaged, but expressing it in different ways (whether words or actions) that we might not recognize (this can be especially true with young people). Sometimes a lack of engagement might be about people’s apathy, sometimes it might be about our inability to recognize what’s important to them, and sometimes it might be both.

Finally– and we talked about this a little bit on Philanthropy Day–  but I really think there is power in leading with questions in ways that help us interrogate our assumptions and generate understanding about what we might be missing from others’ perspectives and experiences.

Some might say that complex questions without ready answers are more likely to produce apathy than anything else. At PACE, we’re seeing the opposite. Questions offer breathing room to patiently develop ideas that will have an impact on the long-game, which is the health of our civil society and social fabric.

From left to right: Terrel White (African American man, smiling, wearing pink pants, white button up shirt, floral tie, and green and white cardigan), Robert L. Dortch Jr. (African American male, smiling, wearing a blue plaid suit and grey turtleneck sweater), Cristine Nardi (Caucasian female, smiling, wearing an all black dress), and Kristen Cambell (Caucasian female, smiling, wearing a black dress with a long pink and black formal jacket).

Kristen Cambell is CEO of PACE, a philanthropic laboratory for funders seeking to maximize their impact on democracy and civic life in America.


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