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Ford Foundation to Include Civic Engagement in New Funding Priorities

We recently read some news that our NCDD members and others in the D&D field should find encouraging. The Ford Foundation – the nation’s second largest philanthropic organization by assets – recently announced that after long deliberation and consultation with non-profit organizations, it is changing some important aspects of its focus in giving and how it gives. And we would all do well to take note.

In his letter about the change, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker wrote that the Foundation will turn its funding focuses to fighting global inequality. And in positive news for those in our field, Ford has identified “unequal access to the government and decision making” as one of six key drivers of global inequality, and has named “civic engagement and government” as one of the five areas that they will dedicate more of their funding toward to address political inequality.

Here’s an excerpt of the letter Ford released:

Among these many trends, the one we returned to again and again was the growth of inequality in our world. Not just the economic disparities that have emerged in global debates these past few years but also inequality in politics and participation; in culture and creative expression; in education and economic opportunity; and in the prejudicial ways that institutions and systems marginalize low-income people, women, ethnic minorities, Indigenous peoples, and people of color…

Remarkably, although manifestations varied by region, the assessment of underlying drivers was strikingly constant across the world. Broadly stated, we found five factors that consistently contribute to inequality:

  • Cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance, and inclusion
  • Unequal access to government decision making and resources
  • Persistent prejudice and discrimination against women as well as racial, ethnic, and caste minorities
  • Rules of the economy that magnify unequal opportunity and outcomes
  • The failure to invest in and protect vital public goods, such as education and natural resources…

To address and respond to these drivers of inequality, we will be working in six program areas, very much reflective of the five drivers. They are:

  • Civic Engagement and Government
  • Creativity and Free Expression
  • Gender, Ethnic, and Racial Justice
  • Inclusive Economies
  • Internet Freedom
  • Youth Opportunity and Learning

The naming of “civic engagement and government” as a focus area for funding is obviously great news for those of us who have become familiar with the sad reality that it is quite a challenge to find money for the kind of work that we in the D&D field do. Much of our work fits quite naturally into this category, so hopefully Ford’s shift is an omen that this dynamic may be changing down the road.

But we should also note that the naming of “youth opportunity and learning” as another focus area could be important for our field as well. As many of you know, NCDD has been thinking since the run up to our NCDD 2014 conference about how our field can support Democracy for the Next Generation – both in terms of integrating next generation technology, but also in terms of involving young people, our literally “next” generation of adults and citizens. D&D work is especially impactful when it gives young people the skills, knowledge, and access they need to participate in deliberation and public choice work in their communities. And given that many of us already work with young people or could conceivably shift our work in that direction with relative ease, we should not forget that Ford’s new focus on youth could present an opportunity for groups in our field to attract funding by focusing simultaneously on civic engagement and youth learning.

The other important shift that Ford announced in the letter is not only will it shift its funding in different a direction, but it will also be changing how it funds non-profits. Walker wrote in his letter that, having heard a great deal of feedback about the instability that solely project-based funding can create for non-profit organizations, Ford will also begin working to make more of its funding work to help non-profits achieve long-term financial sustainability by funding more operational and day-to-day costs that organizations need to handle. This should also come as welcome news, as many of us are far too familiar with the conundrum of finding funding that will not only keep our projects afloat, but also our organizations.

If a leading foundation like Ford is shifting its focus and giving methods in these ways, it may also signal that other foundations will be paying attention and soon following suit. Maybe that’s reading too much into the announcement, but either way, the news from Ford bodes well for the future of our work.

We wanted to share this bit of hopeful news with you all not to encourage everyone to go running to Ford with new grant proposals, but to help us all stay aware of the shifting dynamics of our field and keep an eye on the ways our work and influence can continue to evolve in positive directions.

You can find the full text of the Ford Foundation’s letter at www.fordfoundation.org/equals-change/post/whats-next-for-the-ford-foundation.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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