Five Outstanding Organizations Working To Save Democracy in the United States

By ICONIQ Impact | February 3, 2022

The Stronger Democracy Award is a $22M grant competition to help improve political representation and increase participation in the United States’ democratic process. We’re thrilled to introduce the five finalists.

Photo provided by All Voting is Local/Herminia Frias

The 2020 presidential election boasted the highest voter turnout in U.S. history, at nearly 67%. However, when looking at comparable democracies, the US still maintains one of the lowest levels of civic participation. In fact, nearly 40% of Americans say they don’t get involved in civic and political activities because they don’t feel their actions will make a difference. At the same time, only 17% of Americans say they trust the government to do what’s right.

These statistics, while alarming, are likely not surprising for most. The fundamental components of our democracy—free and fair elections, trust in institutions and government representatives, and orderly transitions of power—have been eroded. American democracy is now characterized by intense polarization that obstructs legislative compromise; deep distrust in our institutions, processes, and elected officials; and widespread disinformation campaigns.

That’s why ICONIQ Impact—ICONIQ Capital’s global platform for collaborative philanthropy—launched the Stronger Democracy Award in partnership with philanthropists Cipora and Vlado Herman, and an anonymous donor in the ICONIQ Impact community. We know that there’s an urgent need support and invest in organizations working to reshape and strengthen America’s democratic institutions, ensuring they are transparent, representative, accountable, and equitable for all communities.

Each of the Stronger Democracy Award’s five finalists presents an innovative solution to strengthening our democracy that falls into one of three key areas: voting and elections, policy making, and civic engagement. These finalists were rigorously evaluated by a panel of experts and peer organizations to ensure the competition was fair, open, and transparent. We’ve been astounded by the caliber of these organizations and their robust solutions, and now, we’re thrilled to introduce them to you.

  • All Voting is Local: Through grassroots power-building, data analysis, and strategic communications, the Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights will fight to eliminate needless and discriminatory barriers to the ballot before they happen in order to build a democracy that works for us all.

  • Civic Revolution: Building a Diverse Democracy: Accelerate Change, Inc., PushBlack, ParentsTogether Foundation, Pulso, and Noticias para Inmigrantes will develop a force of 100 million diverse citizens who consistently share news, policy, and voting information with friends and family, increasing voter participation and pressure for democracy reforms.

  • The Documenters Network: A Civic Infrastructure for Connected Communities: City Bureau’s national, people-powered network will train and pay those most impacted by public policy to document government meetings and build a community around democratic participation.

  • Everyday Activist: Rise Education Fund will partner with BallotReady and Black Youth Vote! to erase gaps in civic participation among 7 million youth by scaling up an innovative model and technology for peer mobilization by 2024.

We asked each of these teams about the biggest hurdles facing American democracy, and how we can tackle systemic barriers to voting, boost civic engagement and empowerment, and restore confidence in our democratic institutions.

What do you think is the most pressing challenge facing American Democracy? How is your organization working to address or overcome this?

Civic Revolution: The Civic Revolution is focused on the pernicious civic engagement gaps for Black, Latinx, Native Americans, other people of color, and youth that have led to policy-makers who neither reflect all communities nor respond to all communities in making policies. Over the next five years, the Civic Revolution coalition, led by PushBlack, Pulso, ParentsTogether, Noticias Para Inmigrantes, and Accelerate Change, is growing our media and influencer networks to create a force of 100 million Americans (over 65% BIPOC) who share nonpartisan news, policy, and voting information with friends & family, dramatically increasing voting, and creating year-round pressure for democracy reforms. Through our daily media content, we center the voices of and educate diverse Americans about critical issues in their communities (e.g., criminal justice, immigration, climate change), creating pressure for political leaders to respond to underserved communities.

All Voting Is Local: Right now, in states from Pennsylvania to Arizona, lawmakers and election officials are trying to undo the progress that led to the largest voter turnout in over a century, with 160 million voters participating in the 2020 election — even amidst a global pandemic. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, state officials made in 2020 what they often contemplated as temporary adjustments to registration and voting; but these were reforms that voters have always needed and deserved so they could cast their ballots safely, fairly, and free from intimidation or undue burden. Instead of preserving and building on these reforms, elected officials are making it harder to get registered, cast a ballot, and certify vote counts. They want to remove ballot drop boxes, slash early voting access, enact arcane voter ID laws, purge voters from the rolls, and corrupt the nonpartisan election process. These are the modern-day voter suppression tactics harming communities of color and others who know all too well what it means to be denied the ballot. As states nationwide continue their assault on voting rights, All Voting is Local (AVL) works year-round at the local level, where decisions are made that impact when, where, and how voters will vote, protecting and expanding access to the ballot—before the first vote is cast. By focusing our advocacy at the local level, where elections are run, we address the specific challenges facing the voters we serve, seeking community-specific solutions that ensure their ballots are cast and their votes are counted.

Voting is a fundamental right and one of the most meaningful ways an individual can shape their community and nation. Yet, nearly 40% of Americans say they don’t get involved in civic and political activities because they don’t feel their actions will make a difference. How does your organization help boost civic engagement and give a voice to all citizens?

Everyday Activist: What’s exciting is the shift we’re seeing among Gen-Z and young people broadly who are less afraid to speak up and participate as activists and citizens. But we still have a long way to go to make activism and civic participation more accessible for everyone, and especially people whose voices and votes are targeted by voter suppression. We do that by tackling the barriers to participation head on. For us, that means offering training, technology and financial resources that make it possible not just for young people to participate, but also get their friends and peers involved as well.

Civic Revolution: More than a decade of research has shown that by far the most impactful and cost-effective way to increase voter turnout is “relational organizing”. Personalized voting messages from friends and family are dramatically more effective than voting messages from civic organizations, politicians, and government. Relational civic engagement is particularly important for overcoming historical and present-day voter suppression, closing racial voting gaps, and increasing advocacy in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. In 2020, our coalition drove the largest relational (friends and family) voter engagement campaign in history. We activated our 12 million subscribers (over 3/4 BIPOC) to share over 270 million personalized voting messages with friends and family. We also activated a network of influencers to generate nearly a billion views of proven voter education messages.

In the United States, voting and government systems are complex, and it’s often difficult to find accurate, reliable information on how to vote, what actions your representatives are taking, what issues are on your ballot, etc. How does your organization work to close public information and education gaps?

Everyday Activist: Our country’s approach to civic education is falling short for so many young people. According to CIRCLE at Tufts, nearly half of young people who didn’t vote in the 2020 election cited not knowing how, running out of time or having difficulty with their application as the reason. RiseBallotReady, and Black Youth Vote! are working to change that by meeting young people where they are and creating a platform for youth to lead change. We help college students and youth reach out to their friends, family, and communities to have real, personal conversations about how to vote and why it matters. By investing in young people and innovative technology, we’re working hard to make sure all young people have the information and inspiration they need to unlock their political power and participate in democracy.

The Documenters Network: The Documenters Network closes gaps in public information and education at multiple levels. Our custom-built participatory technology, documenters.org, standardizes city and state level government information like meeting dates, times, locations and public documents, information that would otherwise be spread across dozens of places and difficult to access. Documenters’ sites across the country use this information and train and pay people in their communities to document and share information from local public meetings. Each site becomes a kind of trade school for local civics, hosting regular trainings and peer-led skill-shares that foster a diverse and intergenerational community around civic practice. Zooming out, City Bureau maintains a central infrastructure for the entire Documenters Network, creating new economies of scale that make every program more resilient and help fight information inequity at a macro level.

In 2021, nearly 30 laws with restrictive voting provisions passed across 17 states. Voting rights (who gets to vote, when they can vote, and what gets counted) has become a polarized battle ground. How does your organization work to prevent and remove these voting barriers to help build a multiracial democracy?

All Voting Is Local: Regardless of what laws are passed and how lawsuits are settled, it’s up to state and local officials to determine how, when, and where voters in their communities will cast a ballot. AVL maintains a year-round, on-the-ground presence to ensure that we have the expertise, relationships, and resources to hold state and local officials accountable to the communities they serve. By coordinating coalition communications, building capacity among local partners through subgrants and collaboration, rallying community members, and leveraging partnerships with national, state, and local organizations, AVL works to ensure that administrative decisions about our elections don’t become barriers to the ballot. We understand that long-term impact is most likely when we seek out opportunities to support, lift up, and fill in gaps in the work already underway in the communities we serve. We are led by the communities we serve, and help provide the support and resources they need through partnerships, technical expertise, and subgrants to power work in connection with shared priorities.

A recent poll (2020) indicated that only 17% of Americans trust the government to do what’s right—this is compared to nearly 75% in the late 1950s. There has been a steady erosion of trust in our public institutions and representatives. How does your organization help improve accountability and inspire trust in our government?

The Documenters Network: We believe the solution to the crises of trust and a crumbling news ecosystem is to get more people involved, which means creating opportunities at a level where everyone is willing and able to participate. The same is true for government. Our institutions become more worthy of public trust when more people are involved in the process of governing. By training and organizing Documenters to attend and document local public meetings, the Documenters Network demystifies and democratizes access to civic power and equips communities with the tools they need to shape the public policies that impact them.

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