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In Times of Rancor, Nonprofits Help Americans Find Common Ground

By October 6, 2020October 7th, 2020No Comments

No one interrupts at a Braver Angels debate.

When participants expound on their choice for president, the role of law enforcement in America, or other urgent policy topics, they aren’t pitted against one another in some form of blood sport. Debaters make speeches and offer rebuttals to a moderator rather than directly to their opponent. Doing so helps participants stick to the substance of their arguments, says John Wood, one of the group’s senior leaders.

“We don’t want to make it a competition of egos or personalities,” says Wood, a former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County.

“We ask people to be open when they feel doubt about their point of view,” he says. “The emphasis is on intellectual humility.”

Braver Angels was formed in December 2016 with a goal of helping people with different ideologies find common ground. It began by holding Red/Blue Workshops to bring together people for a daylong program of structured discussions. Wood estimates that about 50,000 Americans, split evenly along the partisan divide, have participated in the group’s debates and other offerings.

The Braver Angels board and staff are roughly divided between people who consider themselves conservative and those who identify as liberal. And it strives to maintain a balance of support from foundations with different world views. For instance, both the Charles Koch Foundation, which was started by the businessman and conservative political megadonor Charles Koch, and the Fetzer Institute, which has historically identified as “center-left,” have both made grants to the nonprofit this year.

With a budget of about $1 million a year, Braver Angels is one of several small organizations getting support from foundations that hope to soften people’s hearts at a time when political attitudes are hardening. In addition to Fetzer and Koch, grant makers like the Civic Health Project and Einhorn Collaborative, as well as the Arthur Vining Davis and the William and Flora Hewlett foundations, also have thrown money into efforts to help people overcome bitter partisan divides. (Hewlett is a financial supporter of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)

They seek an intangible goal: to help people treat one another with respect.

These efforts, which help people engage in constructive dialogue, inhabit a small corner of foundation work to bolster democracy. In the age of Trump, many progressive foundations are plowing money into efforts that could help win an election rather than help people get along.

In 2018, the latest year for which figures are available, foundations directed more than $1.7 billion to democracy efforts, including ballot security, get-out-the-vote efforts, a free and independent press, civics education, and political movement building, according to Candid, which tracks foundation grant making.

Candid does not separately track the money foundations give to groups that promote a greater understanding among people who have different political views. But it accounts for a small part of the money flowing to members of the Bridge Alliance, a prominent coalition of democracy-focused nonprofits. Its members have combined budgets of about $700 million, but only about $14 million of that total is from member organizations that focus specifically on bridging ideological divides.

Growing Divide

Behind much of the interest in funding work to close the partisan divide is a concern about the role Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks play in exacerbating conflicts.

Sarah Ruger, director of free expression at the Charles Koch Institute, isn’t convinced that Americans have forgotten how to find common cause with one another. Much of the discord, she says, reflects “growing pains” of the spread of social media, which makes it easy to insult people with different views without having to look them in the eye and acknowledge their humanity.

Koch supports a variety of efforts to overcome the partisan divide in addition to Braver Angels, including academic research on how polarization and distrust develops; Narrative 4, a nonprofit that works with high schools to help students develop a sense of empathy for their peers through storytelling; and the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which is working on an internet-driven approach to reaching consensus on difficult policy choices. She wouldn’t provide an exact figure, but according to a spokeswoman, Koch spends “tens of millions” of dollars annually on such efforts.

Ruger would like to give teachers, academics, and policy makers the tools to “grapple with the cacophony” of division being spread online and find common cause.

“As philanthropists, we can play a role in bringing together those institutional leaders in a way that they might not normally have an opportunity to interact,” she says.

Bob Boisture, president of the Fetzer Institute, says it will take a sustained effort to make a difference. Such work can be difficult, he says, because it is a lot different than other democracy work, like registering a certain number of voters in a precinct or researching a menu of policy choices. Encouraging people to overcome their perceived differences relies on changes in emotions and attitudes at the individual level that take more effort to measure than counting how many people vote.

“This is way deeper than politics,” he says. “Love is the only force powerful enough to overcome those incredibly powerful forces that are pulling us apart. You can’t love the country without caring about all of our fellow Americans.

Lost Cause?

Since the election of Donald Trump, some grant makers have questioned whether it’s worth trying to promote civil discussions about political issues.

Decker Ngongang, a former fellow at Philanthropy Active for Civic Engagement, wrote in an essay on the topic that said with the White House setting a harsh tone for rhetoric in American society, grant makers are struggling with how to serve as “referees” when they bring people together.

Civil discourse in American politics is only possible when both sides of an argument agree on the basics, he says, like the validity of the scientific method, or the rules governing debate.

Foundations that want to help people find common ground struggle to “remain unbiased, while also recognizing that bad-faith actors are intentionally poisoning our civic discourse,” Ngongang says.

Indeed, some grant makers seem to be rethinking whether it’s important to find common ground.

This summer, for example, the Democracy Fund, started by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar and the dominant philanthropy involved election issues, said one party, the GOP, had poisoned the water.

“Our bipartisan positioning has too often been an excuse to not grapple with and address the deep injustice that is ingrained in our political institutions and system,” wrote Joe Goldman, president of the fund.

Not a Neutral Referee

The Chicago Community Trust is another philanthropy that has changed its approach in the Trump era, moving away from the idea that it must play the role of a neutral referee. In 2015 it introduced On the Table, a series of conversations among Chicagoans.

Residents decided what to talk about, and the trust and its facilitators helped moderate and encouraged people to connect with those with different life experiences and viewpoints.

The program, which has been widely copied across the country, still exists, but in its latest iteration the conversations serve to push the grant maker’s broader strategy of closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap in Chicago.

The conversations are now featured as “safe” places for Chicagoans and people across Illinois to talk about the harm caused by racism. The On the Table funding is accompanied by new grants the trust has made to support Chicago media outlets to better inform the public on the wealth gap.

“We have a point of view, “says Daniel Ash, the trust’s associate vice president for community impact. “We’re not trying to be neutral at all. We’re trying to create the conditions to achieve transformative change.”

Not Trying to Change Minds

Simon Greer, a veteran progressive activist who now runs an effort to help college students bridge their political divides, says he understands why grant makers might not want to support work to bridge political divisions, given the urgency many on the left feel about winning the upcoming election.

He is in a good position to make this judgment: He is a former president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a grant maker with a strong progressive pedigree.

The whole notion of finding common ground, Greer says, can easily be seen as compromising one’s ideals.

“One person’s definition of civility is another person’s definition of injustice,” he says. “What I mean by bridging, another person may define as watering down.”

But Greer founded his latest project, Bridging the Gap, on the premise that participants shouldn’t try to persuade others that they are wrong or try to change their beliefs. In January, the group brought students at Oberlin College, a bastion of progressive student activism, together with students at Spring Arbor University, a conservative private institution that defines its mission as “bringing the life of Christ” to its students.

Students worked together to develop policy approaches to criminal justice and share discussions and meals with one another over the course of one month. It proved highly popular, and next year the project will be copied at four other institutional pairs. Greer’s project has received a total of $500,000 from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation and Templeton Religion Trust, along with funds from Interfaith Youth Core (through a grant funded jointly by the Fetzer Institute and Stand Together,a nonprofit founded by Charles Koch), as well a handful on individual donors.

Bringing Civility to Scale

Perhaps the biggest obstacle nonprofits working to bridge divides face is that it’s hard to do on a large scale.

“It’s pretty hard in a country of over 300 million to say. ‘Let’s all get together at 7:00 down at the local high school and talk about federal issues,” says Keith Allred, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, a program created in 2011 by the University of Arizona after a shooter killed six people and wounded 11 others, including former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords. Foundation supporters include the Cargill, Charles Koch, and Hewlett foundations and the Democracy Fund,

Allred is attempting to expand his work beyond the intimacy of face-to-face discussion groups through one of the institute’s programs, called Common Sense American. The program works to get people to come to a consensus on policy issues. The institute sends participants a detailed examination of a policy question along with the pros and cons of specific bills in Congress to solve the matter.

Participants commit to studying the proposals and weighing in with their preference. They also commit to contacting their congressional representatives to tell them what the consensus was on the issue. Allred says interest in the project is far greater than he expected; nearly 24,000 people split among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents have taken part.

The project has started with issues where agreement is pretty easily reached; an early exercise was over the practice of “surprise” medical billing — patients being charged without their consent for medical services performed by out-of-network health-insurance providers. Allred acknowledges that it will be difficult to come to agreement on thornier issues. But he’s confident that if enough people take part and focus on the merits of a policy argument, political discussions will begin to turn on substance rather than the money or crafty messages being wielded by political parties.

The gulf separating Americans from one another began to widen decades ago, Allred says. To bring people together will take a long time and is more important that who wins any particular election.

“The divide between the parties was becoming more bitter long before Trump and will be with us long after he’s gone,” he says. “That it is the more fundamental enduring challenge, and we over-focus on Trump and the election of the moment at our peril if we don’t realize there are deeper, systemic things going on.”

Read more on the Chronicle of Philanthropy

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