It’s Already Happening: Unpacking the Authoritarian Threat to U.S. Philanthropy

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The freedoms we enjoy as Americans are at stake as a combination of legal restrictions, selective law enforcement, slander, intimidation and threats of violence close the civic space that is vital to any functioning democracy. Philanthropy and civil society are at risk, yet are at the same time among the few forces positioned to keep our public space open and the American experiment in liberal democracy working.

At the beginning of 2023, we published a report on the authoritarian threat and what it means for civil society and its funders. In “What Happens if it Happens Here?” we sought to understand what is in store if authoritarians continue to challenge democratic norms. We examined the evidence of American history, what's going on in states like Florida and Texas, and the experiences of backsliding democracies around the world. We came away convinced that powerful factions are undermining our democracy by weakening civil society organizations that play a unique role in protecting it and closing the civic space in which they operate.  

Reports from the field confirm that the problem is getting worse. Funders and organizations are dealing with stepped-up intimidation and threats of physical violence. Individual leaders are being vilified, investigated and sued. Whatever form it takes, harassment works by making it harder for organizations and their funders to be effective, as Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, shared with us. Harassment scares nonprofit leaders and their funders, drains resources, stops them from advancing their missions, and sends a chilling signal to others. Vital work to protect American democracy is being paused or shut down as a result.

Harassment has spread from funders and organizations working on “controversial” issues such as reproductive rights and racial justice to groups involved in areas like election administration, education and the arts. Targets include social conservative leaders who are out of step with extreme factions on the right.  

Whether the target is conservative or progressive, they are likely to be met with some combination of what prominent conservative evangelical leader Russell Moore calls “vicious guerilla tactics.” For example, the pressure that followed Donald Trump’s social media vitriol against university disinformation researchers included the combined weight of investigations by two congressional committees led by Rep. Jim Jordan, ongoing attacks on Fox, lawsuits brought by two state attorneys general, and abuse by an online mob.  

Why is this happening? 

Stepped-up harassment is part of a pattern of growing political tension and violence in the U.S. As democratic norms have eroded, powerful domestic interests have aligned with those of America’s adversaries, including Russia. Social media platforms, cable and broadcast media, and politicians have all found advantage in sowing division and undermining confidence in America’s democratic institutions.

This confluence of interests contributes to “affective polarization” (intense negative feelings between partisan groups), and a permission structure that normalizes threats and may provide individuals with a sense that aggression against people and organizations they see vilified in the media and by public figures will not only be permitted but celebrated. Compounding the problem, state legislators have enacted a spate of laws that penalize their political opponents, and, in some cases, reward vigilante enforcement action against them.   

Things could get worse

Former President Trump has made no secret of his intention to govern as an authoritarian if elected to a second term. Members of Congress loyal to Trump are signaling their interest in federalizing restrictive state laws as soon as they have a chance. Together, they have demonstrated a willingness to use force to hold power regardless of election results. As we discuss in detail in our original report, these moves are consistent with the autocrat's playbook used to close the civic space in backsliding and failed democracies around the world.  

The threat to funders 

While funders will not be able to accomplish their missions if their grantees are not safe to accomplish theirs, there are also signs of a new phase in the effort to intimidate funders directly. Unrelenting attacks have isolated some donors; Senator J.D. Vance and other leaders in the national conservative right talk about seizing the assets of large foundations, such as Ford and Gates; and efforts to vilify left-of-center philanthropic advisors and fiscal sponsors continue. In recent conversations, moreover, some funders revealed that they or their colleagues have been threatened, speculating that more may be coming. 

Based on her international work, Kleinfeld at the Carnegie Endowment warns: “Trying to remain safe as foundations will fail... [funders] do not escape. Eventually, the forces of threat, smear, legal action and other forms of closing space come for just about everyone.” 

Toward more effective responses

Meeting the challenge — developing responses that keep funders and organizations safe and effective, that keep the public space open, and that de-escalate tensions that lead to violence — will require urgent and sustained action based on a clear and shared understanding of the threat. Specifically, funders should:

  • Collect, share, and analyze threat information, consult experts, and connect the dots.  

  • Share best practices, and together with grantees, develop and fund effective, non-escalatory responses. 

  • Support a coordinated security infrastructure that centralizes some functions, recognizing that funders share grantees and will need to look beyond the safety of their own partner organizations to ensure that the wider public space stays open.

  • Act jointly across programs and issue areas within foundations, and across the lines that separate funders.   

Finally, funders need to help build and fund broad coalitions. This is the only proven way for pro-democracy forces to turn back an authoritarian takeover. Organizations connected through diverse relationships are safer than those that harassers can easily isolate.   

Safeguarding civil society

Many Americans cannot currently participate in the civic life of the country without fear of threats. This means that the civic space — the space in which we air differences of opinion, voice our dissent and negotiate the compromises that define self-government — is closing. Unfortunately, this problem is not likely to go away any time soon.

Fortunately, America has a uniquely robust civil society and philanthropic sector that can do what no other sector does to protect democracy, including safeguarding free and fair elections, holding our leaders accountable and defending the rights of those targeted for abuse. All funders, regardless of their programmatic missions or ideological perspectives, need to take the growing incidence of threats seriously, get educated about what’s happening and why, and understand the practical steps we can take to provide security. 

To ensure that the civic space remains open and that the American experiment survives in 2024 and beyond, organizations and funders will also need to work across programmatic and ideological lines to grow the pro-democracy coalition. This work can only be successful to the extent that civil society organizations and leaders are safe to do it. The more we know, and the better prepared we are, the more likely it will be that current trends can be reversed and a more fully functioning democracy can emerge.  

Peter Teague has advised funders since 1995, currently as founder and principal of PT Philanthropic.

Mike Berkowitz is a philanthropic adviser, co-founder and principal of Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies, and executive director of the Democracy Funders Network.