To Help Bridge Differences, Philanthropy Should Invest in Strong Institutions

Tuesday, March 19, 2024 - 2:18 pm
Ali Noorani

This blog is part of the Council's Dialogue Across Difference series. In this space, we will share your viewpoints: In a time of polarization and mistrust, how can philanthropy bridge across difference? 

Institutions are the vehicles through which we negotiate our differences. These days, though, too many Americans are more interested in maximalist positions over negotiating differences. So, we spend a lot of time weakening the institutions that allow for the dialogue across difference that leads to compromise. 

Look around. Houses of worship are being lost to angry politics, businesses and nonprofits distracted by identity politics, public agencies undermined by special interests. These losses weaken our democracy to the point where our relationships are confined to those who agree with us.  

This is the thing; institutions are the foundation of a democratic society. From government agencies that serve all people, to faith organizations, businesses and nonprofits, institutions— and the relationships they weave together—are fundamental.

Of course, since we are human, our institutions are also a topic of constant debate. Cultural questions, the role of the private sector, the purpose of public agencies. Ideally, these debates take place within our shared political community - our democracy. Which, when it is functioning, provides a process through which to negotiate our differences and find agreement.

The problem is that we take our institutions, and most certainly our shared political community, for granted. In this era of severe polarization, we don’t realize our institutions—our relationships— have been weaponized in service of political agendas. As a result, institutions are seen as belonging to one side or the other. Therefore, we don’t see institutions as public goods. 

At the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, our National Governing Institutions strategy supports organizations across the political spectrum working to improve the effectiveness of the legislative and executive branch of our federal government. We believe that more nimble, well-managed governing institutions can make and administer laws and policies that represent the people’s preferences and are responsive to their needs.

Our belief in institutions extends to the role business, faith and veteran-serving organizations (to name a few) play in strengthening our civic spaces, much less building trust in our elections. We are proud to support work across the political spectrum in these communities that defend and strengthen the infrastructure and processes core to our democracy. 

Ultimately, we need to think of institutions differently. We should not see agencies, businesses, religious organizations as institutions owned by one “side” or the other. Rather, we need to understand what stake we have in an institution that may not directly serve our interests. Because, if an institution is a set of relationships through which we build trust, we need to have a stake in all our institutions. Once our institutions are lost, the relationships and the trust they hold is lost as well.

Strong institutions that allow for dialogue across difference are the backbone of a durable, inclusive, democracy. 

Additional Dialogue Across Difference Blog Posts

Read responses in our Dialogue Across Difference series. In this space, we will share your viewpoints: In a time of polarization and mistrust, how can philanthropy bridge across difference?

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