We treated the symptom — now eradicate the disease

3 min readMar 1, 2021

5 Pillars grantmakers should focus on for an equitable, multiracial democracy

By Brenda Sears

The good news: We treated the immediate symptom. As we approach 500,000 deaths from coronavirus, we seem to have survived 4 years of attacks on our democratic norms and voted in a new administration that promises to restore fair, equal and honest representation and justice.

The bad news: The disease is still thriving. We avoided the complete dismantling of our democracy, but only for the short-term. Several well-regarded global democracy indexes show an erosion of American democracy since 2016, ranking the U.S. outside the top 50 most democratic countries.

Furthermore, people are still working hard to weaken and worsen our democratic institutions to pull us into a fascist state. Voting, arguably the cornerstone of our democracy, is facing a mound of new attacks. Already this year, more than 100 bills to restrict voting access have been advanced in state legislatures.

Two years ago, Voqal decided to focus its funding on 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations led by people of color working to strengthen and protect democracy. The 2016 presidential election illuminated our broken democracy and just how deep the need is for funding to strengthen institutions and build power.

Voqal had a long history of addressing social equity; however, we had limited resources, and we knew we needed to focus.

We reviewed our grantmaking history, talked with grantees about the issues and needs, and studied democratic theory, indices for democratic strength and democratic frameworks.

We settled on a grantmaking strategy that funded what we identified as 5 pillars of an equitable, multiracial democracy. We view these pillars as an ecosystem, all contributing to the health of a vibrant democracy as explained below:

1. Representative Government: We fund groups working to make sure that every vote is counted, every voice is heard, every person is represented and every policymaker reflects the identities and ideology of the people they serve. This work includes fighting for fair redistricting, enacting campaign finance reform, ensuring voting rights and modernizing the voting process.

2. Fundamental Rights: We fund groups working to grant, guarantee, secure, defend, protect and preserve civil rights, civil liberties and basic freedoms for all people. This work includes fighting for economic justice, education justice, environmental justice, health justice, housing justice, gender justice and racial justice.

3. Accurate and Trusted Communications: We fund groups working to make sure information is representative, accurate and trustworthy and that it enables people to hold policymakers accountable. This work includes fighting to protect net neutrality, expand broadband, cultivate progressive narratives, and support alternative and local media.

4. Fair Processes: We fund groups working to make sure the way the laws are written, interpreted, and enforced are fair, impartial, non-discriminatory and transparent, and that those laws uphold fundamental rights. This work includes fighting to protect judicial independence and advocating for more diverse and progressive players in the criminal justice system, such as prosecutors and sheriffs.

5. Participatory Engagement: We fund groups working to ensure there are more opportunities for people to shape their representative’s decisions at all levels of government. This work includes encouraging people to attend public actions, communicate with policymakers, join community organizations, participate in leadership trainings and vote.

Even prior to 2016, our democracy was hobbling along, failing to meet the needs of most Americans. The electoral college, gerrymandering and voter suppression left many people — mostly people of color — out of and victims of the political process. While we did treat the symptom, we must stay the course if we are to eradicate the disease once and for all.

Brenda Sears is the director of grantmaking at Voqal. She, along with her colleagues Mary Coleman and Michele Christiansen, worked for the past 2 years to clarify the work that Voqal had done to strengthen and protect democracy and execute the framework described above.




For 40 years, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has served as the country’s independent watchdog of foundations.