Philanthropy’s Role in Elections: How and Why Philanthropy Became Such a Powerful Player

On Sept. 8, the Roundtable hosted a conversation about how philanthropy is increasingly involved in our election process—an important topic that is not often publicly discussed. As a moderator, I was expecting it to be challenging: everyone always assumes partisan interests must be driving these conversations. But we wanted to do something more educational and factual—just what is happening when it comes to the role of philanthropy in elections? Given that the Roundtable represents the largest network of funders committed to philanthropic excellence when advancing liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility, being aware of this part of our industry’s efforts seemed important.

Our guests, Bradley Smith (Institute for Free Speech), Lawson Bader (Donors’ Trust), and Christian Adams (Public Interest Legal Foundation), walked us through: how and why philanthropy became such a powerful player; where these philanthropic dollars are coming from and going; and how these dollars are being spent. Here are three takeaways. We encourage you to check out the recording to learn more.

1. Both the left and right are heavily investing in elections and the processes behind them. But they invest in very different ways.
2. It is very difficult to evaluate how much money is flowing in because of the lag in data becoming available, and the challenge in separating some policy and education/outreach work from its impact on election processes.
3. There has been an influx of 501(c)(3) dollars into funding and managing the election process itself—a new development in 2020.

Even though it is hard to pinpoint just how much philanthropists are investing in our elections today, our panelists estimated that amount to be $1 billion. Regardless of one’s political orientation, the facts are worth knowing—especially if the reason one engages in philanthropy is to help strengthen our free society.



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