Closing the Participation Gap: How Foundations Can Help Latino Voters

Written by: Ryan Schlegel

Date: February 11, 2016

The Latino population of the United States has skyrocketed in the last four decades, from under 10 million to over 50 million. Latino voter registration, unfortunately, has not, as noted by Pew Research Center. The historic gap in electoral participation among Latinos in the U.S. has proved a very sticky problem to solve. And according to experts including Latino Decisions, it amounts to a missed opportunity for progressive candidates and issues at the ballot box.

Organizations with 501(c)(4) status can engage in unlimited lobbying, and their investments in electoral advocacy and partisan voter mobilization efforts are crucial to progressive victories on Election Day. As the 2016 national elections draws near, political organizations, especially those that represent the interests of historically underrepresented minorities like Latinos, may fight for the limited 501(c)(4) funding available to them. But it is just as crucial, especially during a feverish election season, that foundations remember the importance of non-electoral infrastructure-building investments in civic and electoral participation. While there are some restrictions on lobbying, 501(c)(3) organizations have many avenues to support advocacy and civic engagement. Linking immigrants to citizenship, linking citizens to the electoral process and conducting issue education campaigns are all lawful 501(c)(3) activities, and without 501(c)(3) support for power-building efforts in marginalized communities, the impact of headline-grabbing 501(c)(4) money will always be limited.

Foundations have an important role to play in building the grassroots mechanisms that will secure lasting power for marginalized communities, and many leading progressive foundations have recognized this. According to Foundation Center data, since 2006, U.S. foundations have given just over $50 million to build civic and electoral participation among Latinos. (See chart below.)


Because of limits in data gathering, these numbers represent just a slice of the funding for civic and electoral participation among Latinos. However, a few troubling trends stand out. Notably, this amount comprises just 6 percent of the total amount these foundations gave toward civic and electoral participation. Given that many Latinos face structural barriers to full democratic participation, and that people who are Hispanic or Latino make up over 17 percent of the country’s population, this amount is disappointing. (The breakdown is just as paltry for civic and electoral participation funding among African Americans.)                                                                        (Click to enlarge.)

The Latino civic participation funding ecosystem is also worryingly top-heavy: the Ford Foundation was responsible for 40 percent of the total given since 2006. Ford’s efforts in this area have been herculean, but they won’t be able to increase funding to an appropriate level (given the need and the population size) on their own. Even if every other funder listed had doubled their investments in this time period, only 9 percent of the total funding for civic participation would have been for work among Latinos.

These foundations’ work is commendable, but to really advance structural power for Latino voters, more foundations need to be involved. Election-season headlines about huge investments by 501(c)(4) organizations ought to send a clear message to 501(c)(3) organizations: Foundation influence is needed to balance the scales against regressive campaigns that hurt already marginalized communities and to build long-term support for progressive work to empower those communities. The scramble for 501(c)(4) money is part of a cyclical process that will no doubt lead to important electoral outcomes for marginalized communities – and the nation – but 501(c)(3) foundations need to keep their eyes on the ball, so to speak. Their role in the democratic process is just as important.

Foundations committed to long-term systemic change need to bear in mind four things as they consider investing in civic and electoral participation.

  1. Understand your impact – Step back and take a long-term, systemic look at the issues you care about. How realistic are your goals without the backstop of electoral power? How sustainable? Understand the limits of justice without power.
  2. Learn from your peers – Begin conversations with funders already working in the space. Ask them to share their successes and their failures, and incorporate their knowledge into your work.
  3. Be bold – Accept the risk that comes with civic and electoral work. Molding behavior is different than delivering a service. It follows that the outcomes and progress indicators you measure need to be different, and your tolerance for risk needs to be different too. Know that boldness with humility is the best approach.
  4. Know the law – Understand what IRS regulations empower you to do when it comes to the democratic process. Know the limits to 501(c)(3) behavior, and fund right up to those limits in order to be most effective. The regulations do allow for impactful work if you work to the fullest extent allowed.

For more information about how philanthropy can help build a healthy democracy, especially to benefit underserved communities, check out the new, civic-engagement focused issue of Responsive Philanthropy.

Ryan Schlegel is research and policy associate at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP). Follow @NCRP on Twitter. He thanks NCRP Senior Fellow Dan Petegorsky for his help on this post.

CC image by Freakotography.