Originally published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy on June 30, 2022
By Brook Kelly-Green and Pamela Shifman
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, coupled with rising attacks on America’s democratic institutions, is a five-alarm fire for donors working to advance gender justice and democracy. But it also opens a window of opportunity — a galvanizing moment for donors to understand the deep connections between women’s rights and democracy and to fund coordinated strategies to match. Treating them as separate priorities threatens our progress on both.
Autonomy over one’s body is fundamental to every other freedom — and is a pillar of a thriving democracy. As the New York Times reports, “curbs on women’s rights tend to accelerate in backsliding democracies, a category that includes the United States.” Democracy cannot be fully realized if half of a country’s citizens do not have the ability to make their own decisions about their bodies and their families.
It is not a coincidence that when abortion access goes down, authoritarianism goes up. They are interdependent. It’s why reproductive rights are under attack in countries such as Brazil and Poland.
In our years as grant makers and advocates, we have learned that collaboration — or the lack of it — among donors across seemingly disparate issue areas is a flashing indicator of how effective funding of social-change efforts will be. On the most important issues of our time, it can signal whether we will win or lose. And right now, it’s clear we could do much more.
While we see growing donor interest in supporting democracy work, we have also heard donors say that they cannot fund programs aimed at girls and women because they need to focus their efforts on rising attacks on American democracy. In other words, these donors see efforts aimed at protecting and advancing women’s rights as tangential, rather than central, to a philanthropic strategy focused on protecting our democracy.
The problem is especially acute when it comes to funding work led by and for girls and women of color, who are most deeply affected by the rollback of rights and most effective at developing innovative solutions. This disconnect harms philanthropy’s collective impact and reduces our chance to win.
The current moment is an opportunity for donors to deepen support for gender and racial justice broadly and for reproductive freedom specifically as part of a larger push to strengthen a thriving democracy. Understanding the connection offers a roadmap for donors to use their resources and influence to defend women’s rights and freedom, and support democracy simultaneously. It shows us the importance of using every tool we have, including political giving, to turn the tide.
Here’s what we need to do:
Build political power, especially in the states where democracy and gender and racial justice are under attack. Beyond support for individual candidates, a joint strategy to advance democracy and gender and racial justice requires long-term, flexible funding for state-based organizations focused on developing power among all women, especially women of color. This strategy must span both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) giving. Educating, engaging, and mobilizing a reliable base is essential to changing who is making decisions in state legislatures and governors’ mansions. This is where the battle for democracy, and gender equity, will be won or lost.
Train, recruit, and support candidates for office who are driving movements for change. Black women and women of color are leading the fight to rebuild democracy and protect and expand women’s rights. They were instrumental in turning out voters to defeat President Trump in 2020 and sounded the earliest alarms about efforts to overturn Roe. But women of color candidates are often newer to the political arena, with fewer connections to the funding they need to win.
This situation will change only when political donors take a risk and support candidates who are less familiar to them — those who lack connections to the donor class but have deep connections to their communities. Philanthropy can also play a role by funding organizations that provide training and assistance to women who are interested in running for office and offer guidance once these women win their races. This includes groups such as Higher Heights and Re:Power, which invest in political leadership for Black women and women of color; Vote Mama, which breaks down barriers for mothers to run for office and win; and State Innovation Exchange, which builds power in state legislatures by providing ongoing support to winning candidates.
Learn from the approach taken by conservatives and fight back. The right has long recognized the intersection of democracy and women’s autonomy. The reversal of Roe is the culmination of a coordinated strategy and decades-long attacks on abortion rights in the United States. With a steadfast focus on building power at the local level, and a willingness to max out on political giving, the right has won control of many state legislatures and executive offices — paving the way for restrictive abortion and other undemocratic policies to pass virtually unchallenged in multiple states.
Donors who care about the future of our democracy need to effectively challenge this strategy. That has yet to happen. The sadly predictable result is that the right of women to control their bodies will likely be denied in more than half the states in this country — even though 61 percent of Americans support the right to legal abortion.
For donors, connecting abortion and democracy at the state level is smart politics. For those focused on protecting democracy through their 501(c)(3) giving, the Supreme Court ruling offers fuel to mobilize and galvanize Americans on the importance of active participation in elections. It makes the threats to democracy real and tangible and could activate voters who feel disconnected and disillusioned.
Research shows that while voters are worried about threats to democracy, the issue does not necessarily energize them. The battle over abortion can make those threats more urgent during this fall’s midterm elections and beyond. For donors focused on abortion rights, connecting the attacks on women’s autonomy to broader attacks on democracy can build a deeper bench of advocates and bring in new allies.
The overturning of Roe is an assault on all women and pregnant people. But it is also an assault on our democracy. With so much at stake, grant makers have an opportunity to recognize that link and develop their funding strategies accordingly. If we don’t seize this chance, all our rights will remain at risk.
Pamela Shifman is president of the Democracy Alliance. Brook Kelly-Green is the senior director of Gender and Reproductive Equity at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.