Root causes and other stories

More conversations on the democracy sector — what it is, how it collaborates, funding, planning ahead and needs/requests.

Last year, I published the results of a range of interviews across the democracy sector. It was only a small project, so I wasn’t able to speak to everyone I had hoped to.

Happily, Nesta funded an ‘expansion pack’ of interviews, and some more insight from these chats is below. I hope it’s of use to anyone thinking about ways to support the sector, and thus, a better democracy.

I spoke to 16 new people over the last couple of months. Given the typical size of organisations in the sector, these were mainly CEOs. Most people were working on democracy as their core mission, but for some it was one of many themes that their organisation worked on. The interviewees were a diverse group across genders, ages, locations and ethnicities. They included people working for non-profits, charities and for-profits — and people no longer working on democracy.

These conversations were less structured than in the first round. To make them easier to follow, responses are collated around five headings: on the sector, on existing collaboration, on funding, on long-termism, and on needs or asks. I took out the quotation marks, since it looked messy, but these are all only lightly edited quotes from the conversations.

On the ‘democracy sector’

“The sector is a relatively well-defined group with a focus around participation and turnout”

“When I think of the ‘democracy sector’, I think of organisations working on civic tech, participation, and democratic reform”

“Academics and think tanks that could be included in the space probably don’t see themselves as working on ‘democracy’. They focus on institutions (like parliament or political parties) or processes (like elections). There are no dedicated networks in the academic-democracy space, but it’s small and everyone knows everyone”

“If you use the term ‘democracy’ — that language means that only certain people (the usual suspects) are going to show up”

“The sector leans towards non-political or neutral work [i.e. registration and turnout], because that’s what gets funding. But there’s room for partnerships with progressive organisations and to be more political [while still being non-partisan]”

“Look at the environmental sector as an example. It’s quite well-organised, has funding, has large-scale organisations, and a clear sense of goals”

On collaboration in the sector

“You can have both competition and collaboration — a little bit of both is a good idea”

“Collaboration is pretty good in the democracy education space: people do know each other and do partner on projects”

“There is competition in the youth space — some people want to ‘own’ the space”

“The sector is actually quite good at external partnerships — e.g. with brands, government or other public bodies — but not so hot within the sector”

“Open Govt Network started off well, but ran out of energy despite some best efforts, what can be learned from that?”

“Any kind of standing ‘Democracy Forum’ is a good idea, particularly if it had a little resource for a research function, producing a ‘state of democracy’ report. Perhaps it could even help to fund collaborative efforts”

“We should be talking more about mergers. They should be happening quite often: smaller organisations would be better off coming together. Yes there are a lot of entrepreneurs, but if the focus is on impact [not ego] then mergers are a no-brainer”

“There’s a risk of talking-shops, of too much philosophising — but you do need infrastructure to bring people together”

“Could there be a framework that organisations can dip in and out of?”

“There’s limited capacity to take part in collaborative efforts, esp. if there’s not immediately something in it for [my organisation]”

On fundraising and funding

“Everything boils down to funding — is it project or core?”

“Fundraising is a skill — does the sector have fundraising talent?”

“Funding is so election-focused — and elections are exhausting — how can we grow outside the election cycle?”

“It’s very hard to be independent — no long-term funding, no assets”

“Work on systemic or root causes doesn’t get funded. This means people are afraid to tackle root causes, because it would harm their project funding”

“There should be funds to support collaborative projects”

“Could there be collaboration between funders to work on longer-term funding?”

“Funders want KPIs and project goals — but we’re moving away from this towards having a guiding compass and principles”

“Maybe we’re doing this wrong — we should all just be doing this voluntarily…”

On long-termism

“Recognise that we need to learn and grow together, and that takes time”

“We can achieve collective wins, but if the collective disassembles afterwards (especially where it’s election-related) then the knowledge is lost. How do we build long-term knowledge?”

“We should be thinking about 2030, not just the next general election”

“Get no sense that anyone’s working to a framework for the future — we’re just rolling with the punches, whereas we should be on the front foot”

On the needs of the sector

“Better public affairs roles and information. I don’t know who is currently responsible for democracy in government or cabinet”

“An APPG is a good tool, if you can invest in staffing it to ensure its members are regularly briefed, informed about votes, and the spotlight is shared”

“Data to understand the scale of our problem and what is realistically achievable or where to target our efforts”

“Legal advice — a few years ago we struggled with this”

“Common language or framing — but appreciate this is hard”

“Access to specialised, and sometimes costly, expertise”

“More learning from overseas”

“List of potential funders and introductions”

“Resources aimed at potential founders — to guide, help, reduce duplication, avoid making the same mistakes”

“Nesting — ways for founders to receive money from donors”

“Policies and procedures for our new organisation”

“The sector should focus less on the perfect version of democracy, and more on actually winning on some things… Could a workshop help identify potential small wins and steps to get there?”

Thanks to everyone who took the time for a chat. 🙏

With my last remaining time on this work, I’m hoping to interview a few more people outside the democracy sector to see what they make of it all / whether they want to play / how they would consider democracy projects and campaigns / whether they have any tips…

Onwards. 🥕

Photo by Lorenzo Lamonica on Unsplash