Carnegie Corporation Renames, Refocuses a Program: "Special Projects" becomes "Strengthening U.S. Democracy"

Completing a program review that began in June 1997 when Vartan Gregorian became president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, the foundation has renamed and refocused its Special Projects program.

Now called Strengthening U.S. Democracy, the program will address barriers to greater civic participation in public life and support efforts to strengthen the nonprofit sector. "The 2000 election cycle put a headline on some of the critical issues straining America's electoral system, but our new emphasis is not in response to campaign events," says Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation. "Our Board of Trustees has raised pivotal questions about the health of U.S. democracy — from campaign finance reform at the state level to young peoples' participation in elections to the role of new immigrants in society — and these programmatic changes will help us focus attention on these issues."

Geri Mannion, chair of Special Projects, and Cynthia M. Gibson, program officer, oversaw the reorganization and are putting it into effect this year. "We are sharpening the program's focus to work in two related areas: improving citizen participation in our democracy and improving the organizations that make our civil society work. This is a subtle, but substantive change of direction for a program that has worked for decades on democracy issues as well as being a testing ground for a wide variety of good ideas related to the Corporation's overall mission. We believe we can have more impact with our limited resources by being more strategically focused on democracy issues alone." 

The programmatic change reflects a long evolution of both the Corporation's interest in U.S. democracy issues and its interest in keeping some funds available for projects that are important, but not central to the Corporation's program interests.

Since 1955, the Corporation has been supporting an ever-growing variety of organizations and initiatives that reflected the foundation's commitment to civil rights, educational equity, voter registration and participation, and improving state government. In the past decade, these kinds of grants were considered within the rubric of Special Projects, and by 1998, the program's grantmaking budget had grown to an annual level of about $6.5 million, with the lion's share of the funds allocated to the subprogram known as Strengthening Democratic Institutions.

In its new incarnation, Strengthening U.S. Democracy will focus on two areas:

Increasing citizen participation in public life. The program will support a wide range of efforts to reduce or remove structural and attitudinal barriers that discourage the public from taking an active role in political and civic activities. In continuing the Corporation's interest in addressing systemic problems, the program will support electoral improvements in such areas as campaign finance disclosure and other reforms at the state level, voter registration regulations and modernizing the way Americans cast their vote. The widening income gap and concerns about its implications for democracy will also continue to be a priority.

Americans' highly negative attitude toward politics is a second barrier to greater public participation. Public distrust and cynicism have led to political apathy, thus depriving our democratic system of the kind of citizen activism that promotes reform. The program will focus on youth and immigrants, who are the most disengaged from political activities and whose participation is critical to the future health of our democracy. In considering issues related to integrating immigrants into the ranks of active citizens, the program is also interested in the impact of our growing religious diversity; Islam is a natural focus as it has become one of the nation's fastest growing religions. 

Strengthening the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. Carnegie Corporation has supported the growth and development of the nonprofit sector for many years. Taking the foundation's work a step further, the program will support efforts to increase nonprofits' capacity to fulfill their missions by strengthening such areas as strategic planning, fundraising, marketing and communications. Initially, the Corporation will collaborate with organizations that are developing the best practices that can be widely replicated. 

Corporation resources will continue to be available for special situations, "the rare and critical opportunity which now and then occurs," as James Angell wrote in 1921 as Carnegie Corporation's president. To preserve a niche for opportunities of those "rare and critical" sort, the Corporation has created a special opportunities fund that will be managed by Mannion through the office of Neil R. Grabois, vice president and director for strategic planning and program coordination. An example of the projects to be supported by the fund is a grant of $500,000 approved by the Corporation's board in February 2001 to help the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights increase youth participation in the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, which will be held in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001. No unsolicited proposals will be accepted for the special opportunities fund.

Mannion has worked in philanthropy for more than 25 years, including 12 years at the Corporation. She is a graduate of Fordham University, where she also received an M.A. in political science. Gibson worked for nonprofit organizations for 16 years before joining the Corporation; she is a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, has a M.S.W. from Catholic University of America and is currently a doctoral candidate in social work and public policy at Rutgers University. She will manage the Corporation's efforts to increase young people's engagement in politics and efforts to improve the nonprofit sector's capacity to fulfill its mission.