Uniting philanthropy to support civic engagement

July 2023, Montana, USA

What can funders do to strengthen democratic institutions and civil society to better prepare and respond to the challenges for the decade ahead?


In partnership with the Headwaters Foundation, and with support from several Montana based funders, SIX brought together local, national and international funders together for 3 days on the beautiful West Creek Ranch in Montana to discuss the timely topic of civic engagement and philanthropy

From influencing policy, to championing communities to be better advocates for their own futures, the retreat explored why funders should pay attention to democracy and how they can build collective power and influence, drive momentum and take action around long term systems change.

About the retreat

Increasingly, funders are recognising how democracy shapes debates about societal issues, how this plays out at local levels and the role they can play. They are paying more attention to their role in perpetuating, and resolving, the harmful effects of injustice, colonialism and racial or health inequity.

Using Montana as a live case study, participants had the opportunity to learn about real time, locally rooted, issues around democracy, and Montana funders had the opportunity to be inspired by global examples.

In the months before the retreat, we hosted a series of online discussions to better understand how this topic was being addressed by a wider group of foundations around the world. We then brought 24 people together in Montana to dive deeper into the following key questions:

  • How can social innovation tools and approaches help philanthropy to shift narratives, influence other sectors, and support movements and leaders for change?
  • How can philanthropy work collectively and systemically, on issues that require radical change in the coming decade?
  • How can funders better support communities and grassroots, BIPOC- and youth-led initiatives, locally and globally, to be better advocates for their futures?
Insights and learning

Reframing risks – There are inherent risks to funding civic engagement and action. Philanthropy needs to improve its foresight capabilities and collaborative work in the ecosystem to minimise duplication and risk. It should also look out for signals in different sectors to be better prepared for change. This will also reduce the level of dependency on specific funders as the funding pool grows and make space for supporting longer term work, while also supporting the current challenges.  

Alignment around the different ways to interpret democracy – We need a wider and more sophisticated understanding of democracy. It is not only about mobilising voters, but also about building democratic culture and making the social contract between citizens and institutions explicit. Impact also needs to be redefined, especially in tense and fraught situations, and adapted for different parts of the world.

Not just money – Funders have a role to play beyond funding, especially in this area. They can actively choose where to use their influencing power to advance civic engagement and action in two main directions – 

  • Use their status and connections to hold power to account; engage in policy discussion; shift narratives; work closely with influential board members; and influence and convene other donors.
  • Use their soft power and relationship skills to act as a conduit between power and people, including grantees and communities.
Partners and collaborators

We thank Headwaters Foundation for inviting us to host this important dialogue in Montana, and for their support. Thank you also to the following Montana foundations that supported the retreat and participated so openly: Missoula Community Foundation, the Dennis & Phyllis Washington Foundation, the Tykeson Family Foundation, High Stakes Foundation, Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. 

Special thanks to the West Creek Ranch team for hosting us all so well.