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Member Spotlight: Steve Cohen, Bay Area Democracy Funders

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Steve Cohen leads the Bay Area Democracy Funders and is an advisor of the Cow Hollow and SLC Giving funds at The San Francisco Foundation. As a part of our Member Spotlight Series, Steve discussed areas where democracy is threatened and resilient. We hope you can join Steve, other NCG members, and other Bay Area Democracy funders for State of Democracy: Countering Threats and Advancing Voting Rights in the U.S. and California on Thursday, September 27 at Silicon Valley Community Foundation in San Mateo.

How did you first get involved in philanthropy? 

I like to think giving is in my blood through my parents, but I certainly became more serious about philanthropy when my mom — a “philanthroactivist” who started the Ploughshares Fund ­— passed in 2006. My four sibs and I became officers of what was her foundation and we transitioned that to a donor advised fund at The San Francisco Foundation in 2010.

How did your giving evolve after that?

Well it got a lot more focused on democracy issues. It seems like ancient history now, but back in 2010 the Citizens United ruling came down and we began witnessing a steady unraveling of basic democratic rights. We were wondering how money became free speech and how corporations came to possess rights?

What do you mean by the unraveling of our democracy?

Well by the few objective measures and certainly by every other indicator, the U.S. was already a flawed democracy on the world stage. But it’s pretty hard to overlook the voting restrictions and purges, gerrymandering, anti-protest laws, corruption, attacks on the free press and judiciary, foreign interference in our elections, influx of money influencing the courts and elections, not to mention the dark money we don’t even know about. And against that depressing backdrop only 40 percent of the voting eligible population are expected to exercise their right to vote in the upcoming midterms.

Where are you seeing hope?

California and the Bay Area! In the same 10 years, California has established online voter registration, an independent redistricting commission, pre-registration of teenagers, measures to increase transparency, election cybersecurity, vote centers and other efforts. And then there are a host of local democracy reforms including ranked-choice voting and small donor financing of elections in San Francisco, Berkeley and other cities.

How has NCG supported your philanthropy?

In 2012, Susan Clark from Columbia Foundation, now Gaia Fund, and I hatched Bay Area Democracy Funders to try and identify and amplify the most valuable funding strategies and opportunities to support rebuilding and reinforcing our democracy. We started holding meetings three or four times a year. We joined forces with NCG in 2016 and your support has been invaluable, including coordination, meeting space, and most importantly expanding our reach and bringing all these issues to light.

The responses above represent the view of our member, not necessarily Northern California Grantmakers.

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