Inspiring Philanthropy to Step Up for Democracy: An Interview with Hirsch Client, Nancy Richards Farese

This interview was originally published in The Philanthropy Workshop blog on May 26, 2022.

Nancy Richards Farese is the President of the FThree Foundation and a long-time Hirsch client. She is an award-winning photographer, social entrepreneur, writer, and philanthropist.

Nancy’s passion to raise awareness and inspire action about global social and political conditions has taken her around the world, serving as a Photo Ambassador for the United National High Commission on Refugees and CARE International, among others. Her work has been widely published and she is the author of the recent photography book Potential Space: A Serious Look at Child’s Play. In 2015, she founded CatchLight, a nonprofit media organization that is cultivating a more robust ecosystem for visual storytelling that advances social justice.

Nancy was a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. She is currently on the boards of CatchLight, Southwire Company, FThree Foundation, and the NPR Foundation.

Nancy and the FThree Foundation have long partnered with Hirsch Philanthropy Partners on their strategic grantmaking to create a healthy and equitable democracy by promoting civic leadership and engagement, reducing the influence of big money in politics, and bolstering a free and fair press. In 2021, to address the deepening deterioration of U.S. democracy, FThree Foundation and Hirsch Philanthropy Partners launched the Democracy Reform Innovation Fund to quickly identify and invest in scalable, high-impact work to protect U.S. democracy.

Hirsch Senior Director Adrienne Bousian recently spoke with Nancy about the state of U.S. democracy, the role of media and local news in strengthening civic engagement, how philanthropists can make a difference on overwhelming issues like democracy, and more.

The following interview took place on March 1, 2022. It was edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne: You and the FThree Foundation were ahead of the curve on democracy issues – I would say well before others saw the crisis coming. Can you say more about your work to support democracy?

Nancy: In my first year with TPW, I traveled to D.C. for a week with my TPW cohort [TPW has a Democracy Action Lab with over 60 members]. There was a woman in our group from Amsterdam and we were both sitting in meeting after meeting about the intersection of philanthropy and public-private partnership. We were astounded by the amount of money flowing into Washington D.C., which I was not nearly as aware of at the time. McCain-Feingold [also known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act] was still up and going. That was also after the Citizens United decision. All these questions around money and politics were bubbling on the surface. I remember this woman from Amsterdam turning to me and expressing, “This is such a corrupt system!” She was astounded and I had no defense for it.

That was part of my getting more educated and being more aware of what this “model democracy” looked like through the eyes of people from outside the country, but having no good rationale for it. It was a strange realization of how we were shaking our finger at these other “corrupt democracies” and yet we had a lot of legally accepted corruption happening in our own system. Of course, since McCain-Feingold has been weakened and then Citizens United and many other developments—it’s just now infinitely worse.

Adrienne: Yes, and Nancy, I don’t think you know this, but I did media to get more public support for McCain-Feingold when I worked for the U.S. Senate. And what you’re talking about is obviously even more relevant right now with what’s going on with Russia and Ukraine, and democracies around the world. We have to believe the deepening crisis for our democracy serves as a wake-up call for more and more people.

Nancy: So much of this is systems-related, and how our systems are set up. I believe that people will operate to the extent they can within that system. So, time and time again we have examples like Purdue Pharma and opioid abuse. Where is the federal government on that? Why wasn’t the key official at the Food and Drug Administration [Curtis Wright] who went immediately over to Purdue Pharma after he approved OxyContin held accountable? This is what governments should be doing—setting up a level playing field for everyone and keeping people playing within the rules. That’s their core responsibility. With all the money flowing into politics, people are pushing the edge of what they can get away with. The only way to fix it is to really focus on systems change.

Adrienne: Absolutely, and you’ve probably heard me say several times that after working on a number of issues in my career—from reproductive justice to education—I strongly believe that in order to see lasting progress on those issues, we must shore up the structures of democracy, which is something that FThree is doing. Can you say a bit more about the areas you focus on in your portfolio—civic engagement and leadership, money in politics and government accountability, media and journalism. Why are these areas important to you?

Nancy: Just taking one—civic engagement—and teaching civic education in schools to understand how our systems are supposed to work is a really foundational concept. We’re all becoming more aware that our schools are not teaching that in an effective way. I’m excited about the work we’re doing to promote that. To me it does raise the issue that as philanthropists we are straddling the line between what government should be doing and where the private sector is stepping in. It shouldn’t be that the private sector is the one driving investment in civic education—it seems like a basic public function. But we can nudge education systems into doing that kind of work, I think that’s where the private sector must step in.

I’m a huge believer in media, awareness, and the value of thorough investigative work. I believe that the health of our journalism systems is directly related to the health of our democracy. I think of journalism as the third leg of the stool that supports democracy, and not to be overlooked. One of the most dangerous things that Donald Trump has done is launch this fake news concept that has driven doubt in our media systems to an extent that is incredibly detrimental. Of course, it’s been egged on by social media and people gathering news from different, unreliable sources that confirm their biases. But having someone at the very top say, “Don’t trust media!” is an extremely dangerous thing. As we all know, when autocrats come in, the first thing they usually take down is the media—independent media is not what they want.

That’s why I believe in media at the local journalism level, at the public journalism level, and then of course doing a lot of work on visual media. Visual communication is how people are connecting now as human beings. It’s never been more robust or more significant—a tool for connection—and yet the basic business model that supports visual storytelling has eroded.

My organization Catchlight is trying to step in and create a business model in this vacuum, which the private sector is not currently filling. There’s no obvious business model so we’re trying to create something new. We’re excited that we’re getting good support from the philanthropy sector. People who are interested in journalism understand that visual journalism is such a key component of connection, especially if you’re trying to reach new audiences.

Another critical area is money in politics. This is something we’ve been focusing on for a long time—the idea of transparency and accountability. Just taking a big step back and trying to remember the McCain-Feingold idea, “that which has the appearance of corruption usually is corrupt.” It used to be that if you gave money to a politician and they voted a certain way, there was an appearance of corruption, so it was deemed unacceptable. Since Citizens United with other policies and culture shifts, that whole concept has gone away. You now must be able to show absolute proof of illicit money coming in that clearly influences a vote—it’s much harder to prove and leads to more corruption. I think people are smart enough that if you gave better transparency into how money is flowing into our political systems, people would just intuitively know that it looks fishy, it looks corrupt—that there is an appearance of corruption. I think all of that is part of trying to encourage more accountability in money in politics.

Adrienne: There was so much you just said that’s incredibly relevant. Have you seen a noticeable increase in philanthropists making the connection between media and democracy?

Nancy: Yes, we’ve been making this argument that as goes journalism, so goes democracy. In 2015, we were focused more on social entrepreneurs and artist entrepreneurs than on individual leadership. But we realized there’s this huge void in photojournalists. They’re the ones getting fired first, they’re the ones getting sucked out of the newspapers, and yet we all shake our heads and wonder, “Why is no one reading the newspaper anymore?” Journalism can be largely visual, certainly in the ways that we connect to as an audience. A big way that we communicate is visual.

One of the areas Catchlight has been working on the last couple of years is how to make the case to the philanthropy community that now that you’re more comfortable supporting journalism, you should also be thinking about how to support photojournalism. Because that’s an inherent part of the way we tell stories of what happens every day in our communities. There are so many diverse photojournalists out there, there’s incredible talent, and there are all these new tools to tell stories, but you must create the business model for it. I’m proud to say that Catchlight recently received the largest gifts ever from philanthropy to support visual storytelling.

Adrienne: Congratulations!

Nancy: It’s very exciting. The Columbia Journalism Review did a piece on it. I think they’re excited because not only will it allow us to launch a visual desk in the Salinas Valley as a pilot, but it also allows us to partner with several other significant voices in the journalism field—for example Report for America and CalMatters. The upshot is that we’re consolidating a visual editor’s desk that would normally work with a whole variety of news outlets. We’ll hire a core group of photojournalists in a geographic hub, and then have an editor at the helm. It becomes a visual hub rather than each individual newspaper trying to hire their own photographer. It’s not uncommon for a newspaper to say, “Go report this story” to a writer and say, “Oh, by the way, take some pictures.” We’re really trying to shift that narrative around high-quality photo storytelling.

Adrienne: That’s so powerful. It could really be one of the antidotes to misinformation and the erosion of local news. Speaking of philanthropy supporting democracy—often people feel as if democracy is too big of an area to invest in and the needs are too overwhelming. I have never once heard you say that or be paralyzed by need or information overload. You like to learn and grow and roll up your sleeves and do more. What would you say to a philanthropist who feels like they can’t make a difference on democracy because it’s too big of an issue?

Nancy: It is a big issue and I think we’re not wrong to feel cynical. But I believe we are all beholden to engage in some way with the political and civic systems around us, whatever those ways happen to be. Whether it’s volunteering in the community or philanthropy or whatever it is. As the expression goes, democracy is not a spectator sport. You must really get in there and be prepared to do something. I come at it from that standpoint, and I also feel like you’ve got to find your particular lane for the area that you’re interested in.

I know I’m always really impressed with people who are focusing on get out the vote, who are only doing anti-gerrymandering, or only doing local politics. For me, I’ve always tried to pay attention to systems change—I’m less engaged with the idea of giving to individual candidates even though I totally get the rationale. I’m glad other people do it, but I’d personally rather work on the heart of the systems. Which is, how do we make change in why these people go out and raise so much money in the first place? That’s a particular interest of mine. I am also very interested in politics in Georgia, not only because it’s where I’m from and where I’ve got a lot of family and business ties, but also because there’s huge opportunity and huge neglect. There are a lot of things happening there and a lot of swindling is going under the radar. I’m excited to support forward-thinking leaders and Georgia is changing dramatically. It’s one of the fastest changing demographics in the country and I hope the politics become more progressive to reflect that. I should also say I’m focusing on these areas because you can’t do everything—you must pick just a few things.

I thought it was very exciting, Adrienne, the work that we did recently looking for innovators in the field [the Democracy Reform Innovation Fund]. I found it inspiring to see people stepping forward with smart, interesting ideas and have the ability to contribute toward those causes. All industries need innovation, and democracy is a particularly daunting one because of the scale of the issues, so it was a privilege to be able to identify some remarkable leaders and inject a small amount of money at a time when they could really use that. We could have given to a lot more organizations, but we imposed parameters that were very specific. This was a good example of relying on trusted partners and people we knew to ask, “Tell me who your top grantees are who fit within these criteria.” That helped vet the proposed list of organizations quickly and move us forward.

Adrienne: Yes, and hopefully the Democracy Reform Innovation Fund can inspire other philanthropists to support democracy reform—I know you talk about it a lot with your network [Nancy also presented this work to the TPW Democracy Action Lab]. It can be a model for how to not be paralyzed, how to quickly get dollars out to effective, nonpartisan democracy changemakers committed to structural reform and movement building.

Nancy: By the way, as an aside, I just told somebody about Sarah Longwell [a lifelong conservative, coined a “Never Trumper,” whose story was profiled in The New Yorker] and the Defending Democracy Together Institute. I think what they’re doing is really interesting. I believe our democracy needs to have two strong viable parties. One of the scariest things happening right now is this lack of center-right strength coming forward. The extremism on both sides of our political realm is worrisome, but of course it’s particularly strong on the right. I love the idea of looking for leaders on the center-right and people who are trying to invest more ideologically and be less partisan in their approach.

Adrienne: I knew you were going to like them! We need more of that—that’s for sure. I want to be mindful of your time. I could keep this going because it’s fascinating.

Nancy: You know all of this already, Adrienne!

Adrienne: No no, I’m learning from you as always, Nancy. I have to add one more thing—I agree with you 100% on the need to strengthen local journalism and I often say that reproductive justice too is a bellwether. I’ve been saying for years that it’s one of the first things that authoritarians come after. And then, of course, the blurring of the truth and disinvesting in public education. We’re seeing all of it—the authoritarian playbook is in full effect. That’s why shoring up democracy is so critical.