In a year marked by profound social, political, and economic shifts, social impact leaders are crucial in shaping a more inclusive and diverse democracy in the U.S. and around the world. This responsibility is magnified amid rising authoritarianism, growing polarization, and ongoing struggles for workers’ and women’s rights. In this article, the Panorama Strategy leadership team shares reflections and provides recommendations on how social impact leaders across sectors can safeguard democracy, advance women’s rights and political leadership, and strengthen workers’ rights during this pivotal year.  

Defending Democracy in Divisive Times

Central to the challenge lies the erosion of democratic norms and institutions, the rise of authoritarian tendencies, and threats to freedom, equality, and justice. Jenny Shin, Director of Strategy, reflects on the challenges facing social impact leaders in the fight to protect democracy. “The current political climate around the world is fraught with heightened polarization, growing authoritarian and populist tendencies that are eroding democratic norms, increasing active conflicts, and exacerbating a sense of mistrust in our institutions,” she says. “Social impact leaders are looking at how the political landscape is shifting rapidly and unexpectedly, and how that can profoundly impact how we engage with communities, policy advocacy, and collaboration.”

Fortunately, there is promising momentum to support organizations dedicated to protecting and strengthening democracy in the U.S. and worldwide. Ahead of the November general election, over 100 philanthropic donors and advisors have signed on to the All by April Campaign, pledging to move funds sooner to organizations that ensure elections are free, fair, and representative. The campaign aims to ensure organizations have the resources they need early in the election year and consistently over time. These pro-democracy organizations, including signatories like The Ascend Fund, play a vital role in protecting the rights of Americans throughout the election process. The Ascend Fund pools philanthropic capital to support nonpartisan organizations that break down barriers preventing women from running for office—and winning. Recognizing that defending democracy is a full-time job, when some of the hardest work happens in off years, The Ascend Fund makes multi-year grants to ensure organizations have the necessary resources to dismantle obstacles to women’s political leadership.

Across the Panorama Group community of organizations, we are engaged in work to strengthen democracy. The team at Panorama Global is leading the Democracy Learning and Action Cohort in collaboration with the National Center for Family Philanthropy. The cohort convenes family trustees and senior decision-makers in philanthropy to foster a deeper understanding of the foundational pillars supporting our democracy. The cohort also seeks to encourage philanthropic and other civic investments that hold the potential to strengthen and sustain democracy in the U.S.  

In partnership, Panorama Global and Panorama Strategy additionally house and provide secretariat support for the global Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights (M-POWER). M-POWER is the largest commitment by the U.S. government, at over $130 million, to advance workplace democracy and elevate the role of trade unions and organized workers as essential to strengthening democracy globally. Partners include governments and unions from the Global South and the Global North committed to strengthening democracy, protecting fundamental rights, and more equitable economic development.

Overcoming Division with Discourse and Grace

In the past year, we have observed a rise in divisive discourse around frameworks shaping social impact strategies. Panorama Strategy Managing Director Melanie LeGrande says, “The majority of my career has been focused on corporate responsibility and social impact, and I take special note of the attacks on ESG principles and DEI in the private sector. Initiatives—and the acronyms themselves—have faced politicization and misunderstanding and are often targeted or conflated with other concepts. This environment has been challenging for social impact leaders to navigate, as they tiptoe across landmines that may threaten attempts to long-term positive change as well as their jobs and livelihoods.”

However, there have been bright spots that continue to fuel optimism. Highlighting promising philanthropic and thought leadership, Melanie LeGrande, continues, “One source of inspiration is the steadfastness of organizations in the philanthropic sector like Tides and the Ford Foundation which reaffirmed their commitments to social impact and social justice amidst these challenging times. I also find that insights from the field, like Andrew Winston’s Harvard Business Review article, “ESG Is Under Attack. How Should Your Company Respond?”, about how to navigate the pressures of the anti-ESG movement, offer valuable perspectives to our community.”

To overcome these divisions within different spaces across sectors, leaders can mitigate the toxic effects of polarization by cultivating empathy and promoting civil discourse. A promising example of this within philanthropy is the recent launch of The Commons by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a digital space to explore and share diverse perspectives from leaders on how America’s nonprofits and foundations are working to bring America together and protect democracy. With The Commons initiative, the philanthropic community can increasingly normalize engaging with diverse points of view in its pursuit of a more just world.  

Jenny Shin notes, “Especially in a time where polarization and divisiveness are heightened, there is a sense of high risk among leaders in navigating discourse and dialogue. I think it’s more important than ever for social impact leaders to play a crucial role in creating civil discourse and dialogue on pressing issues.”

Upholding Women's and Workers' Rights

Women and workers have historically played important roles as driving forces for positive change yet continue to face marginalization and threats to their rights. Building inclusive multiracial democracies requires fighting against exploitation, discrimination, underrepresentation, and systemic injustices that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. By amplifying the voices of workers and women, advocating for equitable policies, and supporting grassroots movements, leaders can advance efforts to create a more inclusive world.

Around the globe, women are facing attacks on their sexual and reproductive rights, persistent unequal pay, gender-based violence & harassment, and underrepresentation in political leadership. We can't have thriving, inclusive, and participatory democracies that protect all people’s rights if we don't have equal representation. Melanie LeGrande highlights some of the important work Panorama Strategy has been leading in this area in partnership with Open Society Foundations. “We unveiled a new report, Beyond Gender Parity: An Exploration of Funding for Women's Political Leadership in the Global South, which provides a comprehensive analysis that explores the current funding landscape, identifies gaps and priorities, and provides concrete recommendations for funders and stakeholders. To effect meaningful change, focus in this area is paramount. Investing in initiatives that address the underrepresentation of women in politics, especially to support women of diverse backgrounds with less access to social and financial capital, is crucial.”  

The International Trade Union Confederation’s 2023 Global Rights Index highlighted that sustained attacks on workers are dismantling the foundations of democracies. The right to free speech and assembly was restricted in over 40 percent of countries globally, with protests often being met with police brutality. With erosions of democratic and workers’ rights increasing, we must support workers’ rights as vital to strong democracies. Fortunately, there have been some inspiring victories in the past year for workers as labor activism increases amid soaring cost of living and economic inequality. As the secretariat for M-POWER, Panorama Strategy supports governments, global and national labor organizations, philanthropic institutions, and civil society stakeholders working to uphold workers’ rights, strengthen the capacity of democratic unions to organize, and facilitate conditions for unions to be active participants in inclusive democracies. Key features of the coalition enable local workers to pursue coordinated support when they face threats to democratic principles in their country and support initiatives to strengthen women workers’ voices and protections from gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace worldwide.

Collective Action is Integral to Democracy

At the heart of democracy lies the power of collective action to shape this world together. Meaningful change is not created in isolation; it requires collaboration, solidarity, and sustained effort. In confronting these challenges, social impact leaders must harness the power of bridging divides to draw on the strengths of diverse stakeholders. At Panorama, we recognize the power of collective action and working with diverse groups of stakeholders as Julia Roper, Director of Strategy, shares. “We work across sectors, industries, geographies, and organizations—private sector, philanthropy, NGO, multilaterals—and we are uniquely positioned to see their respective strengths and craft strategies for collaboration that maximize collective impact. Collaboration is an essential ingredient to any big social movement in history and it is time to double down on strategic and robust collaboration to spur and safeguard democracy.”  

We stand at a critical juncture in history. While such a momentous year for democracy increases many of the challenges we face and threats ahead, it is also a pivotal moment to create positive change.