One of three cardinal questions that guided PACE’s strategic focus and collective orientation in the field of philanthropy from 2017-2019 was this one:

How can philanthropy create spaces for people to come together around complex and divisive issues?

At PACE, we have always believed in the power, potential, and responsibility of people to come together to discuss, address, and solve the problems they see around them. This is why part of our shared belief statement is that “the office of citizen should be treated as central to how democracy functions.” We believe that democracy will be stronger when all people are informed and engaged in the process of creating it, yet the seeming intractability of the divisions in our society  present a challenge and an opportunity for PACE, whose members come together in a shared commitment to robust and inclusive civic engagement in service of a healthy democracy. In 2017, PACE began a multi-year process of exploring the work of our field in service of this question.

Implicit in our core question was the need to “bridge divides” and “come together across lines of difference,” but the idea of coming together felt nearly impossible, much less working together toward something. We knew from the start that this was a big, complex question—one that was increasingly important, could not be avoided, and was ripe for PACE to help explore. 

PACE has administered a couple projects with different angles into this question.

Civic Perceptions Language Project

PACE’s Language Project is a research effort to better understand the perceptions of words and phrases our field uses to describe civic engagement and democracy work. 

Language can be a challenge for many reasons, including that people’s varied individual interpretations of the meanings of words and phrases can contribute to misunderstanding or signaling that can actually make divisions worse. So this project explored what words like “civic engagement,” “activism,” and “patriotism,” actually mean to most Americans.

One motivating factor in wanting to understand perceptions of language is an awareness of deeper political/partisan and social dynamics our field must contend with, related to Americans’ attitudes towards government, democracy, and other civic/social issues. Understanding how people perceive, think, and talk about them will be an important first step toward more fully understanding these dynamics. The goal was not to take a position on—or extrapolate the meanings of—the findings/themes, but to surface the perceptions so they may be understood and considered. In an effort to further democratize our research process, we also made our quantitative data publicly available for additional analysis.

Bridging Civic Divides: An Exploration and Essay Series

PACE engaged Decker Ngongang as a Fellow to support this exploration to see where we could make a meaningful and unique contribution toward unpacking this question and contributing to understanding around it. Decker spent over a year conducting field research, which included interviews with our members, several of their grantees, and many other partners and leaders across the fields of philanthropy and civic engagement. Civility, and the need for more of it, was a common and consistent theme that emerged across conversations

Decker used what he was hearing and learning to integrate an equity lens to the idea of civility and bridge building, and consider what that might mean for the leadership and practice of philanthropy.  He penned a series of essays that represent a culmination of his findings and the deeper topics it demanded he examine. Themes include the important role of historical context, the limits of civility, and the importance of norms.

We hope these essays spark conversation and exploration for you and your work, and we hope that you share them widely with your networks. We plan to share reflections on these pieces in 2020, and we will continue to dig into these themes and topics as our democracy continues to evolve. To see more about how Decker’s thinking and process evolved over time, look back at PACE’s 2018 Annual Reflection.

To learn more about PACE’s work on Bridging Divides, please contact PACE Fellow, Decker Ngongang: decker(at)