The Madison Initiative

Photo © Julia Coffman

What will it take for members of the United States Congress to deliberate, negotiate, and compromise in ways that more Americans support? The Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative is joining with leaders in and outside of government, nonprofit advocates, academic researchers, and other funders to answer this question.

Our initiative’s namesake, James Madison, warned against “the mischiefs of faction.” The Founding Fathers understood that governing a nation as extensive and diverse as the United States would require leaders capable of reaching agreement among and on behalf of people and groups with different and often conflicting interests, beliefs, and agendas.

In March 2014, our Board approved an initial $50 million in grantmaking over three years to explore ways in which the foundation could make a positive difference in improving representative democracy.  In March 2017, the board will review what we have learned and the prospects for longer-term impact, then decide whether and how the foundation will continue its work in this area.

It’s important to note what this initiative is not: As a private charitable foundation, the Hewlett Foundation never tries to influence election outcomes; we are strictly prohibited from doing so. Moreover, our approach is explicitly agnostic on particular policy outcomes outside of democracy-enhancing reforms. Indeed, to proceed otherwise would miss the point. The health of a representative democracy ultimately depends on whether its legislative institutions are working in ways that the citizens support.

The Madison Initiative is addressing the problems of political polarization and hyper-partisanship. We plan to concentrate on Congress, where these problems are most prominent. Our grant making will tackle three challenges:

  • Restoring pragmatism and the spirit of compromise in Congress through reform of legislative rules, norms and processes as well as by fostering relationships and dialogue across party lines
  • Reforming campaigns and elections to set the stage for problem solving in Congress by supporting practical improvements in campaign finance and making primary electorates more representative
  • Promoting civic engagement that improves representation by informing citizens about the work of Congress and candidates for its offices and by enabling voters to play their part in our system of representative democracy


We should also highlight the hallmarks of our approach:

First, we know that this problem will require new forms of collaboration across foundations – not just programmatically, but also at the institutional level. We are thus engaging with other foundations and their leaders to foster this collaboration.

Second, as in any field, the identification of the key problems and how best to address them should be based on the leading research and evidence that is available. We are thus investing in and relying on the work of leading social scientists focused on improving the health of representative democracy.

Third, given how closely divided we are as a nation, practical solutions will require support across the political spectrum. We will therefore work with leaders and organizations from the right, left, and center with whom we share goals for the improvement of our system of government.

Finally, given the complexity of the problem, we are initially pursuing a strategy of placing multiple small bets instead of a few big ones. This approach will enable us–along with our grantees and co-funders –to experiment, learn, and adjust our course as we go. 

Progress will take time. But we embark with a sense of cautious optimism—tempered by a healthy dose of modesty and a willingness to learn and change directions as we proceed.  

Press Release:
Hewlett Foundation Launches $50 million Madison Initiative