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Philanthropy, Morality, and Politics

May 19, 2009

(Bradford Smith is president of the Foundation Center. In his last post, he wrote about his fears and hopes for philanthropy.)

Philanthropy_black-white Consider two propositions: "philanthropy is the moral voice of society" and "philanthropy should hold government accountable." Both propositions arose during a recent meeting on global philanthropy co-sponsored by the European Foundation Centre (EFC), the Council on Foundations (COF), and the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS). Though the goal of the meeting was relatively straightforward -- to initiate a process that could lead to reducing the legal and fiscal barriers to global philanthropy -- this being an encounter of forty-two professionals from twenty countries, it wasn't long before morality and politics forced their way into the discussion.

At dinner afterward, a group of us, all Americans, were reflecting on these two propositions. "Morality" is a word seldom heard in American philanthropic discourse. We can talk for hours about initiatives, lines of work, strategy, effectiveness, assessment, and impact, with nary a mention of morality. Yet virtually all of philanthropy is driven by a moral sense of what is right, fair, or just; indeed the very act of philanthropy is a moral expression of solidarity and a desire to help others. The more we talked, the more it became apparent that it was the notion that philanthropy should somehow be the moral voice of society that was troubling. A foundation that supports access to safe abortion does so out of a profound moral conviction that a woman should have the right to decide while one that opposes abortion on moral grounds will back right-to-life groups. Philanthropy may be a moral voice, but it is not a single moral voice which dictates that there is only one kind of philanthropy and one set of causes that are "right" while all others are "wrong."

The notion that philanthropy should hold government accountable was only slightly less troubling. American philanthropy spends a fair amount time (though arguably not enough) trying to figure out how it can be more accountable so as to avoid overly zealous regulation by Congress. Indeed, the desire today in much of philanthropy is to collaborate with the Obama administration, many of whose officials have foundation experience and are actively courting foundations to join the "all hands on deck" effort to confront the economic crisis. Nevertheless, there are foundations that invest heavily in organizations that track campaign contributions, monitor federal and state budgets, and do community organizing -- all for the purpose of reminding elected officials that their role is to serve the public good and that the public is watching. Again, the real discomfort at the table seemed to be with the idea that this was being posited as the only legitimate role for philanthropy as opposed to one of many.

At the meeting, both propositions were put forth -- not by Americans, but by those whose countries had only recently emerged from long periods of totalitarian rule, armed conflict, or what political scientists call "weak states." Where human life often seems to have little value, avenues to political participation are blocked, and "leaders" sometimes behave more like predators, philanthropy can become an outlet for activists seeking deep and lasting change. In such cases, they are challenged with the Herculean task of righting past wrongs, creating a culture of philanthropy, and building accountable, democratic governments, all at once. Their mission is both moral and political. We can afford to make the finer distinctions because our task, though not easy, is far less daunting, living as we do in a (still) prosperous America with strong democratic institutions and guided by the rule of law.

But something else happened in that (still) prosperous Europe that surprised. Meeting in Italy, a country that had narrowly defeated legislation calling for civil servants to be fired if they failed to report individuals suspected of being undocumented and where a local politician had proposed segregating buses, the EFC passed a resolution. It reads, in part:

it is with great regret that we witness the emergence of a climate in Italy, which is symptomatic of a general trend throughout Europe, which leads to measures relating to undocumented migrants that undermine people’s basic human rights….As members of Foundations, we are committed to a Europe which is inclusive and tolerant; we work for this alongside citizens and civil society organisations, as well as with governmental bodies. We strongly encourage the governments of all member states to work individually, together and with the institutions of the European Union to build a framework for addressing migration in ways that truly respect the dignity of all human beings as defined in the European Convention on Human Rights....

The EFC hardly qualifies as a fringe group. Its 236 members manage more than €140 billion in assets and range from liberal, Quaker-inspired, UK foundations in the north to wealthy, sometimes conservative Italian banking foundations in the south. Alarmed by growing xenophobia in Europe, they chose to take a stand that was both moral and political, rather than be voiceless spectators to a march toward the past.

Philanthropy everywhere gets its energy and drive from moral values. And there are places and moments where those values impel us to tread the risky and challenging terrain of politics.

-- Brad Smith

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