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Philanthropy Not Talking Power

October 31, 2013

(Mark Rosenman is an emeritus professor at the Union Institute & University and directed Caring to Change, an initiative that sought to improve how foundations serve the public. In his previous post, he urged nonprofit leaders to do more to restore Americans' confidence in the sector's ability to serve the common good.)

Rosenman_headshotIn a way, foundations are partly to blame for the dysfunction in Congress. After all, conservative-leaning foundations helped build the Tea Party movement and are still supporting it and many like-minded organizations. Reasons for assigning blame to moderate and progressive foundations are less obvious -- and mostly have to do with actions not taken and opportunities squandered.

In the wake of the government shutdown and the destructive and economically costly legislative brinksmanship around the debt ceiling, some leaders in the foundation world are calling for philanthropy to play a more active role in healing our democracy, fixing a broken Washington, and developing an immediate action plan in support of those ends.

They rightfully note, as have others, that the myriad issues of concern to foundations and nonprofit organizations are powerfully affected by the actions of and funding provided by government. They point out that moneyed private interests continue to trump the public interest when it comes to policy. And they note the growing sense that economic inequality in the United States may be undermining belief in the American dream and our very system of government.

What's more, a survey soon to be released by the Center for Effective Philanthropy finds that a majority of U.S. foundation leaders view the "current government policy environment" as a significant barrier to their organizations' ability to achieve their programmatic aims -- and those responses were gathered before weeks of acrimonious debate in Congress and the sixteen-day shutdown of the federal government.

Frustrated by obstructionism in Washington, a small but vocal group of foundation leaders is urging others in philanthropy to do more to reform and improve the electoral process, invest in civic education and participation efforts, promote greater transparency and accountability in government and the political process, support policy advocacy in and beyond their program areas, and help ordinary citizens make their voices heard.

All of which is wonderful, much needed, and long overdue. Others, including this writer, have called repeatedly for foundations to do all of that -- and more. Unfortunately, organized philanthropy, for the most part, has stubbornly avoided those calls. Why? Perhaps it has to do with the one thing that's missing from the post-shutdown conversation.

I'm talking about power, political power. It's not polite or good form, in some circles, to talk about power. This is especially the case when some people in the room have it and others don't. But it is precisely the failure of organized philanthropy to engage in such a conversation that has helped get us into our current fix.

What hasn't been done, or done enough, is to acknowledge that fact and let such a conversation inform our philanthropic investments. I take that back. It hasn't been done outside of a small group of right-wing funders.

As the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's Sally Covington reported back in 1997, conservative strategists spent three decades, starting in the 1970s, on "an extraordinary effort to reshape politics and public policy priorities at the national, state and local level." Their unabashedly political initiative -- modeled on a plan proposed to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by future Supreme Court judge Lewis F. Powell in 1971 -- helped guide the funding decisions of about a dozen conservative foundations dedicated to the proposition that government should be smaller, regulations and public safeguards should be rolled back, and public spending, especially for the neediest, should be cut.

To that end, foundations such as Scaife, Bradley and Olin made grants to strengthen and sustain a coordinated network of conservative organizations and think tanks; influence public policy; identify, orient, and educate new and established movement leaders; build supportive local and regional organizations; and fund marketing and media campaigns to build public support for their agenda. It was a brilliantly conceived and executed plan.

So, yes, foundations are partly to blame for the mess in Washington. Unfortunately, we have not seen a similarly strategic vision offered by foundations with a centrist or progressive vision for the United States. Nor has there been any clarity around a common progressive agenda -- or even an acknowledgement of the need to develop and advance such an agenda.

And yet, there is hope — albeit hope that requires an investment of philanthropic resources if it is to come to fruition. That hope is rooted in the finding that the American body politic isn't as divided as we may think and that a large and reasonable center still exists in America. Indeed, roughly half the electorate believes that our political system is broken and that things are becoming more difficult for most Americans. While they are socially progressive on many issues, they lean to the right on others. There is work to be done.

If moderate and progressive foundations are willing to follow the playbook developed by their conservative peers, if they are willing to talk about government in a direct fashion, the center will listen. And as they and their colleagues take steps to develop a more coherent political agenda, so, too, will Congress.

There are all kinds of grantmaking that can be done in this regard within the existing legal and regulatory framework. The conservative Koch brothers and their foundations have demonstrated that in helping to build the Tea Party movement.

In fact, it's long been known that philanthropic investments in policy and community engagement provide a massive return (one study estimated an ROI of $115 for every $1 invested). But building a movement will require more than the usual support of (often technocratic) policy ideas and campaigns to promote them.

What is needed is new thinking -- by foundations and the advocacy organizations they support -- about the role of government in the twenty-first century. Foundations also need to rethink how their resources can be deployed to build the infrastructure and institutions needed to implement that vision and advance an agenda in its service. Anything less than that will leave us stuck in an all-too-familiar and depressing cycle of unnecessary fiscal crises and government shutdowns.

The time to act is now. The American people want it, and the health of our democracy demands it. Philanthropy needs to just do it.

-- Mark Rosenman


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Hi Mark-

It's hardly the one-sided conversation you depict it to be where the nefarious Koch brothers and their hordes of minions dominate. Just to be sure, I did a word search and not once did I see you write the word "Soros" - just for example. A curious omission.

The engagement and conversation is pretty robust on both sides, which is as it should be. Every day, with every choice made, both sides are putting forth their visions and advancing their agendas, even if not through active political engagement. That's why I love this sector and I'd hate to see it become just another overly-politicized special interest group.

Exit question - if you can blame "conservative" foundations for the governmental shutdown, then do all the foundations who supported the Affordable Care Act get blamed for millions of people losing their policies ;)

Hi, David. My basic point is that conservative foundations and other funders have been much more willing to engage a political agenda than moderate and left donors. Further, the right has been clear about its ideological positions writ large while the center and left has eschewed such thinking/action.

I feel that tea party (and Heritage Action, etc.) funders are much more responsible for the shut-down and crisis-creating debt ceiling delay than folks in other camps and that they deserve special mention, such as the Koch brothers.

As to the ACA, it's clear that its early administration has been a set of terrible blunders and responsibility-dodging behavior, and that certainly deserves appropriate criticism. While I understand the horror of many people (not millions) losing their existing policies, I'd like to see what the ACA generates to replace them.


Correction -- Sorry, David. It is millions of cancellations according to the NY Times. I still hope that policies that have not met ACA standards will be replaced with affordable alternatives.

Or maybe it's time, after 224 years, for a new Constitution.

"Arend Lijphart is a political scientist who has spent much of his career trying to answer the fundamental question, 'What works best?' and he thinks he knows the answer. 'Democracies work best if they are consensus instead of majoritarian democracies. The most important constitutional provisions that help in this direction is to have a parliamentary system and elections by [proportional representation]. The U.S. is the opposite system, with a presidential system and plurality single-member-district elections'..."


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