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Philanthropy on the Edge: Foundations, Egypt, and Press Freedom

February 04, 2011

(Bradford Smith is president of the Foundation Center. In his last post, he wrote about George Soros' $100 million gift to Human Rights Watch.)

Egypt_protests_fri Whoever said philanthropy is not relevant to the issues of the day?

Take Egypt. Many, who as recently as a week ago may have known little about Egypt, have been riveted to television, Facebook, and Twitter as the drama of a people challenging a government -- and that government pushing back -- unfolds. But foundations have been funding projects in and about Egypt for years, and many of the people, ideas, and institutions they have supported will be vital to that country’s future.

What is the foundation "line" on Egypt? Well, there isn't just one; American foundations are private institutions, so it all depends on the interests, values, and expertise of each donor. Using the Foundation Center's database, I did a simple keyword search for "Egypt" and found more than five hundred grants awarded since 2003. The largest number has gone for higher education, either to U.S. or European universities or directly to Egyptian institutions like the American University in Cairo or Cairo University. Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, Egypt will still depend on skilled human resources to build a modern, competitive society. Other grants have gone for issues that speak more directly to current events such as human rights, personal liberty, and the status of women. These can be controversial anywhere, and in Egypt addressing such issues takes skill, a keen sense of politics, and, well, courage. Even supporting cultural activities, where certain artists are state sponsored and others are not, can represent risk for a funder -- and more so for those who do the work on the ground. Research grants we found help to better understand the complexity of Egyptian politics, transformations in the region, and the role of religion. Good data is lacking, but there are also African and European foundations that consider Egypt important to their programming.

Take Press Freedom: While in Tunisia and the early days of the Egypt protests everyone was celebrating the liberation of information through Twitter, Facebook, and CNN, authorities quickly shut down the Internet and mobile networks and angry pro-Mubarak mobs began to target journalists. A free press is one of the pillars of a democratic society and a favorite target of authoritarian leaders of all persuasions. Even in democracies, where the press remains largely free (though subject to commercial interests), it is frequently accused of one bias or another. Here, some foundations have also translated their values into grants. The same kind of quick search in Foundation Directory Online yielded hundreds of grants made since 2003, most to a select group of organizations created precisely to combat press censorship and persecution. They include the Committee to Protect Journalists, the World Press Freedom Committee, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Not surprisingly, among the foundations that support them are several like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Gannett Foundation with origins in the newspaper business. For a glimpse into how such grantmaking might strike a raw nerve, check out Silence or Death in Mexico's Press: Crime, Violence, and Corruption Are Destroying the Country's Journalism, produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists with support from the Knight, McCormick, Oak, and Overbrook foundations.

Imagine what it's like to be a foundation that has staff and grantee partners in Egypt at the moment. Imagine what it's like put your foundation's money behind press freedom and see journalists arrested, beaten, and harassed -- in Egypt and elsewhere. This is philanthropy on the edge: driven by a sense of justice and a willingness to take risks.

-- Brad Smith

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Posted by Michaelrosensays.wordpress.com  |   February 04, 2011 at 02:02 PM

Brad Smith has written an interesting and thoughtful piece. These are tense times for Egypt, to put it mildly. The nonprofit sector has a role to play. When the dust settles, the nonprofit sector will have an even bigger role to play in helping Egypt emerge as a democracy. Of course, Egypt still could go the way of Iran. But, with a commitment to civil society, it could just as easily go the way of Brazil which was reborn a democracy after years of military rule. You can read more about this at http://michaelrosen.wordpress.com.

Posted by Bradford Smith  |   February 04, 2011 at 06:35 PM


Thanks for the read and for the comment. You make a really good point about how things might go either way in Egypt. I lived and worked in Brazil for years through the final years of the military government and all through the transition to democracy. The Brazilian military allowed an opposition party (the MDB) and went through a lengthy process of "controlled decompression." The Catholic Church also provided a relatively safe space for people to remain engaged, active and critical through NGOs and grassroots religious groups. When the military finally left, the country went through difficult moments of political crisis and corruption, but the institutions proved stronger than anyone imagined. Today, the Brazilian economy is booming and no one talks about a return to authoritarian rule. Philanthropy also played an important role throughout this whole process, helping keep universities, research institutes and NGOs alive.

Posted by Akwasi Aidoo  |   February 07, 2011 at 07:02 AM

Very insightful!

I must admit that, when it all started and unimaginable change became a reality in Tunisia (and now Egypt), I kept asking myself: Where is the foundation money in all of this? Is this another sure evidence that "the revolution will not be funded"? Are philanthropic resources relevant, in any way, to social movements?

Brad's piece helps to put it all in redeeming perspective, and highlights the need to take a long-term, courageous and social justice approach to philanthropic pursuits.

Akwasi Aidoo

Posted by suzanneskees@yahoo.com  |   February 14, 2011 at 02:42 PM

Thank you, Brad, for putting Egypt into philanthropic perspective for us.

I've just returned from Egypt, where I witnessed the beginning of peaceful protests in Tahrir Square:


but what struck me most happened before I left California: I could not dig up contacts for programs to visit. Though I've worked in philanthropy for 7 years now, none of my partners--e.g., in microfinance--had partners in Egypt, despite the level of socioeconomic need and multitude of social programs that do exist there. I had planned to visit 2 programs simply via friends of friends, but had to leave the country sooner than planned.

Your call to understand the issues resounds with me, even moreso now as Egypt begins to rebuild herself from the grassroots up. It's time for us all to engage with more than just the mummies and pyramids of ancient Egypt--to extend connection with the vibrant, diverse citizens in power today.

Suzanne Skees, Founder/Director
Skees Family Foundation

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