Grantmaking foundations are being taught an important lesson, but most of them don’t seem inclined to learn it. The Tea Party movement has shown that building political power is of much greater consequence to the causes foundations care about than is their support for innovative and scaled-up programs in the nonprofit sector.
Although foundations desperately want to be “more impactful” than current practices allow, they generally settle for becoming more effective at what they already do. Rarely does any truly fresh approach to grantmaking get serious consideration. And in spite of this being a “teachable moment,” too few funders fully recognize the importance of government and even fewer are willing to talk about power. Unfortunately, that has become the essential conversation.
The import of government for foundations has long been clear to some funders, many of whom have pushed themselves and their peers to provide greater support for critical public policies and programs. Today’s challenge to philanthropy, however, goes far beyond its support for advocacy and an often narrow focus on parochial interests.
Indeed, what is at stake today is nothing less than who has the power to define government’s role with respect to the common good. The lesson being taught foundations is that without the power to implement advocated policies, problems of concern to philanthropy will rapidly grow more complex and intractable.
Most of the troubles we face as a society, and that foundations seek to address, reflect failures of government to effectively moderate the forces that created those problems in the first place. Whether those problems originate in the failures of the market and the sometimes-destructive behavior of corporations, in the poor performance of public and private institutions, or in the dysfunctional conduct of individuals, governments can and should do something about them.
Markets and corporations need effective regulation to ensure the orderly conduct of business and to provide public protections. Institutions need leadership, accountability, and resources to promote the public interest. And individuals can both be encouraged and helped to behave in their own and society’s best interests. Government is a critical player in each of these realms and an essential partner to philanthropies that seek to address problems in all of them.
The current arguments for smaller, cheaper, and weaker government are, at least in part, a response to the perceived inadequacy of the public sector’s efforts to provide effective protections and deliver programs and services efficiently. Yet, while some believe that the scope of laws, regulations, social programs, and taxes exceeds acceptable limits, the majority of Americans continue to want better safeguards and services; many are even willing to pay higher taxes to make sure that appropriate regulations and programs are available.
Simply advocating for that position and/or improved government responsiveness isn’t sufficient in our current political reality. The momentum in the pro-/anti-government debate has swung toward the latter – a development that hasn’t happened spontaneously. It is, instead, the result of some funders, even a few foundations, understanding that it’s all about power.
In funding citizen-engagement work and by using sympathetic media outlets, uber-wealthy conservatives like the Koch brothers, the folks at the Sarah Scaife Foundation, and many other like-minded philanthropists have helped build the Tea Party movement into an important force in our democracy.
The anti-government ideology advanced by those donors and activists holds profound negative consequence for most of organized philanthropy and its causes. But few foundations have come to a recognition that they ought to support a counterbalancing power, one that serves aggregated interests across the nonprofit world.
Because foundations and charities are prohibited from partisan political spending, some content themselves with efforts to strengthen democratic participation. Few, however, really focus on it. But while electoral politics appropriately remains a forbidden zone for tax-exempt entities, foundations are free to encourage robust civic engagement and to support and develop social movements in pursuit of the common good.
Unfortunately, most of philanthropy steers clear of such efforts, even though the exercise of political power today is undercutting work long championed and supported by foundations.
We might not like to admit it, but the momentum behind tax cuts and public-sector retrenchment is unlikely to fade unless foundations undertake a new kind of grantmaking, one that goes beyond funding services and advocacy and aims explicitly at building power in support of a government committed to, and capable of, taking action on the myriad problems that confront us – including rational and humane approaches to deficit reduction.
This will require direct organizing as well as efforts to educate the public about vital government programs and regulations that work. We need significant investment in projects that mobilize the grassroots. To support such movement-building, we also need additional funding for public policy work, for advocacy, for mass media, and for social networking campaigns.
Even though they provide less than 2 percent of total nonprofit sector revenues, foundations can play a unique, some might even say a heroic, role in energizing and mobilizing the millions upon millions of Americans involved in charitable work to stand up for their concerns through greater engagement in our democratic process. It is time for philanthropy to step up and help build popular political power for the common good.