It's no surprise that President Obama, with a lengthy background in the non-profit sector, has made strong efforts to reach out to the philanthropic community. What may come as a surprise is just how exhilarated the philanthropic community is by the attention.
This year's Council on Foundations conference, which concluded Tuesday in Denver, offered a revealing glimpse into the nexus of an administration eager to obtain the support of the non-profit world, and a community of increasingly politicized foundations who see bountiful opportunities for legislative achievements emanating from the current White House.
A tone of mutual congratulation pervaded the conference, first exemplified by remarks from Valerie Jarrett, a long-time adviser to President Obama and manager of the White House Office of Public Engagement, which oversees public-private liaison efforts."Why did I have such a great amount of confidence at the beginning of our administration?" she said to the assembled foundation worthies. "It's because of you."
Grand talk about public-private work is nothing new; the Bush administration's Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives created a media stir. Yet it seems that no prior partnership was quite so warm as the new one. "The reason we're talking about it here is that the private partners here were instrumental in electing the public partner," noted panelist Bill Schambra of the Hudson Institute, on the meeting's final day.
By then, Ms. Jarrett had already offered advice on how to carry that enthusiasm forward, noting that "when our goals are aligned we need to do a much better job of pulling together... ." And much of the philanthropic community at the conference appeared more than eager to answer her call for help.
A panel on health reform, entitled "What's Happening, What's Next, and What Is the Role for Foundations?" appeared unanimous in its conclusion that the role of foundations is to vigorously support and defend the administration and the new health-care reform bill. Drew Altman, who heads the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, declared that there is a "huge role for foundations in the implementation of this law." Lauren LeRoy, the head of Grantmakers in Health, boasted that her organization's offering "work for public education and awareness," "movement building" and "technical assistance to legislative and government staff" was essential to support future legislative aspirations.
If you thought that philanthropy's mission was simply to donate to areas in need, then you haven't been paying attention. As Gara LaMarche, president of Atlantic Philanthropies stated: "Charity is insufficient unless there's some alteration to underlying structures." Other panelists fleshed out the picture of a brave new world of "strategic philanthropy," in which goals such as "transformative change" and political advocacy, including work with the Obama administration, become essential components of philanthropic work.
In fact, Constance Rice, co-director of the Advancement Project-Los Angeles, recommended that foundations place themselves "well beyond advocacy" in a position of full-fledged activism. Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, cited "large scale protest" as a central requirement for philanthropic impact. Just what sort of impact are they seeking? Panelists cited migrant rights, income justice , reproductive justice and climate change.
Concurrent with exhortations to spend philanthropic wealth in the most politically minded ways possible, the conference featured numerous speakers deeply concerned about the malignant influence of other people's money on politics. In mourning the death of the Enlightenment ideals of the American founders, former Vice President Al Gore lamented that "money has returned to eclipse that discussion about justice and the other goals we have in our society."
A panel convened to discuss the Citizens United decisionï¿½in which the Supreme Court found that limits on corporate funding of political-campaign advertising are unconstitutionalï¿½was unanimous in its condemnation of the decision. Stephen Heintz, the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, called the decision a "radical" departure from a prior regime of "fairness," that would unleash a torrent of corporate wealth into politics.
Any irony in this argumentcoming from the head of a foundation wielding Rockefeller money for stark political advocacyï¿½seemed lost on Mr. Heintz. Elsewhere at the conference, executives from the Ford Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies, both single-donor billion-dollar funds that direct vast amounts of resources to political causes, argued for greater levels of political engagement in philanthropy.
The first hint of acknowledgment that the embrace of political advocacy and the current administration by the philanthropy community might have consequences came on the last day of the conference. That is when Chris Gates, executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement said that many foundations have begun shifting their mission from "funding soup kitchens and giving coats to cold people to funding policy" with little questioning of whether the direction is ultimately a wise one. Philanthropies, he suggested, had failed to consider the ramifications of active political partisanship.
"When philanthropy starts pushing an agenda," he said, "where is the sense of public responsibility? We haven't had that conversation."
Given a philanthropic environment in which some of the most explicitly political foundations wield fortunes for purposes that their long-deceased donors and benefactors might not even have imagined, yet alone condoned, Mr. Gates' question is a timely one. Judging from the conference last weekend, though, for numerous foundations the age of Obama is a time for activism, not introspection.
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