Foundations exist to spend their money on supporting their missions, and nothing else.
Last fall, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Northwell Health Foundation gave $5 million to “boost turnout at the polls and help people, particularly minorities, get more involved in policy debates.” It seemed an odd choice for the foundation, which is supposed to focus on, well, health. Yet Northwest Health apparently believed that, as the reporter put it, “Helping democracy work better, especially for the poor and disenfranchised, isn’t mission creep. . . . It’s mission critical.”
The Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, which promotes Jewish culture and values, has made a similar decision to divert funds from its mission. Because its leaders were, according to the same Chronicle article, concerned by Russian interference in the 2016 election, they have given money to support voter drives in the years since. “American Jews have focused for a long time on what I would call parochial issues, like anti-Semitism, Israel, Jewish community, and Jewish continuity,” the foundation’s president, Aaron Dorfman, explained. “The existential importance of a healthy American democracy isn’t self-evident to the American Jewish community.”
The piece from which the above quotes come was called “Can Philanthropy Save Democracy?” It noted that “Foundation support nationwide for democracy projects jumped 34 percent in 2017, to $553 million, [and] all signs suggest that spending is on the rise.” But such astronomical sums are not enough, according to Stephen Heintz, the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, who recently chastised his colleagues for not spending even more. Heintz argued that “foundations can’t advance their missions without a strong democracy. But less than 2 percent of philanthropic dollars spent in the past decade have been dedicated to efforts to advance voting, promote civic participation, strengthen government, support the news media, and pursue other work that ensures our democracy is functioning well.” The question of whether foundations established to fund other causes should be giving their money to democracy-promotion efforts seemed not to occur to him.
James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.
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