Shaking the Foundations

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An extraordinary new report that details how conservative philanthropists altered the American political landscape is prompting some soul searching among progressives in the foundation world. But it has also highlighted a poorly recognized truth: mainstream philanthropy is not animated by a progressive or even liberal vision, despite the right’s frequent attempts to paint major foundations as the architects of countless radical blueprints.

The new report, written by Sally Covington and published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), analyzes the giving patterns of 12 conservative foundations, including the John M. Olin, Lynde and Harry Bradley and Sarah Scaife foundations, over a three-year period. It concludes that these foundations effectively concentrated their resources toward achieving overarching conservative public policy objectives, including smaller government, lower taxes and unregulated markets.

From 1992 through 1994, these foundations invested $210 million on institutions that shared their big-picture world view and pushed for specific policy changes such as deep cuts in federal anti-poverty spending, fewer industrial and environmental controls, privatization of government services and the transfer of responsibility for social welfare from Washington to the charitable sector or state and local government.

A handful of aggressively ideological think tanks and advocacy groups, including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which emphasize marketing and communications as much as the development of policy ideas, received close to $80 million from the 12 conservative foundations during the three years studied. Much of the grant money was unrestricted general operating support. In contrast, roughly comparable institutions on the left are grossly under-capitalized. The conservative foundations also gave $9.3 million to a network of state-based think tanks and $16.3 million to conservative media.

If major foundations make their grantmaking even marginally more supportive of liberal policy and advocacy work, it could mean a few million more dollars to counterbalance the right, Covington says.

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In dozens of interviews conducted since NCRP published the report, Moving A Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, City Limits found that mainstream foundation leaders are divided over whether they or their grantees should express any ideological perspective, let alone try to grab hold of the wheel of American public policy.

Some funders say the report set their alarm clocks ringing. Yet faced with the author’s counsel that foundations should deploy their resources to project a clear alternative to the right’s political vision, many of them feel they have little choice but to slam the snooze button. America’s major foundations, both their staff and critics say, have no interest in pursuing the kind of grantmaking perfected by the right.

“I really resist political labels, because I would be hard-pressed, even with a gun to my head, to say what we were, conservative or liberal,” explains Denise Gray-Felder, director of communications at the Rockefeller Foundation. Conservative foundations, she says, “have deliberately gone out and created institutions and trained scholars and worked with editorial boards to push an ideological agenda, and that’s not what we’re really about.” Focusing instead on problems such as infectious diseases, public school reform, the global shortage of food and interracial understanding, Rockefeller seeks to explore solutions from across the political spectrum, Gray-Felder says.

It helps to remember that the nation’s preeminent philanthropies were founded by industry barons. And the corporate presence on their current boards of trustees explains in part why many foundations are not interested in the business of charting a new course for government policymaking. Unlike their staffs, many of the foundation’s real decision-makers are in the business of business.

While the Ford Foundation board includes the former chief of the Cherokee Nation, college presidents and nonprofit leaders from South Africa, India and Ecuador, it also includes current and retired CEOs from Xerox Corporation, Levi Strauss & Co., Lucent Technologies and Reuters Holdings, PLC. And a glance at recent board lists from Carnegie and MacArthur turns up corporate notables from Fannie Mae, Bankers Life and Casualty Company and Montgomery Elevator International; media figures from ABC, Time, Inc. and CNN; and lawyers from powerhouse firms.

What’s more, while philanthropies have sought to diversify their boards in recent years, the trustees of the nation’s private foundations are still 89.3 percent white and 73.7 percent male, according to the Council on Foundations’ 1996 Foundation Management Report.

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Though NCRP has received more attention for Covington’s report than for anything it has produced in its 21-year history, its central message about the importance of strategic planning for political change faces an uphill battle.

“We frankly have no comment on the report,” Ford Foundation Vice President of Communications Robert Curvin said vehemently. “We don’t think it’s relevant to our work, and we will go on doing what we’ve been doing.”

While Covington’s analysis offers a road-map for a well-fueled assault on the status quo, major funders eschew the role of field marshal. They prefer a measured kind of engagement in public policy that some call gutless, but that others deem more humble and responsive to the grassroots.

Most of the country’s foundations “are chicken,” charges Waldemar Nielsen, an octogenarian foundation analyst whose most recent book is The Dramas of Donorship. Sheltered, unnaccountable and lacking in the muscular qualities of their conservative counterparts, mainstream philanthropies don’t have a real impact on the most urgent issues of the day, he says. “Many of the main line foundations tend to take a bland, neutral stance or no stance on many of these issues,” he adds. “It represents a lack of courage, an unwillingness to get into controversy. It’s a kind of hiding out from reality.”

Not everyone agrees. Big mainstream foundations have engaged in public policy grantmaking, but “they just haven’t done it in the way conservative funders have,” counters Ellen Condliffe Lageman, a New York University history and education professor. “They haven’t done it to build a movement for broad change.” The Carnegie Corporation of New York has worked hard to gain attention for its research on the importance of stimulating children’s brain development between birth and the age of three, says Lageman.

Mainstream philanthropy stresses the importance of fairness and accuracy in the research it sponsors, she says, while conservatives sponsor research specifically to advance their own values. She questions whether it would be good social policy for the mainstream to adopt the right’s tendency to “go for the jugular.”

“It would be a disservice to a real debate in the country if it’s just ideological mudslinging,” says Vincent McGee, vice president of the Irene Diamond Fund. “From the broad range of philanthropy in the middle, which is where most of us are, there ought to be much more of a push for serious, honest research on social issues that takes a longer range view than today’s pocketbook and bank account.”

Some mainstream and liberal funders wouldn’t dare presume to call the shots. “It’s our board’s philosophy that it doesn’t have all the answers,” says Sandra Silverman, executive director of the Scherman Foundation. “We basically believe people who are day-to-day running organizations have a handle on the problems and on the best way to deal with them.”

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While foundations don’t expect grantees to be their ideological standard-bearers, some do consider advocacy central to their grantmaking. Scherman, Silverman adds, supports “organizations that are trying to mobilize people to use effective tools of communication.”

Many foundation leaders say they are impressed by the report’s exegesis of the conservatives’ media savvy, and hope to help their grantees do a better job of telling their story. After all, as the report points out, the Heritage Foundation has four marketing divisions–public relations, government relations, academic relations and corporate relations–and senior management meets twice weekly to coordinate the messages these divisions deliver.

“We’re in a society now that’s driven by the media and we have to be more forthright and clearer about what we’ve learned that’s positive and what we’ve learned that’s negative,” says McGee.

Gray-Felder agrees. “There’s a mistaken opinion that marketing and communications has a bit of hucksterism tinge to it,” she says. “I’m in favor of foundations, no matter their ideological bent, doing a more aggressive job of reaching out to targeted audiences. We’re one of the foundations you will see doing more and more aggressive communications. Our premise is communication is essential to social change.”

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One newcomer on the foundation scene, the domestic branch of George Soros’ Open Society Institute (OSI), while not espousing a left-wing ideological vision, takes a very direct approach to raising the profile of its eclectic portfolio. “I think we are responding to a degree to the concerns raised in the NCRP report,” explains Gara La Marche, OSI’s director of U.S. Programs. “We have put a lot of emphasis on changing the debate on certain issues,” he says, citing drug policy, how people die, over-incarceration and welfare reform’s victimization of immigrants. “We’re obviously not trying to win any popularity contests.”

Soros believes foundations should use their position to take risks, La Marche says. By supporting grantees who take what amount to taboo positions in previously one-sided debates, OSI hopes to alter the climate enough for others to take the plunge. “We want company,” he says.

The Soros strategy has worked, in some cases being nearly as successful as the right-wing foundations. It once was forbidden to question the nation’s war on drugs, but thanks in large part to the work of the Drug Policy Foundation–which OSI has supported with $5.5 million over three years–that orthodoxy has been challenged by state and federal judges, physicians, academics, politicians of the left and right, and even voters in Arizona and California. It’s no longer unheard of for citizens and policymakers to wonder if regulated legalization isn’t a better solution, whether marijuana shouldn’t be used for medicinal purposes or if treatment isn’t more important than interdiction.

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A handful of funders willing to place themselves on the left side of the political spectrum are having serious discussions about how best to act on Covington’s findings. But the task of replicating the conservatives’ institution-building strategy raises financial and philosophical road blocks.

“I wouldn’t like a think tank that accomplishes great things with no democratic input,” says Madeline Lee, the New York Foundation’s executive director. “A progressive vision for this country includes a great deal more citizen participation.”

New World Foundation Executive Director Colin Greer adds, “A true progressive transformation of America takes authentic messages. You can’t build a real movement for social change on lies. That doesn’t bother the right.”

At any rate, small progressive foundations, even if they all worked together, couldn’t come up with $200 million to spend on any single strategy such as think tanks because they face so many other demands. “It would have to come from something, if not organizing, then from much-needed services that are filling in gaps that allow people to live,” Greer says.

But for much less money than it would take to build a Heritage Foundation-style think tank, progressive funders could strengthen connections between community organizers and intellectuals, Greer says. Policies developed out of activist think tanks, then, would have built-in pertinence to people working on the issues.

The Nathan Cummings Foundation is funding NCRP’s outreach around the report, hoping to prompt some self-criticism in the foundation world, says Special Projects Director Jennifer McCarthy. Covington is criss-crossing the country, making presentations to foundation staffs, funder associations and private donors.

“Foundations have an opportunity to affect public policy, and we had best rise to this challenge,” explained Cummings President Charles Halpern at a recent conference in Honolulu.

Halpern says he envisions a small central institution that reaches out to both grassroots people and scholars who believe that government has an important role to play in American society. This “think tank without walls” would bring forth new ideas for the country.

“What Sally’s report gives us is a glimpse of the new model, and this is a Jaguar sports car,” Halpern added. Those whose vision of the good society differs from that of the conservatives should not try to build a better sports car. “My vote for the revolutionary design of the future is not for another Jaguar, but instead for the next generation of electric automobile, a car that is fuel-efficient, non-polluting and made of recyclable materials.”

Problem is, the electric car has yet to keep pace with the Chevy, much less the Jaguar.