Opinion
October 17, 2013

Foundations Should Work to Fix a Broken Washington

The stunning display of our government’s dysfunction hardly ended when lawmakers last night approved a deal to open the government and allow the nation to pay its debts. And that leaves the question: What can be done to persuade lawmakers that it’s their duty to govern responsibly?

Robert Gallucci, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, suggests in an eloquent op-ed for this newspaper that foundations must step up to help make the case. It’s time, Mr. Gallucci argues, for foundations to do more to help create a “political system that is credible, transparent, and responsive to the needs of ordinary people.”

Will foundations accept Mr. Gallucci’s challenge?

The answer will vary in part on the basis of different perspectives on the appropriate role of philanthropy.

My sense is that much of the discussion of the respective roles of government, business, and philanthropy and nonprofits falls into one of two overly simplistic camps.

There are what I would call the “separatists,” who seem to see each sector as its own island, able to operate without the others. And then there are the “boundary-deniers,” who believe that boundaries between sectors are meaningless, artificial, and dissolving quickly.

Both camps have it wrong. Each part of society has a unique and distinctive role—the boundaries do matter—yet the health of each is inextricably linked to the health of the others.

As Mr. Gallucci points out, “when the policy environment is dysfunctional, our grant making loses value—we get less from our money. The problems we care about are large in scale and cannot be fully addressed without supportive public policy.”

Mr. Gallucci’s foundation CEO colleagues seem to agree.

In a survey of foundation leaders we at the Center for Effective Philanthropy conducted this year, the “current government policy environment” was essentially tied with the economic climate as the most frequently cited barrier to a foundation’s ability to make progress toward the goal to which it is devoting the most resources. (More than three-quarters described it as a barrier.)

In our report on that survey, which will be published in the coming weeks, we note the deep concern expressed by foundation leaders who responded to our survey—which was completed well before this fall’s shutdown and latest installment in the debt-ceiling soap opera.

Whether and how foundations should enter the fray of federal policy has been a subject of controversy in this country for the better part of a century.

In his Philanthropy in America: A History, Olivier Zunz documents how the earliest American mega-philanthropists sought to influence policy, noting that “philanthropists have invested their resources in the greater American fight over the definition of the common good. They have taken all sides in all the partisan encounters that have divided our society and have strategically intervened in essential debates on citizenship, opportunity, and rights.”

Mr. Zunz argues that such efforts have “enlarged democracy.”

But not all agree. The effort to influence policy by foundations has also encountered pushback from both the right and the left.

Recently critics such as the education historian and author Diane Ravitch have railed against what they see as the anti-democratic influence of large foundations such as Gates, Dell, and Broad, which Ms. Ravitch dubs the “billionaire boys club.”

“They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state,” Ms. Ravitch writes in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. “If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office.” Ms. Ravitch calls these foundations “bastions of unaccountable power.”

But whatever your take on the work of the foundations she cites, I’d argue that our country has often been well served by foundations making a foray into policy.

Many of the best examples of foundations making a real, positive difference have had a significant element of policy advocacy. Think about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s work to deter tobacco use and the efforts by the Gill and Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. foundations on gay rights.

Indeed, judging by the discussion at a recent meeting of philanthropy wonks I attended, many feel foundations are doing far too little in terms of policy advocacy—perhaps deterred by misunderstandings of what the law allows (or overly conservative legal counsel). 

Whatever we think of whether and how foundations should weigh in on particular policy issues, I would hope we could all agree that the larger cause of moving toward a higher-functioning democracy is one in which foundations could play a welcome role.

Indeed, foundations may be in a unique position to help generate some momentum for real change. Yes, there will be ideological differences about the particulars of what that means, but I hope there will be consensus about the need to elevate the voice of ordinary citizens of all political stripes.

On this front, I draw hope from the incipient project described by Stephen Heintz, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Diana Aviv, head of Independent Sector, at her organization’s conference last month.

Mr. Heintz announced a National Purpose Initiative designed to create a “sustained, organized, and inclusive national conversation about the kind of country America wants to be; the goals we must reach if we are to fulfill that vision; and the shared values that could enable us to work toward those goals.”

He envisions a process that engages “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans online and face-to-face” to create a “broadly shared agenda of national priorities, a statement of shared principles to guide our nation’s politics and economic life, and an emerging vision for America’s future that is animating, unifying, and empowering.”

At some level, Mr. Heintz’s vision seems almost preposterously optimistic.

But paradoxically the depths to which Washington has slid may make such a bold endeavor particularly well timed and more likely to generate the wide support it would need to succeed.

Increasingly, there seems to be bipartisan agreement that Washington is broken and isn’t serving the interests of its citizens.

Similarly, there seems to be a growing consensus about the disparity in opportunity that exists in this country.

That consensus has been promoted by an important effort that feels in many ways complementary to the National Purpose Initiative: Opportunity Nation, which seeks to develop “the first truly shared plan to restore opportunity in America.” I hope it, too, gains more traction and support.

I am not arguing that every foundation should make grants to reform our national democracy. (After all, many have a regional focus, which I understand and respect.)

But for foundations to achieve meaningful progress in reaching their goals, we’ll need a government and a democracy that function at much higher levels. Foundations should support the effort to make that a reality.

Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Some of the foundations mentioned in this article support his organization.