April 07, 2015

Indiana’s Lessons for Philanthropy: Timing and Agility Matter

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

People from all corners of society joined the conversation about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics said could be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

As Christians were celebrating Holy Week around the globe, the course of American history for gay and lesbian Americans was unfolding in Indiana.

Passage of a religious-protection law in Indiana sparked a national conversation on the place of LGBT people in our society. That conversation went to the heart of our most basic access to the services and accommodations of everyday life and the issues that all of us in philanthropy care about deeply.

Long-simmering questions about religion as a justification for discrimination came to a full boil in newspapers, on television, and via social media. Voices from nearly all corners of society — business, labor, religion, academia, athletics, government, even comedy — took center stage for this defining exchange about our core values as a nation:

  • Labor unions and religious denominations spoke with their dollars, canceling conferences scheduled to take place in Indiana.
  • Athletic leaders and entire programs issued unprecedented statements challenging anti-LGBT discrimination.
  • Political figures at all levels of government lined up on both sides of the argument. Governors enacted bans on travel to Indiana. Prospective presidential candidates tweeted and issued statements for and against the controversial law.
  • Think tanks went into high gear. The Heritage Foundation railed against "liberal attacks" on Indiana’s religious freedom, deploying their biggest guns like Edwin Meese III to talk on broadcast television and elsewhere.

But it was the way our nation’s businesses weighed in that was perhaps most remarkable. And it’s where people in philanthropy can perhaps learn most about effective civic engagement.

Scores of the leading titans of commerce put economic pressure on Indiana, calling attention to the threat to their employees and customers and to the concern about the climate for doing business.

That makes sense because the primary purpose of these corporations is to make money, not to advance ideals such as human rights, dignity, equal access, and risk-taking for the sake of justice. But those are essential missions for foundations, and shouldn’t we rush in where corporations fear to tread?

In answering this question, foundations have many issues to consider:

First, we are grant makers. The argument could be made we should never stray from our standard course of business — making grants to others without engaging directly. But Apple’s standard course of business is making smartphones, and that didn’t stop its CEO, Tim Cook, from speaking forcefully about his views and the values of his company. And in the case of foundations, there are times when we might complement the work of grantees by adding an ability to mobilize resources quickly, use the bully pulpit, and speak up as concerned institutional investors.

Second, foundations often worry about overstepping limitations related to our tax status. But the legal limits on lobbying and partisan and political activities do not prohibit foundations from exercising our free speech about a policy like Indiana’s, which was already signed into law and affecting the freedoms, rights, and liberties of millions of others. Denouncing a law in an op-ed is different than playing a direct role in the political or legislative process. Using a foundation’s website and social-media platform to comment on the issues of the day can help mobilize a foundation constituency to take a stand. Gathering grantees to discuss the equity and social-justice implications of religious-freedom laws like Indiana’s helps build their capacity to engage and mobilize people to act.

Finally, there is the issue of timing. Historic moments like Indiana’s tend to burst suddenly into the national narrative. Philanthropic organizations are often better designed for contributing to long-term societal evolution rather than what may appear to be temporary distractions. But it is also important for us to distinguish the many temporary distractions out there from the rare catalytic opportunity where timing and agility are of the essence. Sometimes a lightning strike can do more than a methodical strategic plan.

In the case of Indiana, business leaders and other sectors of society recognized and seized the moment. The change that resulted in Indiana is already showing signs of creating long-lasting and far-reaching effects. We may never again see an anti-gay law enacted with very much ease in America.

It also represents a chance for us to learn something about the way that in the 21st century, history happens in real time.

Robert Ross is chief executive of the California Endowment.