News and analysis
February 13, 2013

Philanthropy Must Do More to Influence Policy, Say Government Officials

Philanthropy needs to step up its efforts to influence policy if it expects to produce big changes on pressing issues like poverty, criminal justice, health care, the environment, and education, government officials told an audience of grant makers, nonprofit leaders, and scholars this week at an event on philanthropy and politics.

Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, said foundations have an important role to play in “transformational politics”—namely, gradually changing the way citizens view social issues and opening their minds to better public policies.

But Mr. Schneiderman, a Democrat, said conservative donors have been more successful than liberals at this sort of long-term giving. Through their decades-long support of think tanks and other nonprofits, right-leaning donors have shaped how many Americans view government, taxes, and criminal justice, he said.

“Some of us who see progress as leading in a different direction have to make some choices of whether we’re going to” focus on short-term, “transactional giving” or commit to providing that long-term support, he told attendees at “Money and Power in Post-Election America: Where Is Philanthropy?” which was hosted by New York University, Duke University, and Philanthropy New York.

Donna Edwards, a Maryland congresswoman and former executive director of the Arca Foundation, said philanthropy may be producing less of an impact on political issues than it realizes.

“When I was in philanthropy, I had the viewpoint that what we were funding had much more of an impact in public policy making and with lawmakers than I’ve since found out,” she said.

Part of the problem, said Ms. Edwards, is that foundation-financed studies on social problems often don’t make it into the hands of legislators. Foundations should consider helping grantees pay the salaries of people who can meet with government leaders and educate them about their group’s work. (See The Chronicle’s profile of Ms. Edwards.)

“There’s nothing in the tax code that prohibits making sure the research you’re supporting gets in front of people who can actually use it,” she said.

Support for Advocacy

Some progressive nonprofit leaders also spoke critically of philanthropy’s reluctance to finance advocacy groups.

Ana Garcia-Ashley, executive director of Gamaliel, a network of community organizers, said she’s tired of hearing from foundations that want her to extract the “organizing language”—words like “demand” and “empowerment”—from grant applications.

“You are tension and conflict averse,” she said of foundations. “And I don’t see how you can change society if you’re tension and conflict averse.”

Influence of Wealth

Foundations that do become involved in policy issues risk drawing scrutiny to themselves—and often that scrutiny is justified, speakers said.

Stanley Katz, director of the Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, described politics as philanthropy’s “third rail”: “You can’t get done what you want to get done without it, but at the same time getting too close risks electrocution.”

He said philanthropies like the Rockefeller Foundation have been involved in efforts to shape policy on education and other causes since soon after they were founded. But today, government is much larger than it was in the early 20th century, and it already provides many of the sorts of services for which those foundations were agitating.

Meanwhile, the notion that rich people, simply by virtue of being wealthy, can influence policies that affect the lives of others doesn’t jibe with many people’s understanding of democracy, said Mr. Katz and others. Wealthy philanthropists need to exercise responsibility when they tackle political issues, speakers said.

“Just because you have a lot of money doesn’t mean your idea is great,” said Ms. Edwards. “There can be a tendency to think that just because you have money and can drive it, you should be the one to determine a policy outcome.”

William Schambra, a Chronicle columnist and director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute, a right-leaning think tank, warned against the increased politicization of foundations and nonprofits and their march "ever closer to the line of electoral engagement."

He said that many nonprofit leaders who tend to decry the politically-hued philanthropy of conservative donors like Charles and David Koch don't seem to recognize that the giving of wealthy liberals can raise similar concerns. 

Measurement Isn’t Everything

At a dinner event on Monday, three prominent donors spoke about their approaches to giving, reminding the audience of how deeply personal philanthropy is.

Abigail Disney, who supports community-based groups in New York and documentary filmmaking, among other causes, warned donors against allowing their focus on metrics and measurement to prevent them from supporting nonprofit leaders who are tackling society’s most intractable issues.

“I wonder if Martin Luther King Jr. showed up at my door today, if any of us would fund him,” she said. “I think we would have kicked him to the curb in such a hurry.”

Jonathan Soros, who serves as a trustee of his father’s Open Society Foundations and recently started a Super PAC to combat the influence of money in politics, said donors are increasingly agnostic about what types of institutions they support, with more people backing for-profit models of social change along with political organizations.

David Rubenstein, who describes his support of organizations like the Kennedy Center and Washington Monument as “patriotic giving,” said he doesn’t back intractable policy issues like the influence of money in politics because he wants to see change in his lifetime. Now in his 60s, “I don’t think I’m going to live to see it.”

Global Giving

Ms. Disney said donors shouldn’t limit themselves to issues they can influence during their lifetimes.

“I’m working on the Susan B. Anthony model of social change,” she said. “She never lived to see the model of change she sought.”

Mr. Rubenstein also described the growth of philanthropy abroad. He said that rich people from growing economies like Brazil and India will soon start providing grants in the United States, along the same lines as Bill Gates and other donors have tackled social and health issues in other countries.

“A lot of philanthropists around the world who were educated in the United States might now want to help the U.S. for political reasons and for personal reasons,” he said.

Ms. Disney agreed, saying that sort of giving—like Venezuela’s donations of heating oil to low-income Americans—makes people uncomfortable because it reminds them how they’re failing to alleviate their own problems. And donors who give abroad should keep in mind how their giving could be perceived similarly.

“We do have a long history of doing philanthropy in a way that’s not terribly respectful of people’s dignity,” she said.