4 min read

This piece by Rick Cohen of Nonprofit Quarterly is in response to Scott Walter's Philanthropy Daily piece here. -- Ed.

I’m not much for ideological sparring.  Too often, the sparring is for the occupants of ideological salons whose population is hopefully getting smaller.  The tendency of so many ideologues of the right and left is to put opponents into ideological boxes—and if they don’t fit the boxes, then just squeeze and bend and contort them until they do.  Since I generally don’t agree with the right or the left, I find both sides often trying to pretzel my thoughts into a frame that doesn’t fit very well.

Philanthropy Daily’s Scott Walter, whom I admire greatly for his excellent and erudite writing, places a somewhat ideological frame to a commentary I wrote for Nonprofit Quarterly with reflections on what had gone down at the various programs of the Alliance for Charitable Reform and the Council on Foundations in preparation for their “Foundations on the Hill” lobbying excursion to get members of Congress of both parties to protect the charitable tax deduction from legislative tinkering. 

But let’s correct a few misunderstandings—or exaggerated interpretations—of my comments that Scott seems to have stumbled through.

(1) Yes, many of the lobbyists going to Capitol Hill on behalf of the charitable deduction unfortunately carry a message that charitable giving is better than government spending message.  I think that is a problem, and Scott’s foundation allies would find it a problem if government turned to them to replace government.  Foundation money and even charitable money cannot and should not substitute for government spending.  Supplement, yes.  Substitute, no.

(2) Nowhere did I say that foundations should be docile followers of government.  I think Scott knows I didn’t, and I’ve made that clear in the past too.  While I think government should be doing more than it does, I’ve long challenged foundations to stand apart from government, to call government to account, rather than function as “docile followers.”  I’ve made that point clear repeatedly during both the Bush and Obama administrations, suggesting that foundation partnerships with government often make foundations subservient, losing their edge that they should maintain as something apart from government.  In fact, unless I’m completely mistaken, Scott is aware of my comments on this in reaction to a program held at the Hudson Institute where various foundation execs tried to slipside away from their partnerships with the Obama Administration and the possibility that those partnerships compromise or limit their abilities to stand as critics. 

(3) Regarding “discretionary decisions” of philanthropists and charitable givers in general, Scott understands I’m sure two points I’m making.  One is that as imperfect as government might be, the decision-makers in congress are elected and the President is elected.  No one elects or un-elects foundation executives for anything, there is no right of redress if the public is unhappy with their priorities or decisions. The other is that philanthropy—and the discretionary decisions of philanthropists—are uneven and don’t necessarily reach all people appropriately in need.  Just consider the geographic location of foundation assets and distribution of foundation grants.  Large swaths of the country are beyond what some might call “the philanthropic divide,” where foundation grantmaking is hardly seen.  Rural areas for example get relatively little on a per capita basis compared to their urban counterparts (Scott knows I’ve written about the philanthropic divide and about rural grantmaking).  To rely excessively on discretionary philanthropic grantmaking would leave philanthropically undercapitalized regions out in the cold.

(4) Scott and I have both worked for government, and I hope Scott knows many government staff members, as I do, who are true paragons of public service.  I find it truly distasteful when nonprofits and grantmakers disparage the staff of government agencies as somehow lesser than the people working for nonprofits and foundations.  Speaking personally, I am extraordinarily proud of the people I’ve worked with in government, I’d stack them up against anyone anywhere as people just as dedicated to community and societal benefit as people working for nonprofits and foundations.  When nonprofits or, even worse, foundations slide into disparaging public servants, it is a “doctor, heal thyself” moment to be sure. 

(5) The note about Diane Ravitch’s thought that the big funders have purchased the Department of Education captures several of these points.  No one elected Gates or Broad or other funders to shape and direct government programs (think of their role in providing funding to state governments that led to winners and losers in the Race to the Top competition).  No one can expect funders not to lead government by their provision of funding to favor certain areas and not others (think of the “fly-over states” that seemed to be missing in the Social Innovation Fund grants, which were heavily dependent on foundation dollars).  Foundations funding nonprofits to engage government and advocate for this policy or that?  Fine.  Foundations serving as insiders shaping and directing government programs due to the money they can put on the table for implementation, not so fine.  And when foundations are on the inside of governmental programs such as RTTT and SIF, they are unlikely to be able to then function as (or support) critics who would ask why some states, some regions, and some populations were left on the program sidelines. 

I cannot speak for Ravitch, but what I would hope she would—and government would—ask of foundations is to build and strengthen grassroots nonprofits, help them build the infrastructure they need to more effectively represent the priorities and voices of the people and communities they serve.  If government got foundations to put more of their capital into grassroots organizations and build their capacities for democratic engagement, government and democracy would be strengthened.

Despite all of Scott’s attempts to put me into a box that sits opposite the ideological vault he has carefully constructed for his own ideas, I think I know that there’s something that both Scott and I believe in together.  We both believe in grassroots democracy, in everyday American men and women possessing the power and instruments to express their thoughts and beliefs, and exercising their rights in democratic government to organize, advocate, lead, and serve.  They ought to be able to exercise those powers in democratic form of government.  Foundations, which by definition are less democratic, to put it mildly, should be as attentive as possible to contributing to a strengthened democracy and responsive, effective government.  That doesn’t mean acquiescing to government, a concept that I never suggested at all, anywhere, ever, and that doesn’t mean buying insider roles to dictate to government as partners.  It should mean providing the resources to grassroots nonprofits to be stronger, better participants in the democratic process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *