Readers of The Giving Review know that we cling—perhaps even bitterly—to the quaint belief that there is a difference between charity and politics. Yes, every expert in the field of philanthropy will tell you this is ludicrously naïve. And to be sure, it can be difficult to draw a clear line between the two realms. But to us and, we suspect, to the American public, there is still a distinction to be made.
This came up in Emma Green’s interview of Sampriti Ganguli, chief executive officer of Arabella Advisors, for The Atlantic magazine earlier this month. As Green suggested in her questions, Arabella has become famous for funneling scores of millions of dollars to activist nonprofits on the left. Just one of its funds—the Sixteen Thirty Fund, the “indisputable heavyweight of Democratic dark money”—gave approximately $61 million in “effectively untraceable money to progressive causes” in 2020.
Green, clearly a person of the left, hoped to cast some light on the tension between this conspicuously political activity, for which progressives typically demand public transparency and accountability, and the cover of anonymity that Arabella nonetheless provides its progressive funders.
But, as Green notes, Ganguli “hates this narrative” of Arabella being a progressive political instrument. Rather, “she insisted to me that she runs a relatively small business-services organization that does HR, legal compliance, accounting, etc., for clients ….”
Arabella’s mission is to make philanthropy more efficient, effective, and equitable, [Ganguli] told me.
She worries that politicizing Arabella’s work will diminish its ability to improve the field of philanthropy; charitable giving is one of the last shared traditions Americans still believe in. If we lost that shared trust, she said, society would be far worse off.
Repeatedly during the interview, Ganguli dances away from the suggestion that Arabella is one of the nation’s largest sources of non-traceable funding for progressive activism. Instead, she emphasized its activities that come closer to … charity.
“For donors, we help them think about how to get food to communities, how to get protective equipment to frontline workers in the midst of a pandemic,” Ganguli noted. “The core of our business is: How do we get grants to communities as fast as we possibly can in the moments that matter?”
When Green asked her if she felt “like [her] conscience is clean” even with Arabella’s anonymous political activism, she responded:
Oh my gosh, I feel great. For the last 18 months, I have never been more inspired. We’ve sent money to independent restaurant workers who were left out of the original set of PPP loans. We got personal protective equipment to frontline workers in New York in March and April of last year. I feel really, really proud of having some part in that.
Ganguli professed to be “super surprised at the attention that Arabella Advisors gets. We’re a pretty small professional-services business. We make sure things get done on time, that the checks go where they need to go. We help donors figure out how to maximize their effectiveness.”
So here was a prime opportunity for one of America’s most powerful and politically engaged progressive organizations to explain just how foolish and naïve it is to attempt to draw a line between politics and charity. Ganguli might have had recourse to progressive philanthropy’s standard “symptoms/root causes” distinction: elite Arabella clients, she could have said, understand that charity is just putting Band-aids on problems. But the sophisticated approach—solving problems once and for all—requires that we get to their root causes. And the only way to do that is to transform the economic and social systems giving rise to the problems. Hence, charity must become politics.
Instead, Ganguli came nowhere near the “charity is politics” trope. Why? A cynic might surmise she really does believe that, but is reluctant to make the argument. She’s surely aware that the American electorate is increasingly conscious of and hostile toward progressive colonization of our major institutions, including philanthropy. She might hope that an investigation-minded, post-2022 Republican Congress will call off hot pursuit once Arabella has scuttled back over the charity/politics line—a boundary previously so obscure, but now suddenly so clear, because so convenient.
More generously, perhaps Ganguli really does believe, as Green reports, that there is still something called charity; that it involves straightforward, uncontroversial, practical and immediate efforts to meet human needs; and that in a nation badly divided, we would lose something important were we to give up this unifying belief. And that’s precisely what we do when we insist that charity is just politics by another name.
TGR welcomes Ganguli to the minuscule, unsophisticated realm of believers in the distinction between charity and politics. Now if she can only have a word with her fellow progressives, who profess to see no such difference.