Philanthropy looks like it’s under attack from all sides these days. Bill De Blasio, soon-to-be elected mayor of New York City, is threatening to take 20% off the top of the Central Park Conservancy’s donations and redistribute it to other parks in the city. Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, has pressured private charities in the state to give more money to Hurricane Sandy victims.
As if it weren’t bad enough that officials at various levels of government are trying to pull the levers at various charities, now those same charities are coming under criticism for daring to pick up the slack where government has failed. The Chronicle of Philanthropy this week gives space to Joanne Barkan, author of Plutocrats at Work: How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy.
She criticizes foundations like Broad and Walton for giving money to education reform causes, particularly helping the “parent trigger” law in California get off the ground. Of course, the only reason that these foundations have had to get into the fight at all is that the deck is stacked against parents and students by the hundreds of millions of dollars that teachers unions spend each year ensuring that their stranglehold on public education stays strong.
But wait, it gets worse. As if it were not bad enough that philanthropy is intervening in our democratic process on behalf of poor kids getting subpar educations, wait til you hear what they’re doing to veterans’ families. The Chronicle also gives space this week to Beth Gazley a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, who complains that during the government shutdown private philanthropies stepped in to pay survivor benefits to military families and to fund Head Start programs for underprivileged kids.
“Their gifts, no matter how well intentioned and generous, send the wrong signal to lawmakers. They also pose dangers to our democracy because they allow wealthy individuals, rather than voters and legislators, to decide what public programs deserve help.” Gazley complains that private philanthropy has stepped in at all levels to aid cash-strapped governments. She complains about park conservancies and “friends of the library” programs. (Maybe we know democracy is safe when its biggest threat comes from friends of the library.)
At any rate, Gazley has this all backwards. America was made great by contributions of time and money from private citizens who formed voluntary organizations and charities—not because we had a government that promised to take care of everyone. Maybe if government gets the idea that private philanthropy can take care of many of our problems better and more efficiently than the public sector, legislators will start to scale back. Which would go a long way toward strengthening our democracy.