11/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Philanthropy Turns Away from Aggressive Advocacy for the Poor

As my friend Pablo Eisenberg, Senior Fellow at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute, wrote in a recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Senate Democrats' recent passage of a measure to deny all federal funding to Acorn, the nation's leading community organizing organization, strikes me as pandering to the right wing. Low-level employees caught by Fox News giving improper and potentially illegal advice have been used as a pretext to attack the entire organization.

It comes as part of a systematic attempt to muzzle grass-roots organizing of poor and marginalized communities. It includes the attacks on legal aid and riders to countless federal grants, which specifically prohibit nonpartisan voter registration.

What makes the Senate action particularly egregious is the fact that the United States Supreme Court, in Citizens' United vs. Federal Election Commission, is seriously considering doing away with restrictions on corporations and unions giving unlimited funds to political campaigns based on free speech protections.

This, combined with numerous candidates avoiding campaign spending limits -- New York's mayor is estimated to be spending nearly $100 million on his own bid for reelection -- and the current meltdown in the news media with newspapers serving communities large and small collapsing and many of those that remain serving an overtly anti-poor agenda, endangers the future of a democratic society where the working poor can at least have some leverage at the ballot box.

In the past, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, major foundations led the way in terms of helping those representing marginalized groups with the wherewithal to take on entrenched power, from civil rights, to school reform, to voter registration, to community redevelopment. Foundations like Ford and dozens of others provided money and the intellectual capital that played such a vital role in transforming a racist and sexist society of the '50s into a country that was able to elect a black man as president in 2008.

But the energy that helped propel the monumental social changes of the past decades seems to be spent among the major foundations of today. In a report we commissioned earlier this year, "Dimensions of Racial Equity in Foundation Grantmaking" by CSS Senior Fellow Rick Cohen, the scale of how far foundation giving has fallen is evident. Grants to communities of color continue to fall, representation of minorities on boards and staffs have fallen below that of Fortune 500 companies, and even when grants are made to minority communities, they tend to avoid all controversy, particularly grants for community organizing and empowerment.

This, of course, isn't entirely a question of racism. Increasingly, the divide between foundation boards and staff and issues of the poor of all colors is about class and lack of a shared vision of the nation. I'm old enough to remember sitting with staff and board members who still felt some sense of shared understanding of poverty either because they or their parents lived through the Great Depression.

Now it's all too common to sit through meetings with people who have no conception whatsoever about poverty, its causes and what can help to alleviate it. I've sat through a meeting of a foundation board, where nonpartisan voter registration or education was viewed as much too radical. I participated in an almost surreal discussion at a major cultural institution where a majority of the trustees wanted to create a special fund to ensure that private school students would come to their facilities. This disconnect seems to be widening by the day, as more and more leaders and board members on foundations and charities are all part of the same social class, no matter what their racial background.

I don't want to take this too far, but I see this as part of a much bigger problem in post-Obama America, where class issues are beginning to become the new wedge issue, supplanting race. As the recession and its aftermath grind on, millions of Americans of all races without a good education and social connections are being left behind. Providing a vision about how to give people who work hard but don't have the knowledge skills necessary to achieve a living wage is going to be vital for keeping this nation from flying apart ideologically.

If any institution should be charting these waters, it is philanthropy. Yet, at the moment, it seems to be virtually oblivious to what's going on in terms of the growing rage of Americans of all races who see themselves as road kill in a very tough global economy.