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Charitable Foundations, the Tea Party and Power

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If one thing is clear from the tea party movement, it is that the power of democratic engagement can have a more profound impact on the causes that grantmaking foundations and charities care about than all of their prized innovations and scaled-up programs. Yet, too many foundations seem to think that it's impolite or anachronistic to talk about power.

They are wrong -- and more and more, it's all about populist, not elite, power.

Although foundations talk of being "more impactful" than their current practices allow, they try little beyond efforts to become more effective at what they already do. Rarely does any truly fresh approach to grantmaking get serious consideration. Yet, unless funders change their strategies, the causes they care about will suffer profound setbacks from the tea party and its allies.

We know that there are two basic sources of power in our society. The fully legitimate one is to participate directly in democratic political processes. The less legitimate one is money and the control that it buys, the ability to influence those political processes through campaign contributions and other means.

Since charities and foundations are prohibited from partisan political spending, they are limited to strengthening democratic participation. Very few grantmakers, however, even consider this realm because they don't think about power itself.

Yet, if foundations truly care about the common good, they must invest in building powerful new popular movements. Leaving the field to the tea party and other conservatives assailing government is an abdication of charitable responsibility.

Most of the troubles America faces, and foundations try to address, reflect failures of government to adequately moderate the forces that create and perpetuate to problems or provide and support solutions.

Markets and corporations need effective regulation as safeguards for citizens and the planet, as well as for the orderly conduct of business. Institutions need leadership, accountability, and resources to perform well in the public interest. And dysfunctional and greedy individuals need to be encouraged and helped to behave better, and sanctioned when they don't. Government is critical in each of these realms.

Still, the arguments for smaller, cheaper, and weaker government are, at least in part, a response to the perceived inadequacy of its efforts to provide effective protections and to offer efficient programs and services.

While tea partiers and Republicans hold ideologies that are "anti-government" and contend that laws, regulations, programs, and taxes have overstepped acceptable limits, the majority of Americans still want better safeguards and services; many are even willing to pay higher taxes to make sure they're available.

Yet, the tea party movement is dictating political direction about the role and function of government. From the federal level down to localities, momentum is shifting away from safeguards and services on all issues of concern to foundations. The list is extreme:

  • Retreats from environmental protection even before the Gulf Coast has rebounded and while climate change and its associated disasters, including those spawned by our weather, grow worse;
  • Declining responsibility for providing even desperately needed help for those living with physical and mental disabilities - people have already died because of new cuts in health services;
  • Cuts in education even as the US slips to eighth lowest high school graduation rate and to fifteenth in college graduation among industrialized nations;
  • Zeroing out supports for arts and culture while we see institutions go dark in front of us;
  • Curtailing housing supports with a still growing crisis in foreclosures;
  • And on and on in each and every area of charitable activity.

Some of this retrenchment is clearly a function of government deficits, which are real and compelling. However, while tax-cutting was the tea party and Republican priority, there was no mention of deficit concerns. Just the portion of the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans alone will cost $680 billion if continued for a full ten-year cycle, and that's not even counting over an additional $19 billion in just two years from the Estate Tax give-away to the super-super wealthiest, the top .25 of 1%.

This extraordinary preference for the richest elites over government and the rest of us follows the "starve the beast" strategy conservatives have long advocated, exacerbating the deficit and driving arbitrary and ill-considered cuts in government programs and services. Ideologues even try to justify assaults on workers' rights and labor unions in the same breath as budget slashing. And they now have the power to move their agenda.

Rolling back consumer, environmental and worker protections, as advocated by the tea party and other Republicans not only compounds problems facing foundations, but also costs money over the long term and adds to the deficit -- such as:

  • Our financial crisis is the consequence of prior deregulation of banks and Wall Street; those costs to the Treasury and to individual Americans have been huge.
  • Poor regulation allowed the BP disaster and inadequate air and water quality protections yield damages costing great sums for correction.
  • Occupational safety rules save millions of dollars in medical and related costs, as well as people's lives -- as do regulations about food, drugs, nursery furniture, cars and myriad other consumer products.

Foundations, which provide less than 2 percent of charities' revenue, cannot possibly generate sufficient private resources to make up for this diminishing government role and the very real hardships it is creating in all areas of nonprofit concern. And foundations' search for ways to achieve a greater impact will continue to fail unless they grapple with questions of power in our society.

Rich conservatives like the Koch brothers, those at the Sarah Scaife Foundation and many others poured money into efforts to build the tea party movement. In funding citizen engagement work by local residents, state activists, and national leaders, and by using media outlets they control (as well as electoral campaign contributions from many of those same donors), some of the wealthy have helped build this movement into an important political force in our democracy.

The antigovernment ideology advanced by those donors and activists holds profound negative consequence for the rest of organized philanthropy and the causes it supports. But few foundations have come to a recognition that they ought to support a counterbalancing power, one that truly serves aggregated nonprofit concerns. That's not unusual for grant makers.

Only about 1% of foundation funding has flowed to social movements, and very few of those meager dollars make it to direct organizing work. Foundations haven't concerned themselves with popular movements, and but few more have supported civic engagement work. It has long been time for that to change.

Government approaches to the problems that confront us as a nation, those which frame both the missions and operating contexts for charities, are not based on technical policy arguments about the best solutions for each. Rather, they reflect decisions by those with political power and the interests they serve.

Foundations need to recognize this reality and to invest in helping people build power if they expect to maintain or influence government action on the issues that matter to them.

Clearly, the tea party is one such movement, and it represents the beliefs of a significant portion of our populace. Although still very much a minority in numbers, they are exercising out-sized sway because grantmakers have failed to help organize and give equivalent voice to others.

While electoral politics appropriately remains a forbidden zone for charities and foundations, they can do almost anything they want to encourage robust civic participation and to develop important social movements. Such efforts are fully legitimate and absolutely necessary in service to the common good.

About 90 million people are directly involved as staff and volunteers in nonprofit organizations across the nation, not to mention the multitudes who donate to them and who use their services. These people care about a universe of problems and causes that will be made worse by the draconian diminution of government now being pushed on all of us. Activated around their issues of immediate concern, they can bring new power to the public arena.

But that will not happen unless foundations undertake a new kind of grantmaking, one that goes beyond funding services and is aimed explicitly at building power in support of a government committed to and capable of action on the myriad problems that confront us -- including rational and humane approaches to deficit reduction.

This requires direct organizing, as well as efforts to educate the public about government programs and safeguards that affect them.

We need significant investment by foundations in projects that mobilize the grassroots. To support such movement-building, we also need additional funding for public policy work, and for advocacy, mass-media, and social networking campaigns. (For individual donors, The New Majority Fund, at the New World Foundation, is a vehicle to do such work.)

Foundations are said to fear controversy; grantmaking designed to increase democratic participation by people who care about governments' ability to solve problems is will draw criticism from tea partyers. So what?

Given the challenges that confront our nation today, we need organized philanthropy to act courageously and wisely in asserting public leadership. Foundations, if honest and true to their missions, must take ambitious steps to build a vital social movement pushing for a more effective and active government.

Mark Rosenman, a long time nonprofit sector activist and scholar, directs Caring to Change, an effort in Washington that seeks to promote foundation grantmaking for the common good. A version of this piece also appears in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.