THE BLOG

Large Foundations: Rethink Your Priorities

02/09/2015 05:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

The number of large foundations has been consistently increasing. Some of these foundations are bulging with billions of dollars in assets that could be contributed to nonprofit "good works." It is potentially the golden age of philanthropy, but unfortunately many areas of recognized need are too often ignored by foundation boards and their executives. Organizations with track records of effective advocacy and accomplishment stand ready to take on neglected problems of our society. Unfortunately, these groups lack adequate foundation support.

When foundations do donate to important areas, such as energy policy, they often award grants to the same organizations that are not original, motivating or making necessary waves. Year after year, these bland organizations are seen as the "safe choice" for donors who are timid about new ideas and groundbreaking approaches. Cushy relationships, as has been demonstrated in the energy/environmental field, often amount to an annuity of contributions for lackluster studies and reports from the same old recipients futilely running over the same old ground.

What author and philanthropist Peter Buffett called, in a widely discussed op-ed in the July 26, 2013, New York Times, the "charitable-industrial complex" is in need of serious introspection. Is it just treading water or, in Buffett's words, immersed in "a crisis of imagination" and not putting "foundation dollars on the best 'risk capital' out there"?

After decades of observing effective groups with untapped potential suffering from a dearth of funding, I can point to 15 specific missed opportunities by indifferent foundations. Even funders who acknowledge the importance of the problems these groups are grappling with almost always reply to funding requests by saying the proposals "do not fit within our guidelines."

I say "almost always" because there were a number of pioneering moves by large foundations that serve as compelling contrasting examples. About forty-five years ago, Ford Foundation funded the startup of public interest law firms. Little more than a decade ago, the Rockefeller Foundation, followed by Ford and MacArthur Foundations, funded controversial NGO efforts, already underway, to break monopolies for pharmaceutical drug treatments for HIV/AIDS, which lowered prices from more than $30 per day to less than a dollar per day, leading to the inclusion of nearly 10 million persons in treatment from developing countries.

Here is my short list of areas where funding is needed but lacking:

1. The area of pension rights and the shredding of pension assets by Wall Street machinations involves trillions of dollars and receives miniscule support from foundations (http://www.pensionrights.org/).

2. Pressing for action regarding corporate governance, corporate welfare, and corporate crime, fraud and abuse is largely underfunded. Years ago, a study by Archibald Gillies found less than 5 percent of foundation donations go to nonprofit groups working in this massive arena.

3. Over $500 billion a year is spent on all federal government purchasing of goods and services from corporations, including weapons systems, health care, energy, paper and more. In 1988 we hosted "The Stimulation Effect: A National Conference on the Uses of Government Procurement Leverage to Benefit Taxpayers and Consumers." This successful symposium dealt with one aspect of this largely ignored subject.

4. Freedom of Information advocacy and litigation receives a pittance but should be an easy grant focus. Information is the currency of democracy. Past and present advocacy has proven to be extremely cost-beneficial. Foundations that want to reduce chronic government secrecy should take a close look here.

5. Racial redlining is the practice whereby mortgage lenders figuratively draw a red line around minority neighborhoods and refuse to make mortgage loans available there. Mortgage and insurance redlining leads to the deterioration of communities. In 1993 we produced original GIS maps with detailed data on financial institutions that were redlining minority neighborhoods in cities all over the country, yet our researcher, John Brown, could barely scrape together financial support from foundations ostensibly committed to confronting racial discrimination and related poverty.

6. Auto, railroad, aviation and bus safety are terra incognita for foundation grantmakers who undoubtedly use these forms of transportation. One aviation safety group of long-proven merit, the Aviation Consumer Action Project, had to close down, while another, the Center for Auto Safety, has worked wonders but on a tiny budget. Furthermore, advocacy groups for railroad and bus safety are rarely seen in Washington, D.C.

7. The indifference to occupational health and safety is astonishing. Foundations may think labor unions should be bearing the load in this field. Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO has very few people monitoring the weak Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Protecting worker health and safety would be a good project for a consortium of foundations to fund. Imagine -- advocacy organizations focused on the companies that produce mayhem on workers. There are over 54,000 workplace-related fatalities each year. The number of injuries and illnesses is much greater.

8. Hospital-acquired infections take over 200 lives a day in the U.S.! Only recently have some foundations shown an interest in funding civic associations that work on this largely preventable tragedy.

9. Legendary foundation critic Pablo Eisenberg makes a strong case that these tax-exempt institutions should be doing far more about poverty in America (see "Helping the Poor Is No Longer a Priority for Today's Nonprofits").

10. Advocacy for tax reform is much-needed considering there are hundreds of billions of avoided and evaded tax dollars every year. You can count the number of national citizen tax reform groups on one hand. This is another of the "starvation fields" for worthy groups suffering from foundation indifference. (See what one group -- Citizens for Tax Justice -- has done.)

11. Wars can often be prevented. The Iraq invasion might not have occurred if a well-staffed secretariat had been funded to organize retired prominent military, security and diplomatic officials who had openly opposed that reckless war of choice. Requests for funding for such an initiative in 2002-03 prior to the unlawful Iraq War were ignored.

12. Some foundations avidly favor civic engagement. What better illustrates civic engagement than the hundreds of little local groups training themselves to successfully fight toxic environments facilitated by Love Canal activist turned national leader Lois Gibbs? Lois Gibbs is now the director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice and has had to lay off workers because of insufficient foundation grant support.

13. Encouraging consumer cooperatives, as does the National Association of Student Cooperatives (NASCO), should be an easy one for foundation support. This organization does many things right on college campuses and provides materials on the advantages of co-ops.

14. Organizing alumni classes to advocate for justice has been pioneered by Princeton University's class of 1955 and the Harvard Law School class of 1958. The motivating affinity group known as the alumni class -- out over 35 years -- is an exciting model foundations should eagerly support, yet funding to stimulate such groups has received very little foundation support in the last 25 years.

15. The tumultuous technologies known as genetic engineering and nanotechnology receive less annual civic funding for ethical and safety monitoring than the annual salaries of one giant foundation's executive suite. There are only three small national civic groups with a focus on questioning genetic engineering, and fewer focused on the invisible nanotech industry. Nanotech and genetic engineering research has been heavily funded by taxpayers, but holding government and corporate researchers accountable is almost impossible because of a lack of funding.

Consider the beneficial impact when foundation funding enabled, starting in the early '70s, new environmental groups to perform their historic work, or the significance of foundation funding for the "real news" of independent media. More creative and bold philanthropy is needed across the spectrum of our faltering democracy; more foundations need to be interested in the justice of prevention.

Remember, increased justice lessens the need for charity. It's time for an introspective symposium.