10/31/2013 02:29 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Philanthropy Avoiding Power

In a way, foundations are partially responsible for the current and continuing dysfunction in Congress. After all, conservative foundations helped build the tea party movement and are still supporting it and like-minded organizations. Reasons for assigning some blame to the rest of philanthropy are less obvious -- it's mostly about what hasn't been done.

Following Republicans' shutdown of government and their incredibly destructive and economically costly brinksmanship on the debt ceiling, important leaders in the foundation world have called for a greater philanthropic role in healing democracy and fixing a broken Washington, and for developing an immediate action plan to those ends. They note, as have many others, that the myriad issues of concern to foundations, all the various missions of nonprofit organizations, are powerfully affected by the actions and funding of government.

They point out that given the nature of US politics, moneyed private interests continue to trump philanthropy's concern for the public interest when it comes to policy decisions. There is even a nascent recognition that our nation's growing economic inequality - which some would argue itself reflects public policies and political will - may influence our democratic system.

A survey soon to be released by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that a vast majority of surveyed foundation leaders see the "current government policy environment" as a highly significant barrier to realizing the purposes of their grant-making. And those opinions were gathered before the recent weeks of querulous minority tyranny.

The call being issued is for foundations to do more to reform and improve upon the electoral process, including campaign finance, to increase civic education and participation, and to promote greater transparency and accountability in politics and government, as well as to advance bipartisan collaboration among elected officials. Foundations are urged to support more policy advocacy in and beyond their program areas, and to help ordinary citizens have their voices heard.

All of that is wonderful, very much needed, and horribly overdue. Others, including this writer, have long called on foundations to do that and much more. And most of organized philanthropy has stubbornly and adroitly avoided those calls. Why? Perhaps it's a reflection of what's missing from the current post-debacle discussion.

I'm talking about power. It's not polite in some circles, and it's uncomfortable in many others, to talk about power. This is especially the case when some people in the room have it and others don't. It is exactly the failure of much of organized philanthropy to engage the conversation that has helped get our society, and our government, our very democracy itself, into its current fix.

What hasn't been done is to acknowledge and act on that fact, to use such a conversation to help guide grant-making in service to the broader public interest and the common good. At least it hasn't been done outside of a small cadre of right-wing funders and their contestable views.

As the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy's Sally Covington researched and reported in 1997, conservative strategists had directed three decades of such conversation to "an extraordinary effort to reshape politics and public policy priorities at the national, state and local level." That unabashedly political initiative - very much modeled on a battle plan proposed to the US Chamber of Commerce by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell in 1971.

It set the funding patterns of about a dozen foundations (such as Scaife, Bradley and Olin) working to shrink the size and authority of government, to roll back regulations and public safeguards, and to cut public spending, especially for the neediest among us. Their single-minded objective was to extend the number and power of extreme conservatives. And as we know today, they were successful.

Their grant-making was guided by a commitment to strengthen and sustain a coordinated network of conservative organizations and institutions, trusting program decisions to them; to develop conservative and increasingly-extreme public policy while using marketing, media and other communications vehicles to build public support for it; to identify and appropriately orient, educate, and train existing and new conservative leaders; and to organize and fuel local and regional groups, as well as national entities, to advance their agenda. Over the long-haul, that is a formula to expand and exercise power.

So, if all that has been going on, why claim that foundations should be blamed for what hasn't been done?

It's because only a very small fraction of foundations have been clear and strategic about power and most of those are more aligned with the tea party rather than with the American mainstream or left.

There has been no true counterpart or parallel strategic vision among foundations concerned with centrist, liberal or progressive visions. There has been no similar clarity about a common agenda or even an acknowledgement of the need to build one and to develop the power to advance it.

Our current crisis in democracy is the fruit of the philanthropically-uncontested conservative strategy. It's one through which conservatives have grown to outnumber moderates and liberals. While the tea party has lost support since the recent crisis, over 30% of the populace continues to regard them favorably. Perhaps more telling, denying universal expert opinion, about 40% of Americans were convinced that an increase in the US debt ceiling wasn't essential.

But there is hope--a hope that will take philanthropic resources to be realized. There is a vast middle ground, a center, among Americans, according to some recent polling data. About half of the populace believes that our political system is broken and that things are getting more and more difficult for most of us. While this leaves them socially progressive on many issues, they lean rightward on others of importance. There is work to be done.

If moderate and liberal foundations are willing to learn the lessons taught by the successful strategy of their right-wing colleagues, if they are willing to talk about and address political power in a coherent and honest way, the challenges of the tea party and the potential of the American center can be addressed in both the short- and long-term.

And there is much grant-making that can be done in this regard within the legal and regulatory strictures on foundations and the charities they support. The conservative Koch brothers and their foundations have proven that in building the tea party, although they seem recently to have crossed the line of impropriety in their extreme zeal.

Beyond Koch and other conservative foundations, it's long been known that philanthropic funding for policy and community engagement can provide a massive return (one research study found a yield of $115 for every $1 so invested). But, building power requires more than the typical, although all too rare, grant-making of moderate and liberal foundations to support development of (often technocratic) policy ideas and even fleeting campaigns to promote them.

What is needed is for foundations, with the help of progressive thinkers, to develop a general and common vision of the role of government in our democracy, one countervailing that of extreme conservatives. They need to come to an understanding of the grant-making that must be done to build enduring institutions and infrastructure that help people - especially those who have been without it - to organize and to build power in support of such an agenda. Without that strategy, we will continue to cycle through unnecessary crises that in and of themselves serve conservatives' purposes.

Both the immediate continuing budget/deficit battle and the long-term political health of our democracy and our people require action now. Philanthropy needs to just do it.

Versions of this piece appear in The Chronicle of Philanthropy and PhilanTopic.