03/15/2013 03:37 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Foundations Must Step Up Giving to Government Watchdogs

Common Cause got the attention of the White House when it complained that Organizing for Action, a nonprofit lobbying group spun off from the Obama presidential campaign, was just adding to the problem of dirty money in politics.

Within a few weeks, the complaint forced the White House to back down from its plan to give donors who contributed $500,000 or more a seat on the organization's Advisory Council, an approach that Common Cause said suggested big donors would get special access to President Obama.

Common Cause's action demonstrated once again the valuable role that watchdog organizations can play in maintaining the integrity and accountability in both government and the philanthropic world.

And yet foundations continue either to ignore or to starve this important segment of civil society. The need for strong watchdogs has become more apparent because of the inept way both President Obama and nonprofit group have responded to America's most urgent needs.

Organizing for America's problems were not just its ill-considered approach to courting big-money donors. More worrisome is that the idea is doomed to fail because it is based on a false premise of what community organizing is all about, nevermind Mr. Obama's early career as an organizer.

The White House decided to form its own advocacy group to rally public support for gun control, immigration-law changes, protection of safety-net programs, and other items that the president has made a priority in his battles with Congress.

Instead, Mr. Obama should have mobilized nonprofits that have already amassed the grass-roots supporters who will be needed for a successful fight.

His advisers fail to understand that. For example, the president has personally called upon mayors and police chiefs to push for gun-control measures but has neither asked nor encouraged powerful and grass-roots-oriented nonprofits to take on the issue. It's clear that without presidential urging, nonprofits will continue spending most of their advocacy energies on defending charitable deductions rather than using their troops and influence to fight against much more important proposed cuts in antipoverty programs and to support efforts such as gun control and an immigration overhaul.

Nor have philanthropic institutions done more than sit on the sidelines, refusing to shift their priorities, even slightly, in the face of these serious legislative imperatives.

At the very least, even if foundations won't get involved in backing specific advocacy efforts on controversial topics, they would do well to give money to groups that are challenging how Washington works.

Watchdog groups like the Center for Effective Government, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Common Cause, Corporate Accountability International, and the Government Accountability Project are doing outstanding work with limited budgets and insufficient staffs. Their activities are helping to keep democratic institutions transparent and publicly accountable. Yet their numbers are too few; we need many more of them.

Such nonprofits require foundation support; watchdog groups can't easily compete for the attention of individuals compared with charities like the American Cancer Society or Salvation Army.

But foundations have yet to figure that out and seem fearful that support of watchdog groups might anger their privileged trustees, many of whom won't shake up the status quo.

Common Cause did a great service to the public, not only for its criticism of Organizing for Action but for alerting the public to the importance and enormous potential of citizen watchdog organizations.

As a society of checks and balances, we need the checks that a Common Cause brings to maintain our balance.

Let's hope foundations get this message. If they don't, they will maintain their well-earned reputation for being out of touch and largely irrelevant.

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle contributor, is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. His e-mail address is