01/04/2013 09:37 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

Rockefeller's Political Grant Wastes Money

A $100,000 grant isn't a big one at the Rockefeller Foundation, which has $3.6 billion in assets. But the grant maker's decision to award that much to a thinly disguised effort to give businesses more influence in the New York City's mayor's race is both inappropriate and a waste of philanthropic resources. It also demonstrates why big foundations need to come under pressure to diversify their boards.

The grant to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce marks one of the few times a foundation has tried to influence a municipal election. According to The New York Times, the foundation wanted to "draw attention to business issues and help influence the discussion in a wide-open mayor's contest that has been dominated thus far by Democrats who have not always been friendly to business."

The grant is partisan in nature, namely to support Republicans and their business allies. It is no secret that the foundation is closely tied to Mayor Bloomberg and his staff; its chief operating officer is Peter J. Madonia, who was the mayor's chief of staff and a senior adviser to the mayor's political campaigns. Six of its 13 trustees, including its chair, David Rockefeller Jr., come from the business world.

Rockefeller's board is totally unrepresentative of the society at large. In addition to the six business-oriented representatives, the foundation's president, Judith Rodin, and two other board members have devoted most of their careers to academe. The three others include Nigeria's minister of finance; Sandra Day O'Connor, the retired Supreme Court Justice; and Helene Gayle, the head of Care.

There are no union members, social-service executives, religious representatives, or community leaders among these ultra-elite trustees. Little wonder that the grant to the Chamber could pass muster.

At a time when government funds have been drastically cut to nonprofits and private money is scarce, it is surprising that the foundation should have decided to give $100,000 to the Chamber of Commerce, which lacks neither money nor access to huge corporate dollars. Companies in New York could have provided the money and much more without Rockefeller's help.

That makes me suspect that Mayor Bloomberg's supporters hope to get a halo effect from an association with Rockefeller and play down any suspicions that the chamber was acting only in its self-interest.

During his three administrations, Mayor Bloomberg has continually supported business concerns. It doesn't make sense to put pressure on his administration now. And why does anybody think business needs wouldn't get discussed once a campaign for Mayor Bloomberg's successor gets under way?

Instead, what probably will get left out are other important issues, like the plight of poor people, especially blacks and Hispanics, or the fate of the homeless. Nor can we expect many discussions about the thousands of needy children who require more nourishment and better health care or about the families that lack low-cost housing. Shouldn't the foundation be investing its funds in assuring that such issues are also discussed during the mayoral campaign?

The Rockefeller grant was unnecessary, but if it had to be made, the foundation should also have made similar grants to other nonprofits to ensure that the campaign embraces a serious discussion of problems of poverty, race, low-cost housing, and the need to produce jobs and improve health care. After all, those are the issues that are key to the foundation's mission -- and its legacy.

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