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My Boss's Blog, Philanthropy and the Right

Two things that I've been meaning to do here for a long time, and that are somewhat related: The first is to call some attention properly to my boss's blog, which he started months ago and which I've been promising to link to for at least that long. The second is to write a little bit about the politics of philanthropy, since I do work at a foundation, after all.

If the phrase, "my boss's blog" leads you to expect topics like "Did you know that the Chinese character for crisis combines danger and opportunity?" you will be pleasantly surprised by Gara LaMarche's blog. He is far more interesting than I am, in that he reads books with things in them that didn't really happen (a genre that I intend to take up again, since I've noticed people seem to like it), sees about 900% more movies than I do, and has musical tastes which are, well, let's just say eclectic and surprising, although a little heavy on the female-singer-songwriter category for my own post-punk tastes. He's also had a fascinating career, mostly in human rights, at the ACLU, as director of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, at the PEN Writers Center, and then starting in 1996, he essentially created the Open Society Institute's U.S. programs, adapting some of the strengths of George Soros's daring and democracy-promoting philanthropy in Eastern Europe to the U.S. context.

(A reporter friend who was writing a story about people losing their jobs over things they wrote on their personal blogs asked me if I had to worry about that, and I said no -- but that I was in a slightly unusual position since everyone above me in the organization had spent much of their careers at the ACLU, so free expression is not a problem.)

More recently, Gara has been giving a series of speeches, linked on his blog, many of which concern the need for foundations to be more directly engaged with the policy issues of the time, as opposed to believing that what they are engaged in is neutral experimentation or services. This is from his speech
to the Wisonsin Donors' Forum
in April:

I'm going to illustrate this argument with examples from OSI's own work, which of course I know best. But I want to start by using the example of one of the leading members of the Donors Forum of Wisconsin, the Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation. One key goal of the foundation is to ?encourage decentralization of power and accountability away from centralized, bureaucratic, national institutions back to the states, localities, and revitalized mediating structures in which citizenship is more fully realized.? For Bradley, a critical aspect of carrying out this agenda is the support of faith-based institutions, particularly providing parents with public funds so their children can attend schools like the four sponsored by the Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Milwaukee?s central city, which won the praise of President Bush when the foundation sponsored his visit there last July. The Bradley Foundation has been a leading force in efforts to expand the use of vouchers as a vehicle for school choice. ...The recent report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, "Axis of Ideology: Conservative Foundations and Public Policy," documents this impact in detail with grudging admiration. NCRP, which locates its values on the more progressive side of the political spectrum, like OSI, writes that "the success of these organizations is not something that the NCRP or its members would necessarily celebrate. But the manner in which foundations on the right support, fund, and relate to their grantees is certainly to be admired.?

NCRP goes on: ?With resources that pale in comparison to centrist and liberal foundations, conservative funders have supported public policies that now impact the entire nation. Perhaps that is why foundations on the right tend to spend so little on evaluation ? they can easily see their impact in the newspaper, on TV, in America's classrooms, and in the courts. And perhaps it is also why centrist and liberal foundations have to spend millions of dollars and work with multiple consultants to determine their impact.? Ouch.

No one familiar with my history or with the work of OSI would be surprised to know that I do not share the Bradley Foundation's enthusiasm for vouchers or certain aspects of welfare reform. But I applaud the foundation?s direct engagement in public policy. It recognizes that demonstration projects are fine, but ... models do not replicate themselves. They require someone?s money. The only difference, and it is a significant one, between Bradley's work on vouchers and, say, OSI's large investment in afterschool programs in New York City and Baltimore is that we believe successful and necessary initiatives like afterschool should be public obligations, like roads and libraries. We believe that requires a progressive taxation system and democratically-determined public expenditures. Bradley would like a smaller government and to have public funds allocated more by individual than collective decision. That is indeed, a central debate of our time.

But both of us realize that engagement in public policy debates is crucial to advancing our vision of society.

All of the examples I provided at the outset, of OSI- and locally-supported initiatives in Wisconsin, involve policy change.
Charity and pro bono work can correct individual miscarriages of justice due to police ineptitude or misconduct. But only the passage of laws mandating minimum standards or providing more funding for indigent defense or better-equipped police labs will correct what is in fact a systemic problem, and reduce the number of miscarriages requiring correction. Corrupt judges can be exposed by investigative journalism and from time to time removed from office. But publicly-financed elections ? something that by definition can only come about through engagement in the political process ? can assure that judges are free to act impartially, without dependence on compromising contributions from the plaintiff or defense bars

That is a concise statement of a particular viewpoint about what liberal foundations ought to be doing. This also fits into an overall theory of "what's wrong with the left?" Under this theory, it is the institutions of the right, its think tanks, foundations, grassroots groups, and networks of state legislators that account for its advantage, and if the left built similar institutions, it would be more successful. I've commented on this before.

Gara's version is more subtle than that, because he understands that the goals of the Bradley Foundation are not merely the inverse of his own. The report he cites from the National Center for Respsonsive Philanthropy presents the more basic view of the argument: conservative foundations, unlike their liberal or moderate counterparts, put their money behind an organized, well-designed effort to change public policy, and if liberal foundations would only do the same, the public debate would at least be more balanced. I call this the "I'll have what she's having" theory of political change.

A more provocative response to the argument arrived recently from William Schambra, undeniably a leader among these conservative foundations, formerly of the aforementioned Bradley Foundation and currently at the Hudson Institute, writing in Philanthropy, the journal of the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Schambra makes three main points: First, that left-wing reformers such as NCRP see in the funding priorities of the conservative foundations "breathless speculation about conspiracies so byzantine and insidious as to be worthy of Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind." Schambra actually moves on quickly and does not say one word to challenge the idea that conservative funding could be seen as a conspiracy, but nonetheless I think he's right. There is not so much an "axis of ideology" on the right as a general commitment to build organizations that roughly reflect conservative viewpoints, in all their diversity. The many conflicting views on the right are actually nurtured through their funding of many different kinds of institutions. While there are influential strategic leaders on the right, some of whom operate through foundations, the same might be said of the left. But the real point of the NCRP is not to say there is a conpiracy or ideological congruence, but simply that almost all of the conservative philanthropic dollar goes to build institutions that promote policy change. It does not go to feed the hungry, even though it is conservatives who argue that the private sector should be responsible for alleviating human need. Indeed, where the conservatives do fund services, it is to prove a point, such as the merits of private schools for poor kids, not to actually experiment with solutions or to improve lives. Liberal foundations are indeed not so clearly focused on policy change.

Second, Schambra argues that the liberal commitment to diversity is incompatible with an ideological focus. He points out that left-wing groups also argue that "Less funding should go to elitist cultural and academic institutions, more to smaller, politically aggressive grassroots groups that would carry the multicultural views of oppressed races, ethnic groups, and genders into national councils. ...As Rick Cohen noted at Hudson, 'People of color; immigrants; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered people; and the urban and rural poor?perspectives from those constituencies infuse a great deal of our work.'...Would [multiculturalism] amount to the 'clarity of vision' or 'coherence of theme' attributed to conservative philanthropy? Probably not." Of course, there is no necessary incompatibility between diversity/identity politics and an ideological focus. Indeed, a progressive movement that reflects the broadest base of those affected by current policies and inequalities must be stronger than one that does not. Schambra is right, though, that only one can be the top priority. The tense relationship between identity politics and the need for organizations that move a political agenda into the mainstream is perhaps more complicated than Schambra recognizes, and even as new institutions are created that do mirror those on the Right, there are activists ready to dismiss them as too white or too elitist.

Finally, Schambra makes his most daring argument of all: Right-wing funders aren't really doing much of anything at all, just following the mainstream of American thought:

How, by contrast, have conservatives managed to develop "clarity of vision" and "coherence of theme?" The statement of purposes issued by the conservative Bradley Foundation declares that it is "devoted to strengthening American democratic capitalism and the institutions, principles, and values that sustain and nurture it." It is particularly interested in cultivating "a renewed, healthier, and more vigorous sense of citizenship among the American people" through "healthy families, churches, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, schools, and other value-generating 'mediating structures.'"

This is not a list of humanity's problems, with shining promises to get at their roots and solve them through social science work. Nor is it a stirring indictment of the injustices of our past, opening onto inspiring vistas of an egalitarian, multicultural future. It is, rather, a sober, modest pledge to remain true to the American constitutional system as it came to us from the Founders.... Establishment foundations tend to ignore that vision, radical foundations to despise it. A non-conservative foundation hoping to duplicate conservatism's success simply by adopting its philanthropic techniques overlooks one important explanation for that apparent effectiveness: When conservative foundations enter the field of public policy, they are not trying to make something happen that is at cross purposes with America's underlying political and institutional framework, but rather fully in accord with it.

This is nonsense. As a supporter of school choice through vouchers, I can see the argument that they are in keeping with longstanding American traditions, but basically that's just a value argument. Vouchers, radical tax reductions, and other aspects of the Bradley are every bit as radical a challenge to the "underlying political and institutional framework" as they at first seem to be. I don't really understand why a thoughtful advocate like Schambra would want to deny that.

But the underlying point is correct: The liberal and conservative traditions and institutions are different, and simply adopting either the philanthropic techniques or the other structures of the Right will not reproduce the Right's political success. "I'll have what she's having" is not a political philosophy.

I hope to write more about this in the coming weeks. In the meantime, take a look at my boss's blog.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 21, 2004 | Permalink


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Right-wing philanthropy focuses on communication strategies as well as policy development. It's also worth mentioning the philanthropic support of such communications organs as the Washington Times, the New York Post, Townhall.com, etc.

In other words, the idea formation, and policy building of the right is linked to a communication development infrastructure and communications distribution system.

So even if the left had good ideas, we couldn't explain them, and even if we could, we wouldn't have a chance to.

Posted by: Matt Stoller | Jun 21, 2004 9:57:18 AM

This comment applies more to conservative thinktanks than philanthropic associations, but it seems like effectively changing public policy requires the foundation to help change public opinion and create a demand for their policy prescriptions. It also seems to me that the conservative foundations (like the Heritage Foundations, American Enterprise Instutite, etc), are pretty savvy at promoting and branding themselves as an institution. Specifically, they promote themselves as instituations that you can trust and once they develop that trust with their audience, they can sell them just about anything because most of the policy "studies" they conduct are on topics people normally don't know anything about (and hence, require trust). Everything from the names (like the "Heritage Foundation", that just screams "Wholesome!"), to their constant appearances in a media that rarely points out the degree of their partisanship help create a long-standing image of wisdom and trustworthiness for their "brand" of thought. They're like celebrities endorsing a product where you have no particular reason to assume this celebrity's opinion is particularly valuable in this area, but somehow they make you feel better about whatever they're selling.

People instinctively distrust strangers telling them what to think (politicians being the most prominent example), but they do seem often willing to trust people that come from an organization they know of, even if they only vaguely know of them - corporations are another example of often-untrustworthy organizations that build long-standing trust for their brand - just as they'll distrust people representing organizations they've grown to distrust... like members of the "liberal media".

So maybe it would be useful to explore how the progressive foundations can more effectively build up their own brand-name for the purposes of influencing public opinion.

Since it appears that a lot of the prominant thinktanks have a simple and powerful ideological theme (smaller government interfence in the marketerplace for example) that I'm guessing really helps develop an intant rapport with their audience, I'd like to see a discussion on possible themes for progressive foundations. Here's one example: I wouldn't mind seeing a progressive instituation that is dedicated to honesty in our public debate because it knows how important honesty is to a functional democracy. I want a foundation that will send out representatives that can attend talk shows or interviews and just call a lie a lie no matter who says it. There are lots of other possible themes, and the "honesty in public debate" theme might be too tough a sell, but I'd sure like to see it.

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