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The Career-Ending Post

I mentioned in a previous post that I would say something about the role of funders -- mostly foundations -- in promoting the kind of "policy literalism" that the "Death of Environmentalism" authors appropriately attack.

I originally decided not to get into this, because it is inside baseball, but one of the most disturbing things about "The Death of Environmentalism" is that, while it was presented at a conference of environmental funders, it seems to hold funders exempt from its sweeping critique of the movement, and in fact to indulge them in some obsequious flattery. While the environmental leaders are indicted categorically without the benefit of being named so they can rise to their own defense, foundation program officers are singled out: For example, "Pew [Charitable Trust]'s Josh Reichert deserves credit for...funding campaigns that achieve results."

I have no opinion about whether Pew's funding on environmental projects is good or bad, successful or not. It's not my field. I know that Reichert is extremely well respected. I also know that Pew is one of the largest, if not the largest environmental funder. It does seem sort of logically implausible that the movement could "have strikingly little to show for" all its efforts, and yet at the same time the movement's biggest funder "achieves results." One of these things probably isn't as true as the Reapers make it sound, but which one?

The fact is that foundations bear a good deal of the responsibility for the narrowness and "policy literalism" that infects progressive advocacy, whether on the environment or other issues. This tends to be more true the larger, the older, and the more professionally managed the foundation is. Generally foundations tend to stake out a fairly general policy goal -- reduce poverty, build housing, improve K-12 education, encourage arms control -- set up a staff, a budget and a grantmaking program in that specific field and then fund projects that meet certain criteria within that policy field. To use the specific example referred to before, if they started funding health care projects or campaign finance reform as solutions to global warming, they would be -- appropriately -- accused of overstepping their mission.

There's nothing wrong with that; it's a perfectly natural way to operate. And for much of the 20th Century, it worked well. Policy change could be promoted through several well-established channels, including litigation and legislation, but also -- the classic modus operandi for foundations -- setting up innovative demonstration programs to test new educational ideas or ways to reduce drug addiction or financing schemes for housing, and then hoping that successful schemes would be picked up by government and expanded. I credit my friend (and occasional commentor here) Michael Lipsky, who spent almost a decade at the Ford Foundation, with helping me understand that, and of course, Ford's great-but-flawed "Gray Areas Project" of the mid-1960s is the classic example of the transmission belt between foundations and public policy.

But in the current climate, those channels are broken. Government isn't out there right now looking for "best practices" in social policy, and if they did, they wouldn't have the money to fund them anyway, partly because of tax cuts and partly because so much is going to empirically proven "worst practices." Litigation is a very limited avenue for change, as is legislative lobbying, at either the federal or state level.

Older and more professionally established foundations are, as I said, slower to grasp the magnitude of these changes, although that's not always the case. The Ford Foundation understands how much has changed, and according to the Reapers, so does Pew. But generally, it is smaller foundations that have been able to adapt to a climate in which those traditional channels of effectiveness are gone. The foundation where I used to work, the Open Society Institute, is newer, and so not trying to escape from models of change from the 60s, and unafraid of controversy, but still often followed these categorical, policy literalist lines, sometimes with success, though often broke out of them.

The alternative is something that might be called more "political," although that is a loaded word, especially with foundations, which absolutely must avoid any taint of partisan politics, for a hundred reasons. But by political, I mean something close to what is meant by the word in the Death of Environmentalism: understanding that the best way to solve one problem may involve a broader perspective on other problems. For example, if your goal as a foundation is to improve the well-being of children, you can advocate for small increases in programs like Head Start or school lunches or children's health care, or you can try to model programs that deliver those programs more effectively. But all those efforts run up against the reality that in a very few years, if federal revenues remain at 16% of GDP, there won't be any children's programs. So if you're not joining the debate about taxes, and connecting the debate about taxes back to children, you're not really dealing with the problem. And the debate about taxes is part of a bigger debate about government, individuals, and the economy.

(For a little more on this, see the article I wrote last summer about the politics of children, in the American Prospect.)

This also means building institutions that can tackle these broader political issues, and adapt to the changing political climate. Progressive foundations are suddenly, predictably interested in joining the fight against Social Security privatization, but do they understand that the Social Security debate and the debate over making the tax cuts permanent are not entirely separate things? Do they understand that creating a separate policy-literalist campaign on each issue is a tremendous waste of energy and guarantees that we'll always be behind the curve?

I think there are trends in both the foundation world, and in the philanthropy of individual givers, many of whom learned a lot about politics in the last year, that will move this in the right direction, and I'll try to say more about this. It's a missed opportunity that the Death of Environmentalism authors, facing a room full of such funders, didn't challenge them as strongly as they challenged their own.

(I'm sorry I keep writing so much about "The Death of Environmentalism" -- it's just a very provocative paper that got my mind going in several directions.)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 16, 2005 | Permalink


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"And the debate about taxes is part of a bigger debate about government, individuals, and the economy."


How do you make this debate non-partisan?

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Feb 16, 2005 11:17:14 PM


No need to apologize about returning to this topic. You are quite right: not only was the paper provocative, it really is about one of the most pressing issues the entire progressive world faces right now. I hope you continue writing about this as more thoughts occur to you.

I do second Ellen1910's question: how is it possible for this debate to be "non-partisan" when the breakdown of the system is so clearly the absolute result - - intentionally - - of conservative / GOP policy?

Posted by: Roger Keeling | Feb 17, 2005 11:39:57 AM

Love the post's title! (surely not?)

:: do they understand that the Social Security debate and the debate over making the tax cuts permanent are not entirely separate things? ::

This raises again the question I asked in comments to an earlier post: What is the timetable for the inevitable fight over whether the Bush tax cuts expire? Is there a mechanism in the law itself that gives any timing framework, or is it utterly up to Rove (acting through the GOP leadership in Congress)?

However, Mark, if you're only going to answer one question, please make it Ellen1910's.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Feb 17, 2005 1:42:41 PM

Perhaps I'm too disconnected from the foundation world, but haven't discussions about the individual and political economy always been inherently partisan? Other than putting forth one's ideas in good faith, vehement disagreement is part of the deal. As I recall from reading Nick Confessore's article in the 1/16/05 NYTimes Magazine, the issue is really quite simple: any tax reform that is revenue neutral will have losers. All debate flows from there. Who wins, who loses and why? I don't see anything wrong with foundations subsidzing serious people who are interested in developing persuasive, well-informed answers to these questions.

Posted by: fnook | Feb 18, 2005 1:41:06 PM