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On Inequity, Philanthropy Must Take Risks and Empower Workers

Large, ostensibly progressive foundations today face enormous challenges. Will they support groups that want to transform our financial institutions? Will they fund the large number of watchdog organizations necessary to oversee and hold accountable government agencies and corporate entities?
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Foundations have long have poured millions of dollars into activism by California farmworkers to improve their well-being and the state's agricultural system.

Yet today conditions for farmworkers are as bad as they were 30 or 40 years ago. California's farm laborers, especially in the Central Valley, still live in poverty and often lack decent food and housing. The state still relies on large-scale farming that pays low wages, is labor-intensive, and uses contract workers toiling in poor conditions that go unmonitored by either the state or federal government.

A new book explains why: Foundations and wealthy donors who have supported the farmworkers over the years have rarely been willing to put their money into union and community organizing, political action, and risk-taking strategies that could drastically reduce the inequalities that beset the Central Valley.

Hard-hitting, solidly researched, and well-written, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty by Erica Kohl-Arenas, a researcher at the New School, explains how philanthropy has left farmworker organizations to ameliorate their own living conditions and create their own social-service groups. The story sheds light on major problems that affect all of philanthropy -- especially its unwillingness to finance advocates who want to change the system -- and for that reason the book is worth reading by everyone committed to social change.

What many readers will find striking is that even Cesar Chavez himself was not immune from this foundation pressure.

In his early days, Mr. Chavez put his efforts into organizing a strong farmworker movement that depended on community and labor organizing, strikes, and boycotts -- activities that drew the attention of the media, prominent politicians, and celebrities, and the support of a growing number of unions. But that changed in part because of pressure from philanthropy.

In a telling anecdote about Mr. Chavez's dealings with the Field Foundation, then considered one of the country's most progressive grant makers, Ms. Kohl-Arenas describes Field's refusal to support unionization or community organizing. It was not about to finance legal help to farmworkers through the AFL-CIO. Field and other grant makers provided large amounts of money to groups that provide social services but not to any efforts to effect fundamental changes in the state's economic structure.

Ms. Kohl-Arenas says grant makers have served to buffer society from the more radical efforts to initiate fundamental social change. As she states in her book, "Professional foundation staff, working in the interest of their philanthropic institutions, negotiate the inherent political limits of mainstream philanthropy. ... Philanthropic giving has clearly defined [political] boundaries."

She cites the Rosenberg Foundation, which helped the farmworkers obtain affordable housing but refused to support strikes and union organizing. She concludes that "private philanthropy will not fund projects that attempt to make significant changes in the economic sphere or address the structural causes of poverty and inequality."

As one prime example, the book includes an assessment of the Central Valley Immigrant Participation Collaborative, an attempt to get farmworker-focused nonprofits to work together on service and citizenship projects. Despite the efforts of an outstanding program officer -- who lost his job in the process -- the effort eventually failed because the foundations' leaders were never willing to support advocacy groups that took strong positions. As the author states, "They were interested in ameliorating but not solving regional poverty."

Another case involves the Farm Worker Community Building Initiative, aimed at improving poor living conditions in California's agricultural communities. The project was a collaboration among farmworkers, farm owners, foundations, nonprofits, and government that was supposed to protect the agriculture industry and secure its jobs amid tightening competition, especially from Mexico. While the effort promised that keeping the farms strong would protect jobs for agricultural workers, it did nothing about the conditions that caused so much trouble for low-income workers.

The $50 million project failed to re-energize a social movement, became hobbled by bureaucracy, and sidelined community organizers. Saving big farms from competition was an important goal, but it is unconscionable that the philanthropy effort was promoted as a way to help workers when its real goal was simply to help big farm owners reap big profits. Ms. Kohl-Arenas sympathizes with the plight and frustration of good foundation officers who are caught between their desire to support risk-taking and structural change and the demands of their boards to avoid activities that might have had harmful political or economic consequences. She despairs of big progressive foundations such as Carnegie, Ford, Gates, and Rockefeller being truly willing and able to challenge structural inequities in America.

It would have been instructive if Ms. Kohl-Arenas had reflected on the different approaches of progressive and conservative foundations. Why have progressive grant makers been so timid about financing risk-taking and innovative programs aimed at eliminating structural barriers to fighting poverty and inequity, while their conservative counterparts have shown no reluctance in funding politically risky programs on behalf of their social and economic goals?

Large, ostensibly progressive foundations today face enormous challenges. Will they support groups that want to transform our financial institutions? Will they fund the large number of watchdog organizations necessary to oversee and hold accountable government agencies and corporate entities? Will they finance the many grass-roots groups that can energize local communities? And will they become a real force in altering the way our politics are run and our legislators perform?

The answers could determine the future strength of our democracy.

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle of Philanthropy contributor, is a senior fellow at the Center for Public & Nonprofit Leadership at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. His email address is

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