Only in the past few years have a growing number of foundations and individual philanthropists focused more of their attention on influencing public policy, government priorities and voter action.
In the 1960's, the Ford Foundation launched a number of policy oriented initiatives, but its efforts riled the Congress, which passed The Tax Reform Act of 1969 that put a damper on political and adversarial activities. As a result, foundations in general avoided politically controversial issues until recently. The exception to this cautionary approach were several of the conservative foundations that conducted public policy activities with impunity, thereby setting an example for their more liberal but hesitant colleagues.
The reasons for this recent shift to public policy philanthropy are hard to pinpoint. The intrusion of big money into the political process combined with the laxness of the Internal Revenue Service in regulating philanthropic encroachments into politics probably has been a factor. So was the realization by foundations and major donors that their pet priorities and programs could not be implemented without public and political pressure. Gone were the days when governments willingly adopted and funded successful foundation initiatives ---such as the Ford Foundation's Grey Areas project which formed much of the basis for Lyndon Johnson's community action programs.
The zeal and impatience of big donors like the Koch brothers on the right and George Soros on the left also energized the movement toward greater philanthropic advocacy.
The recently issued book, Agenda Setting, by the Philanthropic Roundtable, the conservative trade association counterpart to the Council on Foundations, is a readable argument in favor of public policy philanthropy. With a clear bias toward conservative or right wing causes and program priorities, it describes some of the most significant and successful policy efforts undertaken by both conservative and liberals.
As might be expected, the predominant number of case studies are those extolling conservative values and efforts. Those emphasizing school choice, of which there are many, provide a valuable insight into the goals and strategies of the foundations and philanthropists that have supported the movement to finance private alternatives to our public schools. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation figures prominently in this story, as it does in the conservative battle to bring about welfare reform.
The authors, John J. Miller and Karl Zinsmeister, give us examples of public policy advocates of whom few of us have heard, people like Kim Dennis, Roger Hertog, John Kirtley, Tom Carroll, Fred Klipsch and Dick Weekley, all of whom have made their mark in championing conservative causes. Other than Louis Schweitzer, a co-founder of the Vera institute, in New York , few relatively unknown progressive philanthropic activists are cited.
Agenda Setting lists some characteristics that are essential for good policy grantmaking: selecting excellent people to run initiatives; building infrastructure organizations such as think tanks; patience; focusing on the long run ; and a willingness to take risks. Another is the ability to keep policy activities separate from partisan politics, a point strongly emphasize by Michael Grebe, the CEO of the Lynd and Harry Bradley Foundation. Despite his caveat, it is difficult to separate partisan politics from some of the Bradley Foundation's efforts.
The last part of the book is a compendium of major public policy projects supported by philanthropy throughout American history, beginning with the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. It is a useful reminder of the extent to which some of our most notable historic achievements are the products of private charitable donors.
Where do philanthropists draw the line between grantmaking and politics?
The authors don't confront this key issue. Nor do they examine the role and record of the IRS in setting standards for non-political grantmaking and in preventing philanthropic behavior that crosses an acceptable line between politics and philanthropy.
The book, moreover, does not tackle the question of how much public policy philanthropy is tolerable in a democratic society. How much is too much?
For example, the combined forces of the Gates, Broad and Lumina foundations have dominated policy discussions and developments in national public education, exercising a major influence on the US Department of Education. Gates, in particular, is the 800 pound gorilla in education hallways. To champion the common core standards, the foundation paid tens of millions of dollars to state departments of education, politicians, public policy officials and media outlets. In short, they bought off the education establishment of the country. And, yet, when serious questions about the standards were later raised, the foundation backed down from its hard core support of the standards
Similarly, the Gates Foundation exercises almost monopoly influence over international health policies, notwithstanding its critical support for the eradication of major diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and AIDs.
It is possible that the growing number of huge foundations with boards of only a few family members will control the expenditures of billions of dollars on national issues that will no longer be open to public discussion or a political process. Can this public policy philanthropy be limited before it overwhelms our governments and civil society? How can this be accomplished?
Our trade associations, including the Philanthropy Roundtable, as well as our nonprofit organizations in general, will need to grapple with this question before it is too late.