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  • Sunday, March 6, 2011

Grant Makers Need to Muster the Power of Democracy to Promote Change

By Mark Rosenman

Too many foundations, and even nonprofit organizations, seem to think that it’s impolite or anachronistic to talk about power.

But if there is one thing that ought to be clear from the Tea Party movement, it is that the power of democratic involvement can have a more profound impact on the causes of concern to charities and philanthropies than all of their prized innovations and scaled-up programs.

Foundations and others love to talk of being “more impactful,” but they seem to try little beyond efforts to become more effective at what they already do.

Rarely does any truly fresh approach to grant making get serious consideration, and seldom do foundation and charity officials care to look at what has become all too obvious—it’s all about power.

We know that there are two basic routes to power in our society. The most legitimate one is to participate directly in democratic political processes. The second, and less legitimate, one is to buy political influence through campaign contributions and other means.

Since charities and foundations are prohibited from partisan political spending, they are limited to strengthening democratic participation. Yet very few even consider this realm because they don’t think about power itself.

Why is the power of democratic participation so important?

The answer is simple: because government—local, county, state, and federal—matters. It is essential in our lives and to every cause in the nonprofit world.

Most of the troubles America faces reflect failures of government to adequately moderate the forces that create and perpetuate problems or provide and support solutions.

Markets and corporations need effective regulation to provide safeguards for citizens and the planet, as well as for the orderly conduct of business. Institutions need leadership, accountability, and resources to perform well in the public interest. And people can be encouraged and helped to behave better, and they can be sanctioned when they don’t. Government is critical in each of these realms.

Still, the arguments for smaller, cheaper, and weaker government are, at least in part, a response to the perceived inadequacy of its efforts to provide protections and to offer efficient programs and services.

While some people hold ideologies that are “antigovernment” and contend that laws, regulations, programs, and taxes have overstepped acceptable limits, the majority of Americans still want better safeguards and services; many are even willing to pay higher taxes to make sure they are available.

But government won’t be able to serve us if foundations and nonprofits allow the Tea Party movement and its Republican allies to force extreme cuts in government programs and to curtail safeguards vital to Americans.

Ill-advised budget cuts and deregulation will affect every area of nonprofit work. Environmental protection, education, the arts, social services, health—no cause will be spared.

Some of this retrenchment is a function of government deficits, which are real and compelling.

But the deficit didn’t concern conservatives when they worsened it by cutting billions upon billions of dollars from the very wealthiest Americans’ taxes. This continues their decades-long efforts to “starve the beast” of government so it doesn’t have the money to serve Americans’ needs or provide prudent safeguards.

Foundations, which provide less than 2 percent of charities’ revenue, cannot possibly generate sufficient private resources to make up for this diminishing government role and the very real hardships it is creating in all areas of nonprofit concern. And foundations’ search for ways to achieve a greater impact will continue to fail unless they grapple with questions of power in our society.

The Tea Party movement has enjoyed its success in great part because of the millions of dollars that wealthy donors put into building a grass-roots effort.

Rich conservatives like the Koch brothers and those at the Sarah Scaife Foundation poured money into efforts to build a Tea Party movement of local residents, state activists, and national leaders. Wealthy people used news-media outlets they control to get their message out and also made contributions from their own checkbooks to allied politicians.

The antigovernment ideology advanced by those donors and activists holds profound negative consequence for organized philanthropy and the causes it supports.

But foundations have come to little or no recognition that they ought to support a counterbalancing power, one that serves interests across the nonprofit world. And that’s not unusual for grant makers.

Although some people in philanthropy have long praised foundations for playing a major role in the civil-rights movement and other subsequent efforts to increase the power of people and causes, that is simply not the case.

Only about 1 percent of foundation money has flowed to social movements, and very few of those meager dollars make it to direct organizing work.

Very few foundations have ever concerned themselves with social movements or supported efforts to get citizens involved in democratic political processes. It has long been time for that to change.

Government approaches to America’s problems are not based on technical policy arguments about the best solutions for each. Rather, they reflect decisions by those with political power and the interests they serve.

Foundations need to recognize this reality and to invest in helping people build power if they expect to maintain or influence government action on the issues that matter to them.

Clearly, the Tea Party is one such movement, and it represents the beliefs of a significant portion of our populace. Although still a minority, its members are exercising outsized sway because grant makers have made so little investment in helping to organize and give equivalent voice to others.

While electoral politics appropriately remains a forbidden zone for charities and foundations, they can do anything they want to encourage robust civic participation and to develop important social movements. Such efforts are fully legitimate pursuits in service to the common good.

About 90 million people are directly involved as staff members and volunteers in nonprofit organizations, not to mention the multitudes who donate to them and who use their services.

These people care about a universe of problems and causes that will be made worse by a draconian diminution of government. They can bring new power to bear in the political arena if they are organized to get involved in democratic processes shaping government’s response to their immediate concerns.

But that will not happen unless foundations undertake a new kind of grant making, one that goes beyond financing services and is aimed explicitly at building power in support of a government committed to and capable of action on the myriad problems that confront us, including rational and humane approaches to reducing the deficit.

This must include direct organizing as well as efforts to educate the public about government programs and safeguards that affect them.

We need significant investment in projects that mobilize the grass roots. To support such movement-building, we need additional grants for research on public policy to devise new ideas and rebut bad ones and for advocacy, mass-media, and social networking campaigns.

Foundations are said to fear controversy; grant making designed to increase democratic participation by people who care about governments’ ability to solve problems is likely to draw criticism from Tea Partyers.

Yet given the challenges that confront our nation today, we need organized philanthropy to act courageously and wisely. It must take ambitious steps to build a vital and animated social movement to get the public more involved in pushing for a more effective and active government.

Mark Rosenman directs Caring to Change, an effort in Washington that seeks to improve how grant making serves the public.