Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On philanthropy, and why free speech is expensive

This is an interesting story by Curtis White, who was asked by Orion magazine, a not for profit, to write about philanthropy in the USA.  White was hesitant: "From the first I was dubious about the assignment. I said, “Not-for-profit organizations like you cannot afford to attack philanthropy because if you attack one foundation you may as well attack them all. You’ll be cutting your own throat.”  He forged ahead anyway, until the editor that asked him to contribute left the organization and the new editor's view was that "publishing the essay would be an exercise in “self-mutilation.”"  But there's an internet, so it gets published anyway.  White says:
In the United States, everyone may enjoy freedom of speech so long as it doesn’t matter.  For those who would like what they say to matter, freedom of speech is very expensive. It is for this reason that organizations with a strong sense of public mission but not much money are dependent on the “blonde child of capitalism,” private philanthropy. This dependence is true for both conservative and progressive causes, but there is an important difference in the philanthropic cultures that they appeal to.
The conservative foundations happily fund “big picture” work.  They are eager to be the means for disseminating free market, anti-government ideology. Hence the steady growth and influence of conservative think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation, Accuracy in Media, the American Majority Institute, the Cato Institute, the Brookings Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Hoover Institute, and on (and frighteningly) on.
On the other hand, progressive foundations may understand that the organizations they fund have visions, but it’s not the vision that they will give money to. In fact, foundations are so reluctant to fund “public advocacy” of progressive ideas that it is almost as if they were afraid to do so. If there is need for a vision the foundation itself will provide it. Unfortunately, according to one source, the foundation’s vision too often amounts to this: “If we had enough money, and access to enough markets, and enough technological expertise, we could solve all the problems.” The source concludes that such a vision “doesn’t address sociological and spiritual problems.”
And then there's this:
One of the most maddening experiences for those who seek the support of private philanthropy is the lack of transparency, that is, the difficulty of knowing why the foundation makes the decisions it makes. In fact, most foundations treat this “lack” as a kind of privilege: our reasons are our own.  One of the devices employed by philanthropy for maintaining this privilege is what I call the mystique of the foundation’s Secret Wisdom. 
So you want to ask, “What do you know that I don’t know?  What do you know that makes your decisions wise?”  The closest thing to an answer you’re likely to hear is something like this: “The staff met with some Board members last night to discuss your proposal, and we’re very interested in it.  But we don’t think that you have the capacity [a useful bit of jargon that means essentially that the organization should give up on what it thought it was going to do] to achieve these goals.  So what we’d suggest is that you define a smaller project that will allow you to test your abilities [read: allow you to do something that you have little interest in but that will suck up valuable staff time like a Hoover].  Meanwhile, we’d like to meet with your Board in six months and see where you are.”
And on you go one year at a time. But cheer up, you’ve made your budget for the year! 
More at the link.  The article demonstrates why accountability is not just an issue for government.  If government is going to subsidize and defer social goals to philanthropy to solve, then it becomes very important how philanthropy works, and who decides which issues matter and are worthy of support and which do not and are not, and what goals those working in philanthropic organizations actually seek to serve.

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