The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Grant Makers's Support of Obama May Haunt Them After Midterm Polls

Senior Fellow Emeritus

EDITOR'S NOTE: Gara LaMarche of Atlantic Philanthropies wrote a response to this piece in a subsequent issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, dated October 31, 2010. Scroll below to read.

It’s no secret that the major American foundations are today madly in love with the Obama administration. They’re willing and eager to do whatever they can to make it a success; willing and eager to join hands with it in a collaborative venture, no matter pesky little annoyances like the boundary between the public and private spheres. Come November, though, the foundations may find themselves paying a price for that enthusiasm, if, as predicted, the Tea Party movement establishes a substantial and vigorous presence in the halls of Congress.

We knew this was coming, when a survey by The Chronicle of Philanthropy revealed that fully 98 percent of campaign contributions by foundation officials went to the Obama campaign in 2008. No wonder, then, that foundations, blessed with a president whose early career they had themselves helped to finance, have avidly sought administration money to copy and expand their favorite pilot programs, and have lined up to provide matching funds for federal efforts like the Social Innovation Fund.

Nowhere was this enthusiasm more apparent than in the recent announcement by the Grantmakers in Health, a foundation coalition, that it intended to do all it could to ensure the success of the federal overhaul of American health care that theat administration had pushed Congress to pass.

In its report, “Implementing Health Care Reform: Funders and Advocates Respond to the Challenge,” the group suggests that skepticism about the new law could surely only be based only on ignorance or confusion. So foundations should make every effort to enlighten the public about its puzzlingly elusive benefits. In a blog entry on the Huffington Post introducing the report, Jane Wales, vice president for philanthropy and society at the Aspen Institute, noted that “working to generate and sustain public support over the next few years will be critical if the law is to withstand efforts to repeal or undermine it.”

By helping to ensure that the law is put in place successfully, she continues, we could even, as she puts it, “restore public trust in government and demonstrate government’s positive role in improving lives. Wouldn’t that be something?” she cheerily concludes.

Yes, it would indeed be something, but probably not the manifest public good suggested by her enthusiasm. It would rather be overt support for the transparently ideological proposition that government naturally deserves to be trusted and expanded, through measures like the health-care law.

Who, Ms. Wales seems to suggest, could be unhappy with the bright and sunny prospect of government fully entrusted and aggressively expanded? Well, if opinion surveys are any indication, that would be the vast majority of the American people, and may well soon become a majority of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Throughout the report’s pleasant, innocuous, seemingly nonpartisan chatter about ways to educate the public in the wonders of the health-care law, we catch only glimpses of the overriding political fact that it remains bitterly divisive and controversial. Indeed, it is so controversial that after November, grant makers heeding the report might well find themselves locked in savage partisan combat with a Republican Congressional majority bent on repealing the law.

Most assuredly at that point, some newly elected Tea Party legislator will tumble off the turnip truck and say something like this: “Hey, I thought American philanthropy was supposed to fund charitable activities, not PR campaigns for big government. How come we’re giving foundations all these charitable tax deductions, if all they’re doing is trying to replace charity with government money? We better hold us one of them congressional hearings.”

Something like this happened after President Reagan took office; it happened after Newt Gingrich came to power; it will happen again. Then we will witness, once again, a great, exasperated explosion of ridicule and alarm from foundation-land. Its leaders will profess deep shock at the suggestion that they are somehow partisan. And they will remind us that only the most unsophisticated, neo-Tocquevillian rube could possibly believe that charitable organizations are about doing charity, rather than pressing for what they proudly describe as systemic social change in the face of America’s vast and grave structural injustices.

But this almost inevitable scenario should remind us that the large American foundations are forever either naively or willfully blind to the partisan positions they stake out. As in the case with the health-care law, they tend to believe that certain government measures are so patently and objectively in the public interest—so obviously in accord with the facts as documented by the professionals and the experts—that only untutored ignorance or partisan obstreperousness could explain opposition to them.

This is a reflection of the century-old link between the large American foundations and the ideology of progressivism. Indeed, foundations and progressivism arose at the same time and nurtured each other’s growth. The essence of American progressivism is the conviction that public affairs are better managed by professional experts rather than by amateur citizens. After all, experts are trained in the objective sciences of society, which allow them to analyze and control the social forces that give us difficulty.

Ordinary citizens are not so trained, and so bring to public affairs only their narrow, unenlightened, parochial points of view, which make a hash of public policy. No wonder the major foundations have always supported the expansion of professional expertise. Early on they supported research universities and think tanks, the development of the social sciences, and the modernization of the legal and medical professions.

Today, progressivism is nicely captured in philanthropy’s relentless emphasis on conceptualizing and analyzing social interventions in terms so abstract as to be inscrutable to any but the credentialed elite.

Support for centralizing, rationalizing, and professionalizing the American health- care system is hardly a departure for American foundations, then, but rather simply another reflection of their long-term debt to progressivism.

The perpetual problem with progressivism, as it is with establishment American philanthropy, is that this devotion to professionalism and expertise tends to manifest itself to everyday citizens as aloofness and arrogance. How could it be otherwise, with all the condescending and insulting lectures that opposition to the reach of expertise can only be based on ignorance or prejudice or parochialism?

No wonder, then, that today we are witnessing a great populist insurgency against the experts, which may be as much about patronizing tone as offensive substance.

I would suggest that, instead of simply ridiculing that new legislator who will soon raise questions about the charitable nature of foundations, it might be wise instead to ask ourselves if there isn’t an element of wisdom in what he or she will say.

Philanthropy has financed many studies detailing the deplorable decline in American civic engagement and political participation. Yet it’s been reluctant to reflect on its own contribution to that decline, through its persistent denigration of everyday, citizenly common sense in favor of professional expertise.

What if foundations were to put aside their bias toward rationalization and centralization, and instead make a determined effort to seek out and support charitable projects designed by everyday citizens?

What if they were to stop drawing up social- engineering schemes back at foundation headquarters to parachute into distressed neighborhoods, and instead seek out the quiet, diligent, effective community efforts already under way to solve their own problems with their own resources?

Perhaps that would help channel today’s populist enthusiasms into local, grass-roots efforts aimed at solving immediate problems.

After all, if the Tea Partiers don’t want government to expand programs, then it is incumbent upon them to tackle social problems themselves, through voluntary, civic associations. Foundations would do well to encourage this productive deployment of newly abundant civic energies.

Now, foundation leaders will heave a great and weary sigh at this suggestion. They will maintain that it would be nothing more than a return to mere charity, a messy, cluttered, incoherent approach to social problems reflecting untutored popular prejudices rather than the smoothly humming, coherent, rational designs so carefully calibrated by the experts.

But it’s also possible to describe this as a grand renewal of American democracy. It would signal a renewal of faith, not in government, but in the capacity of everyday citizens to solve their own problems in their own communities according to their own particular moral and religious commitments.

Beneath all of its messiness and incoherence and particularity, we would discover the rejuvenated spirit of American freedom and self-government.

Now, that truly would be something.

Letter to the Editor
"Partisan Politics Could Pose 'Toxic Threat' to Foundations"
From The Chronicle of Philanthropy issue dated October 31, 2010.

To the Editor:

William Schambra is a friend and my foundation supports his Bradley Center’s stimulating series of philanthropy forums, but he is at it again (“Grant Makers’ Support of Obama May Haunt Them After Midterm Polls,” October 21).

His attack on Grantmakers in Health for its efforts to assure the successful implementation of the recent health-care legislation is troubling in one respect and wrong in another.

What is troubling is the barely veiled threat that if Republicans regain control of one or both houses of Congress, progressive foundations working to advance public-policy goals like health care and immigration reform might find themselves in the cross-hairs of investigating committees. That would be a disturbing extension of the toxic political environment, and, if it comes to pass, hypocritically partisan, as some of the best examples we have of legitimate foundation support for public-policy change come out of the conservative side of philanthropy—as, for instance, the Bradley Foundation’s promotion of school-voucher programs.

What is wrong is that Mr. Schambra saddles up again on his favorite hobby horse, the ostensibly elitist “progressive” movement. That attack is over 100 years old, but to the extent he portrays the recent health-care reform as a triumph of unaccountable experts over ordinary people, Mr. Schambra puts populism on the wrong side of the argument.

Powerful financial interests poured many millions of dollars into stopping comprehensive health-care reform, but only the power of ordinary people was able to overcome them and achieve an expansion of the social safety net.

Atlantic was proud to support the leading organizing effort of this kind, Health Care for America Now, which brought together more than 1,000 associations and millions of individuals, from churches to labor unions to civil-rights and minority groups, in a bottom-up effort to bring about vital change. Such change is consistent with voters’ preferences: Polls indicate that, despite a sustained misinformation campaign, after learning about the actual benefits, a majority of voters supports the important reforms that will make coverage more secure and more affordable.

If Mr. Schambra isn’t aware of the grass-roots nature of the health-care effort, it may be that he is spending too much time watching Fox News. The Tea Party protesters at town-hall meetings were often outnumbered by health-care supporters, but you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage.

Gara LaMarche
Atlantic Philanthropies
New York