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Foundations Are Searching For Ways To Fix An Ailing Political Process

November 12, 2012 03:19 PM

Joyce Money and Politics Program highlighted in Chronicle of Philanthrophy article. 

The following article was published November 11, 2012 in the Chronicle of Philanthrophy.

Foundations Are Searching for Ways to Fix an Ailing Political Process
By Caroline Preston
November 11, 2012

As Robert Gallucci settled into his job as president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, he quickly became dismayed by how much his old home of Washington, where he’d spent a long career as a foreign-policy expert, followed him to Chicago.

Virtually every problem the MacArthur foundation tried to tackle would find itself snarled by inaction in the nation’s capital, says Mr. Gallucci, who joined the philanthropy in 2009.

Take America’s fiscal situation. Mac­Arthur paid for a big study by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Public Administration that raised alarms about the mounting national debt and proposed a variety of solutions. But deficit talks have stalled in Washington.

So Mr. Gallucci became one of a handful of foundation leaders who are investigating how to use philanthropy to help, as he calls it, “strengthen democracy.”

“I think we are in trouble as a country, and I don’t think that’s hyperbolic,” he says.

But, he adds, “I want you to know I am not depressed. There are ways of improving the situation.”

Spurred by concerns about big money in politics, infringements on voting rights, a shrill and divisive political climate, and the failure of a polarized Congress to pass legislation on a range of issues, philanthropies including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network are also exploring what kind of a difference they could make in the political process.

They join other foundations that have been working on such issues for years, including the Joyce Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Renewed Interest

“Funders are beginning to recognize that you can’t really advance a wide range of goals or get things done right now in Washington because of the system of money and politics,” says John Kowal, vice president for programs at the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank and public-interest legal group that received a $500,000 grant from MacArthur this year. “I’m excited that funders are beginning to come back into this field.”

That said, the number of foundations trying to strengthen democratic institutions and engage more people in politics remains small, and grant awards tend to be modest. Solutions can seem elusive, requiring long-term commitments with little hope of immediate payoff.

Efforts to staunch the flow of money in politics have appeared hopeless to many in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court decision that overturned limits on corporate and other outside political spending, known as Citizens United. (The Center for Responsive Politics estimated that spending on the presidential and Congressional elections this year reached $6-billion.)

A few donors that backed groups working on campaign-finance issues in the last decade, like the Carnegie Corporation and Pew Charitable Trusts, have stopped. The tone of the just-completed presidential election has hardly augured a new era of bipartisanship.

Given these challenges, some nonprofit leaders and grant makers see a need to forge new coalitions and engage groups focused on the environment, immigration, labor, and other issues to mobilize voters and call attention to the influence of big spending in politics. They also say that foundations need to collaborate more.

Partisanship Concerns

Meanwhile, some philanthropy observers criticize foundation involvement in voting and campaign-finance issues altogether, saying the work is overly political and could cause them scrutiny from the news media.

“Just because the causes you care about can be shaped most immediately by political engagement doesn’t mean you take your foundation, your 501(c)(3) status, and apply it to politics,” says William Schambra, a Chronicle columnist and director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.

Many foundation leaders disagree, saying their grants are not partisan, and they advance their missions of ensuring that less-fortunate Americans have a brighter future.

The MacArthur foundation has contributed roughly $7-million since April to nonprofits that are trying to reduce barriers to voting, educate lawmakers about public financing for elections, and related efforts.

The grants have included $300,000 for the Advancement Project’s Voter Protection Program, to ensure that minorities are treated fairly in elections, and $1.8-million to the Aspen Institute’s Congressional Program, which promotes discussions by politicians from both parties on a variety of issues.

While that work is important, Mr. Gallucci says he’s not persuaded that the foundation’s grants so far add up to a “winning strategy to strengthen our republic.” So he’s been holding off-the-record dinners with journalists, scholars, and policy experts—he declines to say who—in order to shape a more ambitious approach.

One idea that’s bubbled up: free television airtime for leading political candidates, so money does not play as big a role in determining which candidates’ voices are heard.

Rise of Ideologies

Officials of the Hewlett and Omidyar philanthropies declined on-the-record interviews for this article, saying they are still planning their strategies.

Hewlett’s new president, Larry Kramer, has spoken about his concern that ideologies, not facts, are shaping public discourse and policy making.

In 2011, Omidyar hired Joe Goldman, a veteran of nonprofit civic-engagement groups, to lead its new Democracy Fund. The fund’s initial grants include a two-year, $800,000 commitment to the National Institute for Civic Discourse, a group formed in the wake of the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat from Arizona.

The organization will be working with members of Congress, the public, and the news media to study and try to overcome “hyperpartisanship” in politics and in the public discourse, says its executive director, Carol Lukensmeyer.

Since 2007, Omidyar Network has also supported the Sunlight Foundation through a grant program focused on government transparency. The Sunlight Foundation uses technology tools to reveal spending by corporations and other special-interest groups and how that spending influences policy.

Legal Strategies

Some foundations are also trying to directly stem the tide of campaign spending.

After curtailing its grants for campaign-finance issues in the middle of the last decade, the Open Society Foundations resumed such giving following Citizens United. The philanthropy is supporting the Corporate Reform Coalition, a network of groups that are trying to tighten state disclosure requirements for corporate campaign spending.

It is also investigating how to support a legal strategy to overturn Citizens United, says Thomas Hilbink, a senior program officer at Open Society.

That effort might be modeled on the legal movement that eventually led to Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that abolished segregation in schools.

“There are few issues that are more fundamental to an open society than being sure the electoral and governing systems are open to all sectors of society,” says Mr. Hilbink.

In addition, the foundation is supporting the Piper Fund, a grant maker that raises donations, in its efforts to educate lawmakers and the public about alternatives to the direct election of judges.

Out-of-state donors poured money into efforts to unseat state Supreme Court judges in Iowa and Florida who voted to uphold same-sex marriage and President Obama’s health-care law. Advocates say that changing the way justices are chosen would reduce the role of big money in judicial decisions.

Meanwhile, some foundations are pressing forward on efforts to increase voter turnout. They say this work is particularly urgent now because of tightened voter identification laws in more than 10 states, and an expected decision by the Supreme Court to hear a case challenging a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Carnegie Corporation gives about $5-million per year to ensure that more Americans have access to the ballot. This year, for example, it gave $100,000 to the Nonprofit Voter Engagement Network for efforts to ensure that more social-service groups sign up people to vote when they register for disability assistance, food stamps, and other aid.

The Ford Foundation has supported voter-turnout projects since the 1950s and this year committed roughly $20-million, says Maya Harris, its vice president of democracy, rights, and justice.

The fund is increasingly supporting new technology that can help engage voters. For example, Ford gave $300,000 to a group called Fight for the Future for a new application that would let people use Facebook to encourage their friends to vote.

“Our view is that democracy is stronger when everyone participates in the public-policy decisions that impact their lives and when all voices are heard, including the most vulnerable and marginalized,” says Ms. Harris.

Measurement Challenge

A heightened focus by foundations on measurable results poses challenges for democracy work, say some experts.

“It’s harder to apply very tight metrics to improving our democracy than to how many meals have been served in a homeless shelter,” says Miles Rapoport, president of Demos, a think tank.

Case in point: The Joyce Foundation, which gives about $3-million a year to reduce the influence of money in politics, shifted its focus three years ago from the federal level to a handful of states.

The decision, says Ellen Alberding, Joyce’s president, was driven both by skepticism about action at the federal level and a belief that building deep relationships with state and local organizations could help them seize opportunities for change.

Such an opportunity presented itself in Illinois, she says, in the wake of the 2008 corruption scandal of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Longtime grantees, like the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, successfully pushed for limitations on campaign contributions.

But that work took years.

“If a foundation has to report on a success in two years to its board, this might be an issue they’d want to reconsider,” says Ms. Alberding.

Karen Hobert Flynn, vice president for strategy and programs at Common Cause, which tries to strengthen the voices of ordinary citizens in politics, echoes that sentiment.

When she was head of the Connecticut chapter of Common Cause, her group and others spent 10 years pushing for public financing to limit the role of big money in state elections. Legislation was passed in 2005, and advocates credit it with leading to a more cooperative atmosphere in government that has resulted in the passage of a paid-sick-leave mandate, in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, a job-creation bill, and other laws.

Says Ms. Hobert Flynn: “You can’t get a small grant and transform how government operates.”


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