Foundations Are Searching for Ways to Fix an Ailingpolitical Process

Foundations Are Searching for Ways to Fix an Ailingpolitical Process

Foundations Are Searching for Ways to Fix an AilingPolitical Process

Chronicle of Philanthropy
Nov 11, 2012

By Caroline Preston

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

Virtually every problem the MacArthur foundation tried to tacklewould 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 bythe National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy ofPublic Administration that raised alarms about the mountingnational debt and proposed a variety of solutions. But deficit talkshave stalled in Washington.

So Mr. Gallucci became one of a handful of foundation leaders whoare 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’shyperbolic,” he says.

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

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

They join other foundations that have been working on such issuesfor years, including the Joyce Foundation, Open SocietyFoundations, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Renewed Interest

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

That said, the number of foundations trying to strengthendemocratic institutions and engage more people in politics remainssmall, and grant awards tend to be modest. Solutions can seemelusive, requiring long-term commitments with little hope ofimmediate payoff.

Efforts to staunch the flow of money in politics have appearedhopeless to many in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court decisionthat overturned limits on corporate and other outside politicalspending, known as Citizens United. (The Center for ResponsivePolitics estimated that spending on the presidential andCongressional elections this year reached $6-billion.)

A few donors that backed groups working on campaign-financeissues in the last decade, like the Carnegie Corporation and PewCharitable Trusts, have stopped. The tone of the just-completedpresidential election has hardly augured a new era of bipartisanship.

Given these challenges, some nonprofit leaders and grant makerssee a need to forge new coalitions and engage groups focused on theenvironment, immigration, labor, and other issues to mobilizevoters 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 foundationinvolvement in voting and campaign-finance issues altogether,saying the work is overly political and could cause them scrutinyfrom the news media.

“Just because the causes you care about can be shaped mostimmediately by political engagement doesn’t mean you take yourfoundation, your 501(c)(3) status, and apply it to politics,” saysWilliam Schambra, a Chronicle columnist and director of theHudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and CivicRenewal.

Many foundation leaders disagree, saying their grants are notpartisan, and they advance their missions of ensuring that less-fortunateAmericans have a brighter future.

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

The grants have included $300,000 for the Advancement Project’sVoter Protection Program, to ensure that minorities are treatedfairly in elections, and $1.8-million to the Aspen Institute’sCongressional Program, which promotes discussions by politiciansfrom both parties on a variety of issues.

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

One idea that’s bubbled up: free television airtime for leadingpolitical candidates, so money does not play as big a role indetermining 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 theirstrategies.

Hewlett’s new president, Larry Kramer, has spoken about hisconcern that ideologies, not facts, are shaping public discourse and policymaking.

In 2011, Omidyar hired Joe Goldman, a veteran of nonprofit civicengagementgroups, to lead its new Democracy Fund. The fund’sinitial grants include a two-year, $800,000 commitment to theNational Institute for Civic Discourse, a group formed in the wake ofthe 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat fromArizona.

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

Since 2007, Omidyar Network has also supported the SunlightFoundation through a grant program focused on governmenttransparency. The Sunlight Foundation uses technology tools toreveal spending by corporations and other special-interest groupsand how that spending influences policy.

Legal Strategies

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

After curtailing its grants for campaign-finance issues in the middleof the last decade, the Open Society Foundations resumed suchgiving following Citizens United. The philanthropy is supporting theCorporate Reform Coalition, a network of groups that are trying totighten state disclosure requirements for corporate campaignspending.

It is also investigating how to support a legal strategy to overturnCitizens United, says Thomas Hilbink, a senior program officer atOpen Society.

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

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

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

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

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

The Carnegie Corporation gives about $5-million per year to ensurethat more Americans have access to the ballot. This year, forexample, it gave $100,000 to the Nonprofit Voter EngagementNetwork for efforts to ensure that more social-service groups signup people to vote when they register for disability assistance, foodstamps, and other aid.

The Ford Foundation has supported voter-turnout projects since the1950s and this year committed roughly $20-million, says MayaHarris, its vice president of democracy, rights, and justice.

The fund is increasingly supporting new technology that can helpengage voters. For example, Ford gave $300,000 to a group calledFight for the Future for a new application that would let people useFacebook to encourage their friends to vote.

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

Measurement Challenge

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

“It’s harder to apply very tight metrics to improving our democracythan 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-milliona year to reduce the influence of money in politics, shifted its focusthree years ago from the federal level to a handful of states.

The decision, says Ellen Alberding, Joyce’s president, was drivenboth by skepticism about action at the federal level and a belief thatbuilding deep relationships with state and local organizations couldhelp them seize opportunities for change.

Such an opportunity presented itself in Illinois, she says, in thewake of the 2008 corruption scandal of former Gov. RodBlagojevich. Longtime grantees, like the Illinois Campaign forPolitical Reform, successfully pushed for limitations on campaigncontributions.

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 atCommon Cause, which tries to strengthen the voices of ordinarycitizens 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 tolimit the role of big money in state elections. Legislation was passedin 2005, and advocates credit it with leading to a more cooperativeatmosphere in government that has resulted in the passage of a paid-sick-leave mandate, in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, a jobcreationbill, and other laws.

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