The Decline of Progressive Policy and the New Philanthropy, by Robert O. Bothwell

Contents | Progressive Policy Making In Decline | A  Dissenting View On The Diminution Of Progressive Policy Making | Why Has There Been A Diminution Of Progressive Policy Making? | What Has Philanthropy Done To Counter The Decline Of Progressive Policy? | The Origins And Growth Of Progressive Foundations | The Creation And Growth Of New Private Funding Institutions | Summary And Conclusions | Can Philanthropy be Reformed?

Can Philanthropy be Reformed to Provide More Money for Social Change?

After a quarter century of trying to change philanthropy to be more responsive to social change, as director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, I see limited possibilities in changing mainstream philanthropy. Generally, philanthropy responds to what is happening in the society and the body politic. Thus, as conservatives have increased their sway over both, philanthropy has spent more and more money on issues conservatives have made important. Consider President Ronald Reagan's big tax cut and domestic spending cuts of the early 1980s. Foundations provided little support to nonprofits in opposition when these issues were being considered in Congress. After enactment, foundations, United Ways and all the rest of philanthropy worked overtime trying to make up the deficits in program spending and nonprofit revenues, then spent lots to study and evaluate the results. Or take welfare reform in the 1990s (no "workee," no money). Foundations mounted little in the way of opposition when it was being considered in Congress. After it was enacted, foundations and the rest of philanthropy spent huge amounts of money helping to implement, study and evaluate it. In both these cases, this was responding, or following, not leading.

However, I see excellent possibilities in reforming philanthropy through creation of new progressive foundations and alternative funding institutions. New vision, new energy, new organizations and new decision-makers can move more quickly to support emerging social movements and promising new directions and activities in existing movements. Yes, of course, raising new money to do this is uncertain, difficult and time consuming. But compared to convincing hidebound, sometimes strait-jacketed philanthropists to make very different funding decisions, controversial ones that may jeopardize their salaries, privileges, statuses and worldviews, raising the new money is easy. Moreover, once the new institutions are on the ground, up and running, they become beacons for others to follow. Such were the case of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development for religious funders, the Brotherhood Crusade in Los Angeles for Black United Funds, the Ms. Foundation for Women's Funds, the Vanguard Foundation and Haymarket Peoples Fund for alternative community foundations, the Cooperating Fund Drive for Social Action Funds and the Environmental Federation of California for Environmental Federations.

The evidence already points to an increase in overall foundation funding of social change over the period that the new progressive foundations and alternative funding institutions have originated and grown significantly. Of course, it could be said that this increase is marginal, only a few percentage points, from 0% to 2.4 % of all foundation giving. But that ignores its importance. For instance, prior to the ugly financial scandal that hit United Way of America in 1992, United Ways were considered the biggest of the big charities in the nation. But even then they were raising less than 3% of all private giving in the U.S.

Of greater importance, however, to increasing foundation and other philanthropy for social change is the growth of social movements themselves. Philanthropy does respond to what happens in the civic, social and political world. As Emmett Carson observes, " is only when culture-specific groups pursue their social justice agendas long enough and publicly enough to have them become acceptable to the broader public that foundations appear to become willing to support their activities." (209) The larger and more successful social movements are, the more adherents they win from the citizenry, the more favorably the media report their goals, activities and results, the more the state and national policymakers heed their wishes, the more philanthropy will respond. The civil rights movement, women's, anti-Vietnam war, environmental and gay/lesbian movements all found this to be true in the 1960s and 1970s. But the conservative movement overtook them in the 1980s and 1990s. Will progressives learn from the conservatives and from their own foibles, especially their policy silo entrapment, to enable them to win over society and the body politic again in the new millennium? Hard to say.


209. Carson, op. cit., pp. 250.