Some Reflections on Philanthropy and Government

Gara LaMarche, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies, gives the Keynote Address at the Annual Meeting of the United Neighborhood Houses in New York City.


I appreciate the invitation to share some thoughts with the board and staff members of the settlement houses and other neighborhood institutions that make up United Neighborhood houses, and when I asked if I could take as my theme the relationship between philanthropy and government – a very large theme, and one I will hardly do justice to – I did it with a keen awareness of the work and history of the audience. There are a few things I want to say about this vital connection, and I can’t think of a better group to say it to, whose insights and experience are more likely to challenge and educate me.


The launch of the settlement houses around the turn of the last century coincided with the first wave of significant social welfare legislation committing the government to steps holding up its end of the social compact, from child labor laws to the regulation of workplace safety, immigrant housing, and consumer production, not to mention democratic reforms like the civil service system and women’s suffrage. There is no better illustration of the interdependent roles of strong social movements that couple service delivery with social action –- from the “case to the cause,” in Jane Addams’ memorable words – and no better inspiration for a reinvigoration of the vital relationship between government and the frontline institutions of civil society.


Let me state my thesis right up front. In the just society in which we all wish to live, government, business and the non-profit sector all have key roles to play. We operate in a societal ecosystem where the economic and social health of all will be damaged by weakness in any of these elements. There is, however, an imbalance in this ecosystem, and I want to focus this evening on two parts that are out of alignment: government and the philanthropic part of the so-called third, or independent sector. We need to restore a strong social welfare role for government, which is the only institution that is both democratically controlled and can deliver, to use a philanthropy buzzword, at “scale.” We also need philanthropy that puts much more advocacy muscle behind the replication of its successful demonstration projects, and that recognizes the most sustainable investments are in strong organizations and experienced community leaders who can direct their energies and resources not just to the public policy needs of today, but those of the years to come, many of which we can’t yet see.


For various reasons, philanthropy has too often in the last several decades kept an arm’s length relationship with government and public policy. That has to change if we are to have any hope of making real progress on many of the leading challenges of our time: the reduction of poverty and the expansion of health care access, achieving a society that empowers and cares for the young and the old, providing justice and inclusion for immigrants and restoring the civil liberties so trampled by almost eight years of the Bush administration.


For its part, government has experienced a steady loss of confidence in the last few decades. Some of this, to be sure, is, if you will, an earned loss of confidence, borne of failing schools and opaque and unresponsive bureaucracies. We wouldn’t need to support programs like Single Stop, which helps low-income families get counseling to obtain the benefits to which they are legally entitled, from food stamps to Earned Income Tax Credits, if government always worked as it should. And we wouldn’t need to spend resources making sure the state of Florida actually implements the restoration of voting rights for former prisoners, if government always worked as it should.


But it must also be said that much of this loss of confidence is the result of a sustained assault on government –- years of disinformation from the right, with a woefully inadequate response by public officials and progressives alike –- that has taken a tremendous toll.


To connect the dots with an example from this morning’s New York Times, the state of Colorado, the state which led the way as a poster child for Grover Norquist’s notorious TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) laws, designed to starve the government of revenues for social programs, just posted in the first six years of the decade the most dramatic increases in child poverty.


In a 2005 American Prospect special report, Michael Lipsky and Dianne Stewart of Demos describe what happened very well:


There have always been tensions between conscientious legislators who support or oppose particular government expenditures, or who advocate or oppose increased tax revenues. But the sly campaign to cut government in general is relatively new. The advocates of small government today do not attack, as such, public schools, the state’s flagship university, mental-health providers, child-care assistance, or other critical programs and institutions. Instead, conservatives now undermine government in general. They respond to budget crises with deep spending cuts and sweep away any growth in revenues with tax cuts, ratcheting down the government’s ability to address public purposes. Any notion of investing in state capacity to meet growing needs is dismissed, leaving advocates of vital state services to compete with one another for an ever-smaller state budget pie.


Grover Norquist famously said he wanted to shrink government so small that it could be “drowned in a bathtub.” He and his like have been doing a good job of it. But perhaps their deepest hopes were drowned in the levees that burst in New Orleans, or crushed by the collapse of a bridge in Minnesota, two events that revealed to millions of Americans the lethal consequences of disinvestment in the poorest communities and in the infrastructures of transportation, health and safety upon which we all depend.


Just as the erosion in support for and understanding of the importance of government is a manufactured phenomenon, the consequence of a deliberate and sustained campaign, so too is the reticence of much of philanthropy to engage closely with government the residue of the battering that some foundations like Ford took over its Great Society demonstration projects like the Gray Areas initiative, and community empowerment measures like school decentralization in New York City. Most foundations are fairly traditional institutions which are uncomfortable being the center of controversy, and a little criticism can go a long way in stifling boldness.


The good news is that these trends are beginning to turn around. Both Presidential candidates, for example, favor a stronger, affirmative role for government in many areas. Supporters of a more effective and vibrant public sector are learning how to improve the way they talk about government. Research sponsored by Demos, the research and advocacy organization, and the Council for Excellence in Government, in partnership with the FrameWorks Institute, is identifying and honing messages about the positive role of government. As Lipsky and Stewart write, “Polling will still be important to understand public opinion on specific issues, but in the long run, issue-by-issue pulse-taking will not be successful unless activists develop alternatives to the contaminated ways that messages about government are framed today.”


To judge from the strongly positive reaction to a recent Atlantic Philanthropies report on why foundations should fund advocacy efforts, there is much more interest and activity in philanthropy in cutting-edge public policy work. But there is still a ways to go.


A month or so ago I attended the annual meeting of the Council on Foundations, this year called a philanthropy “summit.” It opened with the usual speeches from conference chairs and visiting dignitaries, but also featured a filmed essay, presumably commissioned, by Roger Rosenblatt, whose commentaries appear on the Lehrer NewsHour and in various other places. Generally the plenary presentations at these philanthropy gatherings are not very memorable, so I can be found, if I am in the hall at all, multi-tasking or kibitzing with friends on the edges of the room. But this short film got my attention, because Rosenblatt was so appallingly abject in his genuflection to what he called the “Fifth Estate” – philanthropy – which he said, breathtakingly, wielded as much power for good as the other estates combined. “No king or government,“ Rosenblatt told his patrons, “has ever used power to do such good for so many.” Governments and political parties fail us, according to Rosenblatt, but “the fifth estate is one we can believe in.” If philanthropy were a candidate for public office, he asserted, the people would elect it in a landslide.


This kind of talk gives philanthropy a bad name. Obviously, I would not be here, and would not have spent the last dozen years of my life helping two large foundations give out money to human rights and social justice groups, if I did not think there was a vitally important role for philanthropy. And of course I respect the pluralism of philanthropy – if a donor wants to support soup kitchens or summer camps, hungry and young people are being helped, one at a time, even if no larger systemic impact is achieved. But to suggest that foundations, which are creatures of the tax code, and which are able in our system to direct resources that might otherwise be taxable, and therefore subject to democratic direction, are preferred and more effective vehicles for the common good has it backwards.


Foundations can innovate, demonstrate, spur, fill in gaps, foster knowledge, identify talent, and do many other things that contribute to the betterment of society. But they cannot through their own funds alone begin to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and educate for participation in contemporary society many millions of young people. By definition their role must be catalytic.


Those of you who are part of United Neighborhood Houses are in a better position than almost anyone to get this. You often see both government and philanthropy at their worst – you see inefficiency, unresponsiveness and arrogance in both places. Yet you know, because you are grounded in communities, and see urban and American problems up close, dealing with families and schools and health care and job programs – because you have the perspective and the credibility for advocacy because it is grounded in service – that charity has its role but also its very sharp limits. Through UNH, you join together in a stronger advocacy voice on behalf of shared goals that you identify together, such as summer jobs for disconnected youth and the Campaign for Tomorrow’s Workforce.


Most of what I have to say tonight pertains to the United States, but I’ve learned much in the last year about models of working with government from Atlantic’s staff in the other geographies in which we make grants, and I want to touch on those models in thinking about the relationships between government and philanthropy in the U.S. In the Republic of Ireland, there is little tradition of investigative journalism and few think tanks to influence policy. Civil servants are of a generally high quality, and government is very centralized, so we form relationships with them – with the permanent government, as it were. This has paid off in co-investments by Atlantic with the Irish government in youth development programs, and in the appointment of key ministers to advance the concerns of older adults in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.


In South Africa, our Population Health program negotiates with the national Department of Health to support some the costs of upgrading nursing training facilities, and our Reconciliation and Human Rights Program has partnered with the Department of Land Affairs to provide legal advice and support to farm-workers who face illegal eviction. The Legal Aid Board, which provides legal support for indigent people, has entered into a partnership with our grantee the Association of University Legal Aid Institutions to provide support in some rural areas. The Department of Social Development provides support to some advice offices in the Western Cape which also receive support from Atlantic, and the Department of Education matched an Atlantic grant to build a Life Sciences Complex at the University of the Western Cape.


In Viet Nam, of course, the government’s role is quite pervasive, and Atlantic’s program has to interact quite closely with it. But there are many levels of government, and depending on projects’ needs and administrative requirements, and we work with the appropriate level of government as needed. In Viet Nam this ranges from public health programs such as mandating motorcycle helmets to dramatically reduce traffic fatalities to co-financing the upgrading of rural commune health clinics. The Ministry of Health is also our partner in raising needed matching funds for large projects such as the National Hospital of Pediatrics. Through Harvard University, we also assisted the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy in creating more effective HIV/AIDS policies in their home localities. At times, we also press the Office of the Prime Minister and Deputy Minister to facilitate progress and overcome administrative hurdles.


Here in the United States, Atlantic’s relationship to government has taken two forms. The first is in a sense adversarial. We fund organizations that monitor, criticize and sue the government, like civil rights groups fighting draconian restrictions on immigrants cropping up all over the country, and civil liberties lawyers challenging Guantanamo and warrantless wiretapping. The second is an attempt at partnership, from working with the U.S. Labor Department to provide more “encore career” opportunities for older adults to the State of New Mexico and the cities of Oakland and Chicago to match our investments in integrated services for middle school students.


I want to close these observations with two final ones, the first national in scope and the second ending where I began, at the local level where settlement houses thrive.


On the national level, we are in the throes of a Presidential campaign like none in recent memory, with higher turnouts and passions all across the country, and many people – including many younger ones who have not connected with the political process before – deeply engaged in choosing their government. The new administration, whatever its character, will be a fresh and important test of how foundations “get” advocacy for policy change. If John McCain takes office, some vital national issues will be in play, such as immigration reform, which went down to defeat last year in a toxic brew of xenophobia and meanspiritedness unleashed in part by the political weakness of George Bush, who, like the man who will likely succeed him as Republican nominee, is a relative moderate on the issue. McCain has also showed signs of independence and some integrity on torture and other post-9-11 civil liberties and human rights issues.


If Barack Obama is inaugurated come January 20, there are additional, perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunities to advance a progressive agenda, beginning with universal health care, the gaping hole in the U.S. safety net. Any new administration has a relatively short window to advance its agenda, and I would not want to look back on 2009 and 2010 and feel that Atlantic and other funders concerned with human rights and social justice did not do everything in our power to support advocacy groups in taking advantage of this moment, supporting and pushing the new administration as appropriate.


I conclude with a salute to the spectacular institutions that are settlement houses and their many modern-day successors by different names in different communities but all united by a common mission and vision. There is almost nothing settlement houses don’t do: after-school programs, ESL classes, job training, citizenship education and naturalization assistance, AIDS prevention, home meals for older adults, arts instruction and on and on. We’ve been privileged at Atlantic to support UNH through our Community Experience Partnership to foster civic engagement for older adults, and in the past to support family child care networks and emergency meals for home-bound elders after September 11 attacks.


I like the expression you see in UNH literature that those served by settlement houses are “neighbors, not clients.” It reinforces a shared humanity and interdependency, that is essential to all meaningful social progress, from Social Security and other New Deal programs to the civil rights, women’s rights, and lesbian and gay rights movements of more recent decades.


And who, not surprisingly, put it better than Jane Addams? “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”


And since, as she also said, “Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics,” let’s get busy!