Change Comes to Washington: Will it Come to Philanthropy, Too?

Philanthropy should step up and seize the unprecedented opportunities created by the election of President Obama, said Gara LaMarche, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies, in this speech at the Annual Meeting of Southern California Grantmakers in Los Angeles.


When the terrific Sushma Raman – whose fine career I would like to take some small measure of credit for, as we hired her to run the Los Angeles office of our Emma Lazarus Fund at the Open Society Institute ten or so years ago — asked me to be your keynote speaker some months ago, I quickly realized that the speech would fall within a few weeks of the election, and readily agreed, because this is such an important audience and since I thought that, no matter what the outcome, there would be some things I wanted to say. So I am glad to be here and to have the opportunity to share some of what has been on my mind in the heady days since November 4.


True, I was fearful that had the election gone a different way, I might not be in any shape to talk with you, having just emerged from detox after a week in bed surrounded by 23 empty fifths of bourbon. But it worked out just fine.


You laugh. Partly in shock, I suppose, for I have just violated one of the cardinal rules of philanthropy, which is to pretend that you are some kind of bystander to the most fundamental choices facing the nation, played out in an arena – an election among all eligible voters – that is at the opposite end of the public accountability spectrum from our line of work, philanthropy. A few weeks ago, the Chronicle of Philanthropy went online and checked the public political donation records of various leaders of philanthropy and non-profits, and that sent shock waves among my colleagues, most of them dreading the reporter’s call. They never called me, but if they had I would have told them that I did not give up my citizenship rights or my political opinions when I went to work in philanthropy. All I agreed to do was make sure that our grantmaking was never affected by partisan political considerations. And it is not, as indeed it never was before I came to philanthropy, when I worked for civil liberties and human rights organizations that were scrupulously non-partisan, and gave hell to Democrats and Republicans alike. After all, FDR interned Japanese-Americans and Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. Nobody’s perfect.


Had John McCain been elected President, we’d be working right now to help our grantees work with him and his transition team to see what progress we could make on ending torture, closing Guantanamo, expanding child health insurance coverage, pushing for expanded national service programs that tap into the huge potential among older adults as well as young people, and enacting comprehensive immigration reform – all issues, among others, where there would be some reason to hope there could be progress under his Administration.


But it is Barack Obama who will take the oath of office on January 20, and I see no reason to disguise my delight, since in addition to all those issues, Obama’s policies and objectives are aligned in a much broader array of core areas in which Atlantic Philanthropies is working with our grantees to make progressive and lasting change. We have arrived at a moment – an historic moment, for many different reasons – where that change is possible.


So we celebrate the revolution in electoral and civic participation, after years in which many of us feared that political disconnection, particularly among young people and voters of color, threatened the very legitimacy of our democracy; we celebrate that a man whose early predecessors in office, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned fellow human beings of his color and ancestry, takes his place beside them in the amazing parade of American history; we celebrate the huge symbolic stride toward restoration of America’s tarnished image in the world. But we also celebrate, many of us, the new President’s mandate, since this election was about things, important things, and decisively won – for an economic recovery that restores a measure of fairness and invests in long-term structural needs like education, clean energy and affordable health care.


It is nice to be able to say you look forward to working with your own government to make the world a better place — independent of it, surely; at times critical of it — but feeling you have a partner, not an adversary. Maybe the demonstration projects we fund in philanthropy that actually demonstrate something will no longer be like the proverbial trees that fall in the forest with no one to hear them.


I want to talk with you today about the way philanthropy is affected by the change in administrations that will take place very soon. There is an ordinary way of looking at that – how the “sector” can advance its policy objectives, identified by our collective associations like the Council on Foundations and Independent Sector – and an extra-ordinary way of looking at that, about the deeper changes in the way we look at government, and in the way we do business, that this historic election has made not only possible, but imperative. I will try to do some of both.


Let’s start with the more traditional way of looking at the election and philanthropy.


First, we note with pride that our new President probably has closer ties to the sector, and a better understanding of it, than anyone before him. He was a board member of the Joyce Foundation and Woods Fund in Chicago, chaired that city’s Annenberg Challenge, and his mother was at one time a representative of the Ford Foundation in Indonesia. He and the new First Lady have worked for and served on the boards of numerous non-profits funded by many of us in this room. Valerie Jarrett, his key adviser, who among other roles in the Obama White House will be overseeing public liaison, specifically relating to non-profits and foundations, is now on the Joyce Foundation Board. Numerous members of the transition team, starting with its co-chair John Podesta, currently head non-profit advocacy institutions and think-tanks funded by foundations. These connections are not peripheral, and the relationships they represent, and the understanding and awareness they signal, will be extremely important in the months and years to come.


It’s also worth observing that it is not just starry-eyed idealists and passionate community organizers who can take heart from the Obama victory, it’s also all you effectiveness and metrics gurus who have been taking over philanthropy in recent years! Paul Schmitz, the CEO of Public Allies, which once employed Michelle Obama, wrote in the Non-Profit Quarterly last week – a point echoed by Jerry Hauser, the CEO of The Management Center – that the Obama campaign was a triumph of disciplined management and best practices essential to the non-profit sector: a powerful brand, a clear measurable strategy, face to face and online organizing, and meaningful leadership by young people, like the 32-year-old director of field operations and the 26-year-old director of speechwriting.


On that last and very important note, if the course of a nation’s history can be changed with young people in the driver’s seat, exercising enormous responsibility, maybe we can find more space for them in the leadership of the non-profit sector. The recent appointments of 33-year-old Anna Lefer Kuhn as Executive Director of the DC-based Arca foundation – whose last director, Donna Edwards, was just elected to Congress from Maryland – and 34-year-old Ben Jealous as head of the NAACP give hope that a trend may be coming, and one that could be intensified by the shake-up in our sector that is sure to follow the entry of many non-profit leaders into government.


Now about philanthropy’s agenda for the new administration. When the Chronicle of Philanthropy asked a dozen or so non-profit sector leaders, including me, to write briefly to suggest priorities for the new President, I was disappointed to see how many of them focused on inside baseball measures that are about philanthropy – new agencies and offices focused on the sector, for example – and how few about the big national and global problems we face. This is no time to think small.


To be sure, there are some policy matters affecting philanthropy and non-profits in particular that are extremely important, and where there may be opportunities to promote a more forward-looking agenda after years of defensiveness. In her terrific keynote to last week’s Independent Sector conference, Diana Aviv sets forth some of these, such as modernization of lobbying rules and easing of restrictions on charitable giving abroad. Along with universal voter registration and employee free choice in the workplace, these are important steps to strengthen the very infrastructure of democracy, which is in disrepair just as much as our levees and our bridges – and the health of both infrastructures is closely connected.


I want to take that as a departure point for addressing the broader opportunities for philanthropy, because in the end we must be about much more than the rules of the road. We must be about the nature of both the journey and the destination.


I want to say a word about what we have been doing in the last year at Atlantic Philanthropies, because some of it will set the stage for what I want to say about philanthropy in general. Atlantic has about 3 and a half billion dollars to spend; seven countries, including the U.S., that we spend it in; and about nine more years to spend it before we get down to zero and go out of business. The market, of course, has been doing its part this fall to help us get closer to zero.


There are few foundations, at our scale or any scale, that have been as focused on measurable strategic objectives as Atlantic, and when we conclude a quiet strategic review at the end of this year, we will continue to be. Indeed, in our four program areas – human rights, youth, health and ageing – we will be even more focused on where we have traction and the possibility of lasting impact in furthering social justice. But at the same time, we have come to recognize that we also need to be prepared to seize chances that arise that are within our core mission and values but which may lie outside our particular strategic objectives, or run across them.


So my first example is about strategic opportunism, and it involves heath care in the United States. We have extensive health programs in South Africa and Viet Nam, and have been big backers of SCHIP expansion for American kids, but we were not really a U.S. health care funder until this year. It wasn’t in our enumerated priorities. But it was within our framework of values for making lasting change in the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged people, and when Jeff Blum of U.S. Action and others came to see us last year to urge us to back an audacious campaign led by a broad coalition to achieve health care for everyone in America — to repair the most gaping hole in the social safety net — we saw it as an opportunity to create the conditions for change, and our board this June approved a $10 million grant for the HCAN network, what I am told is the largest-ever foundation grant for advocacy.Now that the campaign has had such initial success, and President-Elect Obama, who endorsed its principles during the campaign, has made it clear that health care remains a key priority, even in the economic crisis and indeed especially because of it, we will soon consider significant support for HCAN to build on this moment. The California Endowment has been a key partner in this effort, and we need many more.


My second example is about collaboration. Atlantic has probably been the largest foundation funder of advocacy work to fight the shameful abuses of human rights that have taken place under the American flag during the last seven years – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, warrantless spying, rendition, waterboarding, the whole sordid list. When I was succeeded by the terrific Ann Beeson at OSI last year, who came to the job fresh from her leadership of these fights as a lawyer at the ACLU, and when Ann made one of her initial priorities a $20 million commitment to a three-year campaign for the restoration of basic civil liberties and human rights, we not only matched the commitment that George Soros and the OSI board made, but we said we would back OSI’s strategy and work collaboratively, making decisions, convening grantees, experts and other funders, supporting communications and messaging work, and doing everything as partners. There’s far too little of that in the foundation world, and it is our hope that our collaborative approach catches on.


We must find ways to rise above the silos in which we have too often organized ourselves, and find new ways of working together. These will become crucially more important in the moment at hand.


Now to that moment. Every sign we get from the newly-elected President and the people around him is that he has no intention of wasting the crisis with which he has been presented. As Rahm Emanuel said just this morning to a group of business leaders, the administration intends to “throw long and deep.” Andy Stern, the leader of SEIU, the great service employees union, sent to a bunch of us a few weeks ago, on the eve of the election, Jonathan Alter’s book about the first 100 days of FDR, The Defining Moment, also said to be on the President-elect’s bedside reading table, and its significance was obvious. This moment will surely define, for all of history, Barack Obama. But it will also define us. How will we meet it?


I want to leave you with three thoughts, two of which are about what we need to do, and the final one about how we need to do it.


On both the merits and the politics, a comprehensive economic recovery plan, the most urgent national and Presidential priority, must include not only stimulus for the short-term, but investment for the longer-term, to deal with the structural weaknesses of the U.S. economy. That means dealing with health care, clean energy and education not as wishlist items to be deferred to another day, but as essential elements of economic justice. To the extent President Obama resists the counsels of caution, the advice of those who would like him to embrace the policies he defeated on November 4, we need to help him stay on course. I would argue that this moment is one for all of us, in foundations and among those fortunate and generous enough to be able to direct their wealth to advance their values, to rise above our particular mandates and programs to back this big idea.


The atomization of philanthropy in the past, where most of us sat out the most profound debates of our time – about the scandalous redistribution of wealth upward, about the massive waste of blood and treasure that is the war in Iraq — is part of why we are in the fix we are in today. We need to behave differently. Just as President-Elect Obama recognizes that the long-term health of the United States requires us to run deeper deficits to fuel our way out of this ditch, every one of us needs to dig deeper, too. Foundations that have too long treated their endowments as inviolable need to think about spending more even in this time of fiscal scarcity to capture the opportunities crisis and history have placed before us.


I will be recommending to the Atlantic board next month that we dig further into our pockets to set aside substantial resources in 2009 for a pooled fund, which I hope other foundations and donors will join, to create as large a treasury as possible to ensure that the new administration has the support it needs – and the push, as well, where needed – to get the job done. Surely the remnants of the right will understand that as in 1993 and 1994, if they can cause the new President to fail in this moment, there will be no progressive restoration. They know the stakes, so do we, and we have to do what we need to do.


In this effort, there is an unprecedented resource, and that is the enormous democratic energy harnessed by the Obama campaign – the thousands of organizers on the ground in the most unlikely places, the millions of donors and activists who feel a personal connection to the candidate and the cause.


As George Packer wrote in the recent New Yorker, “Obama has his own grass-roots organization, on the Internet and in hundreds of field offices. This is new territory, because those earlier movements had independent identities apart from any President, whereas Obama’s movement didn’t exist before his candidacy; its purpose was to get him elected. Even so, it has the breadth, the organization, and the generational energy of other movements, and it can be converted into a political coalition if its leader knows how to harness it.”


It would be a tragedy of immense proportions for this energy to dissipate. Some of it, inevitably, can and will be turned to political uses, and there is no role for foundations there. But much of it can be turned into an activist force to help push the progressive agenda in the years ahead. At no time in my lifetime have so many been so passionate, so hopeful, so ready to work for a better future. To make this moment last, they must be more than a database to be sold or shared with political allies, more than a labor pool to fill out the Plum Book, though that is important, too. They are a peacetime army to change the country, and they are ready to be mobilized, both in support of the President’s goals and at times, as we saw when Obama supporters rebelled against his position on the FISA spying bill this summer, using the campaign’s website, against them. Supporting this mobilization is our urgent challenge, and Atlantic stands ready to work with any other donor to meet it.


And suppose, by the way, we did it by challenging ordinary small donors with a match? Foundations play an elaborate circle game trying to leverage one another with such grants, but just imagine what could be unleashed if we used our funds to challenge and empower citizens?


Finally, and on this note, every funder and every non-profit should take a good look at what Barack Obama did and try hard to learn from it. I can’t think of a time when I trusted the deep understanding of how power works, of how race matters, of how change takes place, of what true legitimacy is – when I trusted the judgment and instincts of a politician more on these matters than I do most of the leaders of our New York temples of philanthropy and our Beltway advocates. On the one hand, it is a nice feeling, but it is also a scary one. We need to raise our game, considerably.


I have spent many tough years trying to persuade my colleagues in philanthropy, including inside many institutions where I have worked, that support for community organizing is a vital strategy for assuring long-term change that is sustainable because it is driven by the energy of people and movements. In the last few years there has been some cause for encouragement, with the launch of the Linchpin Project of the Center for Community Change, and the Ford Foundation’s new Grantcraft publication, both of which deconstruct and explain organizing for those who need to get it better and convey that message to colleagues and board members.


But if the election of a community organizer as President of the United States is not a teachable moment for philanthropy, I don’t know what is. There are examples deserving support in every community, and few places where this work is more vibrant and effective than right here in Los Angeles, where pioneering work has been done by the Partnership for Working Families and others to assure that community benefits are an essential part of economic development.


In my years in philanthropy, I have many times heard my colleagues testify, sometimes with eyes glistening and voices breaking, to why we do this work: because we want to leave a better world for our children. We now stand at a moment in history where we can make fundamental and enduring change in this country’s priorities: lifting children and families from poverty; providing health security; bringing immigrants out of the shadows and into the fabric of a strong, diverse society; and restoring America’s battered reputation as a beacon of human rights. I hope I speak for every one of you when I say that I do not want to look back on these incredible days, in which we are so privileged to live, and feel that I did not do every single thing that I could do make the moment count. The moment, as the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney writes in The Cure at Troy, when “hope and history rhyme.”


Thank you.