The Dilemmas of Foundation-Backed Activism by Aaron G. Lehmer
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Source: Earth Island Journal
The Dilemmas of Foundation-Backed Activism
by Aaron G. Lehmer
The financial assets of America's foundations have
ballooned in recent years as the stock market has
soared. From this new bounty, grant-making foundations distributed over $19.4
billion to nonprofit groups last year, a 22 percent increase over 1997 and the
largest total amount recorded in US history, according to the New York-based
But as foundation dollars have risen, so too has the number of professional
philanthropists, many of whom are becoming increasingly engaged in hands-on
grant-making and nonprofit program development. For some organizations,
particularly the larger, more established groups, this trend has helped their
programs and campaigns. For less established grassroots groups, however,
foundation-driven program management has undermined much of their creative
independence and flexibility.
Mark Dowie, author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of
the 20th Century, calls foundation-driven advocacy "imperious grant-making."
Through his research for a book about foundations due out next year, Dowie said
he estimates that at least 10,000 professional philanthropic consultants now
operate in the US. "We've created a cadre of people who really think they know
best what to do with money and a large portion of them think they know how to
manage nonprofits," he said.
Examples of foundation-driven program development are occurring more and more
frequently and involve more money, reports Pablo Eisenberg, Vice-Chair of the
National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, in the January 28 issue of the
Chronicle of Philanthropy. "Behind many of these programs is a lack of confidence
and trust by foundation executives in the ability of grantees to run successful
programs," writes Eisenberg. "That attitude ... has done as much as anything else
to arouse the deep suspicion, frustration, and resentment that so many nonprofit
executives have long felt toward their colleagues in the philanthropic world."
Among the foundations whose grant-making is the most hands-on, Pew Charitable
Trusts stands out. According to Jim Britell, an Oregon-based environmental
activist and political organizer, Pew has gone so far as to force changes in the
executive structure of nonprofit groups. In an interview, he said that an editor of
Green Cross, a publication of the North American Coalition for Christianity and
Ecology, was driven out for environmental reporting that Pew considered too
controversial. He also cited the case of the Endangered Species Coalition, where
an "aggressive" female organizer was replaced in favor of someone Pew found
In response, Barbara Beck, Public Affairs Manager for Pew Charitable Trusts
insists that her organization has never requested that an environmental
organization change a stated position or alter an internal policy. "We, like other
philanthropies, pay close attention to the performance of groups with whom we
work, and will often decline support to organizations that we do not feel are well
managed or are technically capable of undertaking a specific project or activity."
Though Dowie says foundation directives can sometimes go too far, he admits that
funder involvement can also yield positive results. In some cases, program
managers benefit greatly from the advice, expertise, and creativity of foundation
program officers, he says.
One proposal writer for environmental organizations agrees that some
foundation-driven efforts are quite worthwhile. As an example, he says, the
Goldman Environmental Fund made strides recently by funding new alliances
between human rights groups like Amnesty International and environmental groups
and has successfully elevated public awareness of the persecution of
environmental activists internationally. "Pew's work on global climate change has
also succeeded in getting big businesses to sign pledges to reduce their
greenhouse gas emissions," he said. "It hasn't made major advances in reducing
global warming, but it has shifted the corporate climate on the issue from denial to
recognition of the problem as worthy of action by business."
Robert Ferguson, Director of Foundation Relations for the Natural Resources
Defense Council (NRDC) in New York, said foundation involvement can often be an
invaluable asset. "We're engaged in a very healthy dialogue with foundation
program officers," said Ferguson. "If you've had a long relationship, they're more
willing to make a long-term commitment to your work." But Ferguson
acknowledges that NRDC, a large mainstream environmental organization, runs
campaigns that fit within the program scope of about 80 percent of the foundations
that fund environmental work.
Such funding, says Britell, tends to be for "name-it-and-save-it" projects that
rarely, if ever, take on the corporations that are causing the problems in the first
place. If you want to do grassroots organizing around problems like corporate
crime or corporations' central role in environmental destruction, it's almost
impossible to get foundation funding, he says. Since many of these foundations
derive their funds from oil companies and other extractive industries, grantee
guidelines often stress a preference for "win-win" program proposals that won't
threaten such activities. This is why Pew funds journalists who are directed to do
interesting stories about threatened ecosystems, but never stories that actually
name the culprits behind the problems, Britell said.
Beck characterizes such criticism as coming from marginal environmental
activists who, because of their "extreme positions and the absence of a real
constituency," typically have a hard time obtaining financial assistance from any
sector. "The tendency of these organizations to blame their lack of success on a
plot by philanthropies is a convenient but disingenuous excuse for the fact that
they have been able to garner little popular support for their positions among either
the broader environmental community or the American public," she said.
But one environmental proposal writer affirmed that "many philanthropic
foundations are simply public relations arms for major corporations." Because so
many corporate executives sit on their boards, he also sees a reluctance on the
part of many foundations to fund anyone who's overtly critical of companies.
In order to make foundations more accountable to the public interest, critics like
Herbert Chao Gunther, president and executive director of the Public Media Center
in San Francisco, argue they should be subject to greater scrutiny and public
oversight. Others suggest that foundations should invite more broad-based
participation in determining priorities and awarding grants by opening up their
boards to representatives from communities and the nonprofit sector.
While supportive of such measures, Dowie says the biggest challenge facing
activists is the minimal amount of funding given to environmental causes. "If you
omit funds like foundation purchases of development easements and other similar
expenses, genuine environmental funding is less than three percent of all
foundation grants given in the United States," he said. As a strategy for increasing
this amount, Dowie says environmentalists should target health policy-focused
philanthropists. "The hot buzz-phrase these days is 'healthy communities.' Well,
you can't get that without funding grassroots efforts to fight for clean air and clean
water," he said. "That's the big pitch."
But Britell says the real answer to funding environmentalism is to get off foundation
grants. Instead, he says grassroots groups should be funded through
community-based strategies like phone bill solicitations so that activists are
accountable to as broad a pool of donors as possible. "You're not going to get at
the fundamental problems we face through foundation grants," he said. "They're
part of the problem."
Aaron G. Lehmer is an environmental writer and graduate student living in Arcata,
CA. He is also the Website Manager for Earth Island Institute and founder of
ProgressiveRockers.com, an on-line showcase of classic and contemporary rock
artists working for positive social and environmental change.
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