Most of the things philanthropists care about — civility, moderation, partnership, consensus — are fast disappearing. Our country, and much of the world, seem to be moving to a kind of scorched-earth politics in which division along ethnic, racial, religious, gender and identity lines is the currency of power. As ideologies become more rigid, people increasingly are balkanized into spatially segregated communities and social media echo chambers. In this kind of undeclared war, being right and winning are all that matter, with seemingly no aisle to cross and no common ground.
How should foundations navigate the world of 2018 and beyond? How can they? To be sure, foundations have something valuable to contribute — flexible resources free from market, electoral, and fundraising pressures. But will they use them to fight, transcend, or simply ignore the conflict that surrounds them?
Fight to Win…
As long as they do not run afoul of IRS restrictions on explicitly partisan political activity and lobbying to influence specific legislation, foundations and their grantee partners may and often do engage in politics (with a small "p"). One way to track foundations’ political engagement is to look not at the "what" of their grantmaking but the "how." At Foundation Center, we refer to these as "support strategies," which include cross-cutting approaches such as advocacy, coalition building, accountability, grassroots organizing, litigation, and systems reform. Collectively, these approaches have accounted for $27.5 billion in funding around the world since 2006. While that is less than 6 percent of total grantmaking over the same period, it is a significant amount and, in recent years, has grown. When we have more complete data for 2017 and 2018, I’m sure it will show the trend is accelerating.
Foundations are also striving to make American democracy itself work better. Foundation Funding for American Democracy (a web portal developed by Foundation Center) shows that since 2011 more than 5,600 foundations have made some $4.2 billion in grants for work related to campaigns, elections and voting, government effectiveness and transparency, and civic participation. As befits a sector that prides itself on its diversity of perspectives, these foundations have different views of what the solutions should be. Consider, for example, a grant from the Grogan Family Foundation to Judicial Watch "to fight corruption and voter fraud" and a grant made by the Joyce Foundation to the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin Education Fund for "…developing and promoting a reform agenda that includes redistricting, judicial independence and voting rights." Both foundations and their grantees are working to improve the electoral process, but they have diagnosed the problem differently and are supporting quite different remedies.
Implicit to the theories of change that guide this kind of work is the idea that approaches developed by grantees eventually will be reflected in party platforms and government policy. But there are plenty of indications that growing numbers of Americans view the political establishment, government institutions, and parties themselves as part of the problem rather than the solution. Increasingly, we find ourselves mired in a culture war in which the rules of engagement seem to reward portraying "the other" as an enemy to be vanquished, rather than as a potential partner in the search for a common future. In such a war, foundations increasingly will need to ask themselves and their grantees how far they are willing to go to "win." Should foundations support groups that dehumanize immigrants by derisively describing government policy toward them as “catch and release” (a term whose origins relate to sport fishing)? Should they support groups that demonize their opponents when they casually label them Nazis or fascists?
...but Risk Losing
The future is likely to be even more contentious, and foundations may have to reach out to those who are willing to fight hard for change — inside and beyond traditional parties and institutions — without resorting to scorched-earth tactics, people and organizations that are willing to risk losing in the short term in order to "win" the long game. Deep, lasting reform takes time, may contribute to electoral or policy setbacks in the near term, and, to the extent that it is about political power, is inherently risky. When you take a controversial stand, people on the opposite side will come after you with everything at their disposal, including legal action, official investigations, and, in some cases, personal attacks. Ask the foundations that are advocating for other foundations to divest themselves of their fossil fuel-related assets. Look at the way the media has gone after foundations like George Soros’s Open Society Foundations or the Bradley Foundation. Taking or supporting a controversial position is risky whether one’s vision leans conservative or progressive. When doing so, foundations should not expect that they'll be able to hide behind their grantees. Instead, they will have to "own what they fund," as those eager to criticize them will reasonably assume any grant reflects a foundation's own organizational position and beliefs.
The more foundations fight, the more organizations like the Philanthropy Roundtable and the Council on Foundations will need to step up and defend philanthropic freedom, regardless of the issue. Make no mistake, an ideologically motivated attack against the legitimate activities of any one foundation is an assault on all of philanthropy.
Inevitably, some foundations will look at the world around them and see forces at work that are beyond the power of their grant dollars to change. Whether it's because they don't have the staff resources or the inclination to engage with a contentious issue, they may decide to transcend the turmoil of the moment and focus their investments on the long-term future. We're all familiar with examples of seemingly whimsical pursuits like sending a manned mission to Mars, but I'm thinking of more concerted initiatives such as the Science Philanthropy Alliance.
SPA was created by a group of nine foundations to "ensure more private funding is earmarked for the kinds of research initiatives that have led to the scientific, technological and medical breakthroughs that fuel our technology and information-driven economy of the 21st century." Among the alliance's members are some of the most prestigious names in American and global philanthropy, names like Alfred P. Sloan, Gordon and Betty Moore, and the UK-based Wellcome Trust, as well as newer philanthropies such as the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative and the Eric & Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation.
It's a perfect example of how foundations can use their financial assets, intellectual capital, and freedom to focus on the long-term by supporting the kinds of basic scientific research that may lead to the next big breakthrough a generation from now -- or to nowhere. While it's a sign of our times that supporting science is seen in some quarters as a political act, this particular group of funders has decided to ignore the daily slings and arrows of Twitter and march boldly into the future.
Business as Usual
Undoubtedly, the majority of foundations will ignore the turmoil and retain their traditional focus on health, education, and the arts, with grants large and small being made to alma maters, hospitals that have cared for loved ones, and symphony halls. Together, these areas of giving account for nearly 60 percent of all foundation funding in the United States. Yes, a small portion of this funding can be controversial, to the extent it supports arts productions that defy societal convention, university programs that focus on issues of race, or organizations working to ensure equality of access to health care. But most of it represents the kind of steady, annual support that has built the magnificent institutions that are so vital to American life. In their own way, these foundations are betting on such institutions to be there for all of us when we finally emerge from these tumultuous times.
Philanthropy in the war zone is tough. As endowed private institutions, foundations do have choices: they can fight, transcend, conduct business as usual, or adopt some or all these approaches simultaneously. Whatever they choose, foundations will continue to be essential in helping America find its way through to the brighter, more constructive future that is ours to create.
Bradford K. Smith is president of Foundation Center.