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little evidence that liberal and progressive foundations understand the insidious nature of conservatives


The Neocon Think Tank Challenge to the Big Progressive Foundations

by Robert O. Bothwell

Facing the recent conservative takeover of both the Executive Branch and Congress, social action philanthropy in America is back where it was during President Ronald Reagan's first term,1981-1984. You remember Ronnie, the good looking movie guy, who became the first true conservative to run the USA since before the 1930s Great Depression?

America's progressive movement had been quite successful in the 1970s. But Reagan's Presidency meant that further initiatives on racial/ethnic minorities' rights and equal opportunities, women's rights and opportunities, unions' minimum wages and occupational health and safety, environmental regulation and progressive taxation were no longer viable. The Reagan Administration made many proposals to roll back the social action and environmental advances of the 1970s, and often succeeded in enacting legislation or regulations to do so. Additionally, President Reagan proposed and Congress enacted a huge tax cut which reduced government revenues, leading him to cut the budgets of most federal government programs providing social, health and welfare services. Thus, in the early 1980s, social action organizations and their foundation supporters had to go on the defensive to preserve the 1970s gains, winning some, but losing more.

The current Bush Administration, in two short years, has done much to stymie equal rights and opportunities campaigns, deregulate the environment, place unions' issues on the far back burner, and show fundamental lack of concern for the poor and working poor. And President George W. Bush is following the same tax plan as Reagan -- Bush's big tax cuts, enacted in 2001, are forcing the same painful cutbacks in federal government programs as Reagan's tax cuts did.

So the progressive community, once again, is playing defense.

But in addition, the Bush Administration is also now curtailing basic civil liberties of both citizens and immigrants, justified as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In the face of these challenges, what is philanthropy doing to counter the politically conservative actions so devastating to social action, environmental protection and civil rights?

First, because of the bear stock market and the downturn in the U.S. economy, foundation assets are way down from three years ago. Foundations, thus, are worrying about how much to reduce their grants pay out. Foundations could continue to pay out as much as their peak giving last year, but because they are only required to pay out 5% of their assets annually, most foundations will cut back their grant-making. We are talking big reductions of 20-33%.

Second, if the Reagan years are a harbinger of today's crisis for nonprofit organizations, foundations are trying to figure out how to maintain vital local social services rather than how to confront a national conservative policy apparatus that is stronger than ever.

Third, if we are to judge by recent history, the tilt to the right of the national government means that liberal foundations will be more timid than usual in supporting progressive social and environmental action -- afraid of being called before the Congress, investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, challenged by the increasingly conservative media and left off the invitation lists to White House functions.

Fourth, there is little evidence, since the conservative takeover of Congress in 1995-99, much less the recent takeover in November, that liberal and progressive foundations truly understand the insidious nature of conservatives' political and policy power in the nation's capital. This power involves multiple think tanks and increasing penetration of academia, which produce an "echo chamber" for conservative policy proposals, leading to unparalleled media influence. (By "echo chamber," I mean that the many policy proposals advanced by conservative academicians and think tankers on just one topic result in expansive media play back and forth way beyond what a single proposal could generate.) It also involves extensive grassroots organization and a "communion" with many of the middle income swing voters in America that defies liberal Democrats' analysis and counter strategies.

Who will stem this national tide of conservative policy advancement? Are the big liberal foundations, like Ford Foundation, big MacArthur Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and George Soros' Open Society Institute, going to keep funding the same grantees they have funded year after year -- who fight battles for the rights and opportunities of racial/ethnic minorities and women, protect the environment and organize low income communities to effect change -- but who have few clues about how to orchestrate a national movement to promote a progressive agenda built around shared values with America's working class? Or will these foundations change directions and also fund progressive organizations and networks with growth potential who understand and can effectively counter the multifaceted conservative policy juggernaut?

What is clear is that defense -- by itself -- is not the answer. The liberal foundations and their grantees fought valiant and occasionally successful defensive battles against Reagan's proposals for roll backs of social action, environmental regulation and domestic budget cuts, and could do the same against Bush's proposals. But the conservatives continue to expand their octopus-like attack base while our liberals and progressives play defense. Philanthropy and social action organizations must think and organize differently to gain the offensive in matters of social, economic and environmental policy.

Reprinted with permission from Philanthropy in Europe magazine, editor Karina Holly,

Robert O. Bothwell Principal, VISIONS REALIZED.  President Emeritus, First Director/President, Senior Fellow, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 1976-2002.  Formerly staff at National Urban Coalition, Center for the Study of Public Policy, U.S. Conference of Mayors/National League of Cities, U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity and NASA.  Author or publisher of over 30 reports on philanthropy, civil society, accountability, social justice and public policy.  Led national movement creating "alternatives" to the United Way.  Challenged  foundations to reevaluate their grant making in light of conservative takeover of Congress/public policy.  Initiated first public examinations of community foundations and their responsiveness to the disenfranchised, and of corporate grant making to racial/ethnic populations.  Expanded disclosure of critical information by foundations and nonprofits to grant seekers and the public.


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