A Wake-Up Call to Liberal Foundations

In the course of 20 years of legal grant making, 12 moderately endowed charitable foundations have dramatically shifted the center of our public debate to the right. That's the conclusion that researcher Sally Covington reached in her July report, "Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations," given to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.Covington says it would be difficult to overstate the impact of the John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and their ilk on public attitudes and public policy. Their systematic giving practices, she writes, have succeeded in "advancing the basic tenets of modern American conservatism: unregulated markets and limited governments." With carefully targeted gifts to educational, research and public interest institutions, right-wing foundations paved the way for welfare reform, which eliminated the only federal program guaranteeing a minimal level of cash assistance to the very poor.Conservative opinion leaders and the donors who support them understand that, at the end of the day, it is not the quality of ideas that matters; the ideas that win out are those that are the best marketed. As John K. Andrews of the Heritage Foundation wrote in the late '80s, "The easy part is getting your message right. The real test is getting your message out." Mainstream and liberal foundations like Ford and Rockefeller, with much more money to dole out, shy away from what they view as nonprofit hucksterism. Grantees who win their support, according to Covington, are not "rewarded or encouraged for their public policy activism."On the contrary, grant seekers "are often required to downplay their policy commitments in order to secure foundation support." In fact, these foundations seem intent on discouraging engagement in the policy-making process. Their grants are generally awarded only for narrowly defined projects, and grantees are asked to focus completely on producing short-term, quantifiable results. Covington finds that liberal and mainstream foundations rarely support general operations, constituency development, multi-issue advocacy or media efforts. Their vast resources notwithstanding, they simply will not give progressive media, think tanks or public interest groups the money they need to mount the kinds of broad-spectrum public relations campaigns that conservative grantees have perfected.The carefully orchestrated attack on the academy in recent years demonstrates the power of the right-wing philanthropic strategy. Until the conservative foundations took an interest, the political correctness debate smoldered quietly in the back pages of academic journals. Then in late 1990, a few accounts of universities cracking down on professors accused of racism, most of them credited to Dinesh D'Souza's sloppy Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, suddenly popped up in the mainstream media. Conservative foundations encouraged and funded D'Souza's book and then poured tens of thousands of dollars into its promotion. Through such targeted spending, these foundations succeeded in clogging the media with accounts of D'Souza's few isolated incidents and associating them in the public mind with the concerns of other conservative critics like Allan Bloom about the erosion of the traditional canon.Even more successful has been these foundations' quest to reduce the size and scope of government. Led by the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, right-wing nonprofits have emerged by the dozens and grown exponentially since the late '70s. Turning message into medium, they have aggressively churned out reports, promoted "experts," held seminars and written op-ed pieces by the thousands -- all pushing their view that government programs inhibit commerce and demoralize citizens.Covington does not believe the right is invincible. Her report is not an expose of diabolical right-wing conspiracies, but an account of sustained efforts by politically motivated conservative grant makers to build public support for their ideas and programs.Covington's arguments should force liberal and progressive philanthropists to rethink their approach to influencing public policy. Would welfare reform, for example, have taken the form it has if liberal foundations had funded a campaign over the last two decades to make sure that the American public understood that underemployment and low wages -- not the moral weaknesses of the poor -- produce poverty? And imagine how, during the recent Teamsters strike, a well-funded public education campaign would have helped mainstream journalists recognize that UPS wanted to control the union's pension fund so the company, rather than the workers, could reap the benefits of a bull market.Covington's findings suggest that the progressive strategy of speaking truth to power has, by and large, been an exercise in futility. We need a long-term commitment of resources to build a powerful communications infrastructure. Without such a commitment, the left will continue to be marginalized, rarely capturing the attention, much less the imagination, of American citizens.

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