FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Large Foundations: Rethink Your Priorities

The number of large foundations has been consistently increasing. Some of these foundations are bulging with billions of dollars in assets that could be contributed to nonprofit “good works.” It is potentially the golden age of philanthropy, but unfortunately many areas of recognized need are too often ignored by foundation boards and their executives. Organizations with track records of effective advocacy and accomplishment stand ready to take on neglected problems of our society. Unfortunately, these groups lack adequate foundation support.

When foundations do donate to important areas, such as energy policy, they often award grants to the same organizations that are not original, motivating or making necessary waves. Year after year, these bland organizations are seen as the “safe choice” for donors who are timid about new ideas and groundbreaking approaches. Cushy relationships, as has been demonstrated in the energy/environmental field, often amount to an annuity of contributions for lackluster studies and reports from the same old recipients futilely running over the same old ground.

What author and philanthropist Peter Buffett called, in a widely discussed op-ed in the July 26, 2013 New York Times, the “charitable-industrial complex” is in need of serious introspection. Is it just treading water or, in Buffett’s words, immersed in “a crisis of imagination” and not putting “foundation dollars on the best ‘risk capital’ out there?”

After decades of observing effective groups with untapped potential suffering from a dearth of funding, I can point to 15 specific missed opportunities by indifferent foundations. Even funders who acknowledge the importance of the problems these groups are grappling with almost always reply to funding requests by saying the proposals “do not fit within our guidelines.”

I say “almost always” because there were a number of pioneering moves by large foundations that serve as compelling contrasting examples. About forty-five years ago, Ford Foundation funded the startup of public interest law firms. Little more than a decade ago, the Rockefeller Foundation, followed by Ford and MacArthur Foundations, funded controversial NGO efforts, already underway, to break monopolies for pharmaceutical drug treatments for HIV/AIDs, which lowered prices from more than $30 per day to less than a dollar per day, leading to the inclusion of nearly 10 million persons on treatment from developing countries.

Here is my short list of areas where funding is needed, but lacking:

1. The area of pension rights and the shredding of pension assets by Wall Street machinations involves trillions of dollars and receives miniscule support from foundations (http://www.pensionrights.org/).

2. Pressing for action regarding corporate governance, corporate welfare, and corporate crime, fraud and abuse is largely underfunded. Years ago, a study by Archibald Gillies found less than 5% of foundation donations go to nonprofit groups working in this massive arena.

3. Over five hundred billion dollars a year are spent on all federal government purchasing of goods and services from corporations, including weapons systems, health care, energy, paper and more. In 1988 we hosted “The Stimulation Effect: A National Conference on the Uses of Government Procurement Leverage to Benefit Taxpayers and Consumers.” This successful symposium dealt with one aspect of this largely ignored subject.

4. Freedom of Information advocacy and litigation receives a pittance; but should be an easy grant focus. Information is the currency of democracy. Past and present advocacy has proven to be extremely cost-beneficial. Foundations that want to reduce chronic government secrecy should take a close look here.

5. Racial redlining is the practice whereby mortgage lenders figuratively draw a red line around minority neighborhoods and refuse to make mortgage loans available there. Mortgage and insurance redlining leads to the deterioration of communities. In 1993 we produced original GIS maps with detailed data on financial institutions that were redlining minority neighborhoods in cities all over the country. Yet, our researcher, John Brown, could barely scrape together financial support from foundations ostensibly committed to confronting racial discrimination and related poverty.

6. Auto, railroad, aviation and bus safety are terra incognita for foundation grantmakers who undoubtedly use these forms of transportation. One aviation safety group of long-proven merit, the Aviation Consumer Action Project, had to close down, while another, the Center for Auto Safety, has worked wonders, but on a tiny budget. Furthermore, advocacy groups for railroad and bus safety are rarely seen in Washington, D.C.

7. The indifference to occupational health and safety is astonishing. Foundations may think labor unions should be bearing the load in this field. Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO has very few people monitoring the weak Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Protecting worker health and safety would be a good project for a consortium of foundations to fund. Imagine—advocacy organizations focused on the companies that produce mayhem on workers. There are over 54,000 workplace-related fatalities each year. The number of injuries and illnesses is much greater.

8. Hospital-acquired infections take over 200 lives a day in the U.S.! Only recently have some foundations shown an interest in funding civic associations that work on this largely preventable tragedy.

9. Legendary foundation critic Pablo Eisenberg makes a strong case that these tax-exempt institutions should be doing far more about poverty in America (see Helping the Poor Is No Longer a Priority for Today’s Nonprofits).

10. Advocacy for tax reform is much needed considering there are hundreds of billions of avoided and evaded tax dollars every year. You can count the number of national citizen tax reform groups on one hand. This is another of the ‘starvation fields’ for worthy groups suffering from foundation indifference. (See what one group has done – Citizens for Tax Justice.)

11. Wars can often be prevented. The Iraq invasion might not have occurred if a well-staffed secretariat had been funded to organize retired prominent military, security and diplomatic officials who had openly opposed that reckless war of choice. Requests for funding for such an initiative in 2002-2003 prior to the unlawful Iraq War were ignored.

12. Some foundations avidly favor civic engagement. What better illustrates civic engagement than the hundreds of little local groups training themselves to successfully fight toxic environments facilitated by Love Canal activist, Lois Gibbs, turned national leader? Lois Gibbs is now the director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justiceand has had to lay off workers because of insufficient foundation grant support.

13. Encouraging consumer cooperatives, as does the National Association of Student Cooperatives (NASCO), should be an easy one for foundation support. This organization does many things right on college campuses and provides materials on the advantages of co-ops.

14. Organizing alumni classes to advocate for justice has been pioneered by Princeton University’s class of 1955 and the Harvard Law School class of 1958. The motivating affinity group known as the alumni class—out over 35 years—is an exciting model foundations should eagerly support. Yet, funding to stimulate such groups has received very little foundation support in the last 25 years.

15. The tumultuous technologies known as genetic engineering and nanotechnology receive less annual civic funding for ethical and safety monitoring than the annual salaries of one giant foundation’s executive suite. There are only three small national civic groups with a focus on questioning genetic engineering and fewer focused on the invisible nanotech industry. Nanotech and genetic engineering research has been heavily funded by taxpayers. But, holding government and corporate researchers accountable is almost impossible because of a lack of funding.

Consider the beneficial impact when foundation funding enabled, starting in the early seventies, new environmental groups to perform their historic work or the significance of foundation funding for the “real news” of independent media. More creative and bold philanthropy is needed across the spectrum of our faltering democracy; more foundations need to be interested in the justice of prevention.

Remember, increased justice lessens the need for charity. It’s time for an introspective symposium.

Ralph Nader’s latest book is: Unstoppable: the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.

More articles by:

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

June 26, 2019
Melvin Goodman
The U.S.-Iran Imbroglio: Dangerous Lessons To Be Learned
Paul Street
Reflections and Correspondence at the Abyss
John Laforge
Trump’s Ministry of No Information
Paul Edwards
Fool Me Twice
Rob Hager
Warren and Sanders: Compare and Contrast
John Steppling
The Monkey’s Face
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A World of Shadows
Jaspal Kaur Sadhu Singh
Correcting a Colonial Injustice: The Return of the Chagos Islands to Its Natives
Binoy Kampmark
Violent Voyeurism: Surveillance, Spyware and Human Rights
Jonah Raskin
Reflections on Abbie Hoffman and Joshua Furst’s Novel, Revolutionaries
Dave Chapman
The Hydroponic Threat to Organic Food
June 25, 2019
Rannie Amiri
Instigators of a Persian Gulf Crisis
Patrick Cockburn
Trump May Already be in Too Deep to Avoid War With Iran
Paul Tritschler
Hopeful Things
John Feffer
Deep Fakes: Will AI Swing the 2020 Election?
Binoy Kampmark
Bill Clinton in Kosovo
Kenneth Surin
Brief Impressions of the Japanese Conjuncture
Edward Hunt
Is Mexico Winding Down or Winding up the Drug War?
Manuel E. Yepe
Trump’s Return to Full-Spectrum Dominance
Steve Kelly
Greed and Politics Should Not Drive Forest Policy
Stephen Carpa
Protecting the Great Burn
Colin Todhunter
‘Modified’: A Film About GMOs and the Corruption of the Food Supply for Profit
Martin Billheimer
The Gothic and the Idea of a ‘Real Elite’
Elliot Sperber
Send ICE to Hanford
June 24, 2019
Jim Kavanagh
Eve of Destruction: Iran Strikes Back
Nino Pagliccia
Sorting Out Reality From Fiction About Venezuela
Jeff Sher
Pickin’ and Choosin’ the Winners and Losers of Climate Change
Howard Lisnoff
“Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran”
Robert Fisk
The West’s Disgraceful Silence on the Death of Morsi
Dean Baker
The Old Japan Disaster Horror Story
David Mattson
The Gallatin Forest Partnership and the Tyranny of Ego
George Wuerthner
How Mountain Bikes Threaten Wilderness
Christopher Ketcham
The Journalist as Hemorrhoid
Manuel E. Yepe
Yankee Worship of Bombings and Endless Wars
Mel Gurtov
Iran—Who and Where is The Threat?
Wim Laven
Revisiting Morality in the Age of Dishonesty
Thomas Knapp
Facebook’s Libra Isn’t a “Cryptocurrency”
Weekend Edition
June 21, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Brett Wilkins
A Brief History of US Concentration Camps
Rob Urie
Race, Identity and the Political Economy of Hate
Rev. William Alberts
America’s Respectable War Criminals
Paul Street
“So Happy”: The Trump “Boom,” the Nation’s Despair, and the Decline of Joe Biden
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Ask Your Local Death Squad
Dr. Vandana Shiva
Fake Food, Fake Meat: Big Food’s Desperate Attempt to Further the Industrialisation of Food
Eric Draitser
The Art of Trade War: Is Trump Winning His Trade War against China?
Melvin Goodman
Trump’s Russian Problem
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail