Foundations and Policy: A Different Conversation

Phil Buchanan

Not so long ago, politically left-of-center foundation types frequently pointed — with what felt like envy and a kind of grudging admiration — to conservative foundations as effectiveness exemplars. They would speak of the way foundations like the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation had influenced public policy, pointing to areas such as “school choice” or welfare reform or the influence of conservative, foundation-funded think tanks on a whole host of issues.

The National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) documented the influence of conservative foundations in a series of reports, including the 1997 Moving a Public Policy Agenda and the 2004 Axis of Ideology: Conservative Foundations and Public Policy. “The right wing is clearly winning the cultural, social, economic, and political wars in this country,” the latter report concluded, rightly giving conservative foundations significant credit for their effectiveness in advancing their agenda.

Liberal foundations took NCRP’s conclusions to heart, lamenting what they saw as their own comparative ineffectiveness in influencing policy. “We need to learn from the conservative foundations!” they’d declare. This was what seemed like a nearly constant refrain at foundation gatherings a decade ago.

But, today, the discussion is very different for two reasons: 1) because liberal and left-of-center foundations have had dramatic successes of their own; and 2) because there is increasing questioning across the political spectrum of the appropriateness of wealthy foundations and donors influencing policy at all.

After all, foundations have played important roles in several recent major policy shifts, including the Affordable Care Act, marriage equality, and criminal justice reform.

Even those who opposed these shifts would acknowledge their significance. In at least the first two instances, the pace of progress exceeded the expectations of many of those championing the changes. Moreover, these policy changes happened in an environment of gridlock and partisanship — a time in which many assumed “nothing can get done.” Perhaps the liberal foundations (and in the case of criminal justice reform it should be acknowledged that some conservative foundations have played a role, too) did indeed take a page from the conservative foundation playbook — if not the whole playbook.

And yet, in the wake of these policy shifts, there is another big difference in the discussions about foundations and policy today relative to 15 years ago: an uptick in wariness and concern. Today, liberals and conservatives alike — from former Ford Foundation executive Michael Edwards to former Bradley Foundation executive William Schambra — are worrying about the role of philanthropy (and wealth) in a democracy.

This, too, is not new, of course. The history of American philanthropy includes other periods of soul-searching about the appropriate role of foundations in policy. But after a period of relatively little worry on this front — a time that historian Ben Soskis has observed to be a kind of historical aberration — the question is again front and center.

In my next post, I’ll talk about where this is playing out most dramatically: foundations’ funding in education.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @PhilCEP.

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