Appealing for civility

Jun 12, 2023
Rembrandt, Belshazzar’s Feast, 1635 (National Gallery, London)

What we are, and aren’t, saying to each other.

The April appearance of the now-famous six-party appeal for civility in The Chronicle of Philanthropy prompted a scene reminiscent of the Book of Daniel, Chapter 5. In the midst of a great feast thrown by Babylonian King Belshazzar, a hand suddenly appears in mid-air and writes “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin” on the palace wall. The king is so frightened by this, the original “handwriting on the wall,” that he summons all his “enchanters, astrologers and diviners”—his professional experts—to explain it to him.

The appeal for philanthropic civility has similarly prompted the sector’s enchanters, astrologers, and diviners to gaze upon the edict and try to figure out its true meaning. What can the six signatories have really meant by this appeal? Giving Review contributor Craig Kennedy takes a particularly thoughtful stab at this.

But like many of the sector’s enchanters, Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy finally had to confess: “The truth is, I tried to make sense of this op ed, and I could not.”

Which is somewhat ironic, because its central message seems to be: stop asking what we really mean when we speak! Just take it at face value. We pledge not to question each other’s underlying motives, so you shouldn’t either. As the op-ed put it, “We assume that those involved in philanthropy have the best intentions, even if they take a different approach.”

But taking philanthropic utterances at face value is impossible. Discourse within the sector is notoriously convoluted and opaque, full of vague, cheery assurances that foundations have only the best intentions for their grantmaking.  

This practically demands that we scrutinize the discourse for underlying meaning, because we know full well that the face-value surface tells us almost nothing about what’s really going on. 

This obscurantism, I suppose, is to be expected. Legally, foundations are under no obligation to explain themselves beyond filing the annual Internal Revenue Service Form 990-PF. Most do publish annual reports, but the descriptions of projects therein are draped in pleasant, unilluminating photos and words crafted in the PR department.

There’s no reason for foundations to be clear about their real motives, because they’re under no systemic pressure to explain themselves compellingly. They don’t have to persuade people to buy a product or vote for a candidate. In the realms where selling and voting are conducted, the debate about motives is fierce and open. The business pages are full of stories about why corporations truly do what they do, with official explanations given little credence. Most politics today is, for better or worse, all about motive-questioning.  

So how can foundations claim to be exempt from this unpleasantness? Well, the op-ed implies, we philanthropists mean well. It’s churlish to criticize activities that are driven by beneficence, which intention the co-authors ask us to assume.  

Foundations have become skilled at demonstrating their good will. Whenever they defend their activities in public or before Congress, they point to food banks, museums, and scholarships funded—indisputable, concrete acts of charity—to fend off any questioning about possible deeper purposes.

But as the sector’s enchanters and astrologers insist, charity is merely the lowest, indeed an almost contemptible, rung of philanthropy. One isn’t really deploying one’s resources efficiently and justly until they’re devoted to getting at the root causes of problems, rather than merely putting charitable band-aids on them.

For most foundations on the left today—which is to say, most foundations—the root causes of our problems are to be found in fundamentally oppressive political and economic systems. So they must be utterly transformed. That, however, inevitably brings philanthropy perilously close to its increasingly permeable border with politics. 

Insightful foundation diviner David Callahan recently addressed this state of affairs in an investigative piece for Inside Philanthropy entitled “The D.C. Power List: The Most Influential Philanthropists Shaping National Policy.”

As the title implies, a number of ultra-wealthy philanthropists are now directly active within the Beltway, seeking to shape public policy according to their private preferences. (A vastly disproportionate number of those donors are on the left, Callahan admits. But for a movement dedicated to alleviating inequalities of wealth and influence, this should be troubling, he admirably confesses.)

Callahan is also refreshingly candid about the increasingly politicized status of philanthropy. There’s already sufficient public attention devoted to straight political spending, “like the billions that flow to campaigns and lobbying,” he notes. But “philanthropy’s role in shaping federal policy gets far less scrutiny. I’d guess that most voters wouldn’t be thrilled to learn how billionaires increasingly use tax-deductible ‘charitable’ gifts to press their agendas in the corridors of power.”

As wealthy donors push their giving ever closer to the philanthropy/politics border, they shouldn’t be surprised that the rules of the game gradually shift from the polite, obscure, deferential discourse to which they’re accustomed, to the far rougher forms of engagement so familiar to politicians. Foundations, of course, would like to sidle up to politics while preserving their veneer of beneficence. They want to feed millions of dollars into public activism, without being called on it. 

Why are they so reluctant to be more open about their long-standing wish to solve problems once and for all through political involvement? Callahan hits the nail on the head.  “Most voters wouldn’t be thrilled” to learn that alleged charitable dollars are being used to press the political agendas of billionaires. A recent survey confirms this: while some 94% of respondents believed §501(c)(3) public charities should engage in old-fashioned, charitable disaster relief—the top score—only 14% supported their involvement in political campaigns—the lowest score.

So now we’re getting very close to the real meaning of the appeal for civility. The signatory foundations and foundation-serving organizations all have well-established reputations for seeking to influence public policy, or to advocate it. But so far, they haven’t been called on their double standard—wanting to be treated as if they were just supporters of food banks, when in fact they’re funders of massive political agendas. 

This may change with the newest entrant into the field of motive-questioning foundation criticism: populist conservatism. It’s become quite adept at penetrating beneath the face-value, self-serving explanations offered by public institutions, down to what appear to be the real motives behind their activity. Disney, for instance, isn’t just an entertainment and amusement park complex, it’s now seen by many on the right to be a vehicle for infiltrating progressive wokeness into the lives of American children.

But if even the House of Mouse is thus suspect, how long will it be before the full weight of “red-pilled” scrutiny falls on foundations? Not long, the signatories must be thinking. Better to batten down the hatches now, and make clear to intra-sector critics of philanthropy that, if they have any hope of foundation largess, they’d best refrain from the kind of strong language that might attract Congressional attention.

In fact, Congress knows very little about foundations. It’s still possible during the sector’s annual lobby-palooza to send Ma-and-Pa philanthropies up to the Hill to talk about the quilting museum back home that would have to close if foundations were required to pay out a penny more than 5% per year.  

But that state of affairs will prevail only so long as Sen. J. D. Vance (R.-Ohio) is focused on bringing rail corporations to heel. Wait until he turns his attention to foundations—a prominent one of which, the Ford Foundation, he’s already described as a cancer on society. Sources close to the Senator assure me that philanthropic accountability is still very much on his agenda for this term.

By the way, all this talk about civility in philanthropy? I somehow missed out on that as a program officer at the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee. Every grant we made was scoured for its true, indisputably nefarious underlying purpose. 

Support for school choice? It could certainly not be, as we maintained, an effort to secure decent educations for low-income students outside a failing school system. No—school choice was clearly designed to reestablish white segregation academies (for the program’s largely Black and Hispanic students?), or to deliver schools to   corporations so they can turn a handsome profit (from a shrinking and derelict public institution?).  

We featured in an early and now forgotten Congressional examination of our true motives. A committee chaired by Congressman David Obey (D.-Wis.) concluded that our genuine purpose was to “downsize the American dream.” Heck, we even merited an entire volume from the very founders of critical race theory, Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, drawing on the work of “countless investigative journalists” who had kept us under close surveillance. It was entitled No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda—and it was drafted in part while they were Rockefeller Foundation scholars in residence at their posh villa in Bellagio.

In light of this history, it was hardly surprising that left-wing critics of the civility pact immediately insisted that they were—no way, no how—going to abandon this particularly pointed mode of argument, even though the Ford Foundation had signed the pact. Trenchant foundation diviner Vu Le clearly isn’t intending to curb his tongue about “donors and foundations that fund anti-trans hate groups, who back white supremacist movements, who support efforts to suppress votes and ban abortions.” There’s just no way to tolerate donors whose “actions cause pain and death to countless people.” And here I thought we had disguised our intentions better than that.

The critics on the left need not fear reply in kind from the right, since conservatism’s main, indeed almost only, association is one of the parties to the civility pact. The Philanthropy Roundtable can be counted on to lead the effort to suppress the populist critique from within its own ranks. It’s even been willing to carry out a pre-emptive strike against the newly elected conservative Sen. Vance, well before he’s said a single word about foundations in his official capacity.  

The Philanthropy Roundtable thus continues to provide an invaluable service to progressivism, as an apologist for a sector that is overwhelmingly and increasingly hostile to the conservative point of view.

At any rate, that hand-writing on the wall. It’s not so much what foundations are saying to us. It’s more about what we—as citizens and our political representatives—are saying to foundations, as their genuine, largely political, intentions come into view. The sector’s astrologers, enchanters, and diviners can read that writing on the wall, and it should be enough to frighten the philanthropic empire’s mightiest kings.