7 June, aboard United Airlines flight 484 from Denver to Washington DC:
As the Council on Foundations annual meeting, entitled ‘Philanthropy Exchange’, takes place in Washington DC this week, many Council members are looking for clear evidence of the change that has been promised as the distinguished 65-year-old Washington institution adapts to the realities of a networked world in which information flows freely and once-exclusive organizations like the Council are struggling for a relevant value proposition that will capture the imagination of the next generation of foundation leaders.
Despite plenty of confusion and some consternation about recent changes at the Council on Foundations, the one thing that everyone in American philanthropy seems to agree on is that the Council is the sector’s single most influential representative in Washington DC.
But the Council has a long-established policy of bipartisan neutrality on political issues of any substance, except for regulatory policy that affects philanthropy itself. That policy of self-interest has been challenged by only a few Council members and some outside critics, but the policy and practice remain firmly entrenched because the non-profit sector, which depends on philanthropy, has been afraid to used its considerable influence to push its funders to harmonize their missions with their investments, especially when it conflicts with the dominant political economy. Thus the Council has not been pushed successfully by its members or by the beneficiaries of its members, to take an unambiguous position on the most critical public policy matters of our time, even overwhelming ‘trump card’ issues such as climate change.
Despite the fact that many leading Council members have invested billions of philanthropic dollars in campaigns to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the Council itself has never been pressured to take any initiative itself on the issue in Washington.
Last week the Obama Administration, finally after decades of costly delay, announced that the US will reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 30 per cent by 2030. Some say it’s too little, too late. Others, who deny that climate change is happening, still insist that it’s too much, too fast. But most Americans agree with scientists, and with Obama, that extreme weather events show that it’s time for the US to act on climate change.
We shall soon see whether the newly network-adapted Council will be embraced by its membership, and become more nimble on public policy issues of global importance to all of philanthropy.
Chet Tchozewski is a board member of Chino Cienega Foundation.