Taking a risk to support controversial issues: pushing the boundaries of philanthropy


Strategic Philanthropy

Hilda Vega

Hilda Vega

What do author Carlos Fuentes, statesman George P Schultz, diplomat Kofi Annan, economist Paul Volcker, artist Sting and entrepreneur Russell Simmons all have in common? They have all taken a public stand to end the ‘war on drugs’ in favour of addressing drug use and abuse from the perspective of economic and social justice and human rights. Even if the people I mentioned above are not universally adored, they are nonetheless highly respected for their work and acknowledged as leaders in their respective fields.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for philanthropists who take risks. For example, billionaire philanthropist George Soros has come under intense criticism for his position (shared by a handful of other philanthropic leaders) in support of drug policy reform. Soros’ progressive stance on drug policy has led to such extreme comments as the following:

There are … billionaires [like] George Soros … who have and are spending tens of millions of dollars throughout the United States and abroad to legalize and decriminalize drugs. They are masters of deception. They are unscrupulous. They are infiltrating our federal, state and local governments by influencing legislators with campaign contributions. And they are a greater threat to our young people and country than all other forms of terror combined. [1]

While there are numerous websites devoted to condemning Soros’ role in supporting drug policy reform, I found none criticizing Kofi Annan for his work to end the ‘war on drugs’.

We are all free to disagree with a political or social agenda, but when we denounce philanthropists for taking a stand on issues that impact the most marginalized members of our society, we discourage risk taking and innovation – the very concepts that inspire us to change society for the better.

In her article ‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility in Philanthropy’, Christine Reeves of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy argues that foundation leaders should think about their mandate ‘not merely as charity and handouts, but as a transformative instrument of justice that champions a more democratic society and invites stakeholders … to determine problems and solutions together’.[2] This form of inclusive philanthropy also means that we must be willing to listen to affected communities and consider things that make us uncomfortable.

And talking about an issue like drug policy reform does make many people uncomfortable. Too often, the public and policymakers shove this issue into a corner and hope that more money for law enforcement will make it all go away.

Yet many of society’s most controversial issues raise questions of ethics and morality; they often pit personal choice against public safety, force us to think about race and class and can cast doubt upon our systems of justice.

But philanthropy can’t evolve and improve unless we confront the most difficult issues head on, see them for what they really are, and develop solutions that address the problem rather than the symptoms.

The movement behind achieving marriage equality provides an excellent, positive example of how risk-taking and innovation on a controversial issue can lead to substantive gains. Spearheaded by donors such as The Gill Foundation and The Civil Marriage Collaborative (among many others), funding for marriage equality campaigns focused on state-by-state actions to educate people about the issues and their human costs, build strong partnerships and generate increased funding for the movement.

Despite legal challenges and public protests over many years, these strategies achieved the passage of civil union and gay marriage laws in several states, and supporters were able to block legislation narrowly defining marriage in many others. The movement also saw the effective end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the military, and progress towards the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act this year.

The marriage equality movement relied upon donors willing to take a risk, leverage their assets (financial, political and social) and be criticized in the media and in person. Certainly, some donors will choose not to be put in such a vulnerable position, but the ones that do should at least be respected for their commitment and their willingness to push the boundaries of philanthropy.

How do we effectively support donors who are exploring support of controversial issues? When one of our clients decided to enter into funding for drug policy reform in a public way, we worked with them to develop a strategy and theory of change that addressed the following questions:

  • What are the core issues in this field and where can our support make a difference?
  • How will we measure success in this area?
  • What risks must we consider, not only in terms of potentially unsuccessful grants, but also with regard to personal safety of board, staff and grantees?
  • How should we manage our position on this issue and how do we communicate a proper understanding of this?
  • How can we collaborate with other funders?
  • What other resources can be leveraged to move this issue forward?

While we don’t know the outcomes of this investment strategy, the clients understand the possible risks and feel confident in their decisions. There may be some degree of failure, but the potential to learn and discover better approaches to solving our deepest social problems is a strong argument for taking an informed risk.

1 Houston, Aaron, ‘The Soros Infiltration’. Soros Monitor, 8 October 2005. http://www.sorosmonitor.com/absolutenm/templates/news.aspx?articleid=29&zoneid=1

2 Posted Friday 12 August 2011 at http://blog.ncrp.org/2011/08/with-great-power-comes-great.html

Hilda Vegais senior advisor at Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd.

Tagged in: Controversial issues Drugs George Soros

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