A few thoughts on what my good friends Joel Fleishman and Bill Schambra have to say about the role of American foundations (Alliance, April 2008).
Joel is correct that foundations have at times played key roles in the strengthening and nurturing of social movements, but it is the rare case in which they have been in the lead. Almost by definition, social movement starts without support from established power centres like foundations. The gay rights movement, for example, achieved significant impact in the US well before it had a penny from any mainstream foundation, and very few from more marginal ones. Ford and a few other big foundations deserve much credit for their long years of helping legal defence funds become established and institutionalized – though some of them have become sclerotic and less relevant to contemporary challenges, and few foundations are thinking or doing enough about that. But the pivotal earlier stages of the civil rights movement, in the 1950s and 1960s, had support, and then only in small amounts, from only a few foundations, like Taconic and Field.
Bill Schambra talks a good game about community empowerment and the alleged elitism of foundations, and as far as that goes, despite the fact that our politics are quite different, I find much to agree with in his critique. But Bill likes community empowerment only to the extent that communities focus on self-help solutions. When an empowered community decides that democracy ought to mean something, and that a stronger government role in social welfare is called for – in other words, when power is trained on issues of equity and larger social arrangements – Bill’s support vanishes. In my view, if you believe people ought to take the lead in fighting for changes in matters that affect them, you have to be willing to follow that lead even when it is uncomfortable.
President and CEO, Atlantic Philanthropies