For the final session of Progressivism on Tap for summer 2013, Gara LaMarche, the former president and CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies, discussed his recent lecture, which explored whether large philanthropic institutions’ self-interested actions can sway politics or policy in a way that undermines democratic process and progress.
He began by explaining that he did not have a distinct “philanthropic theory,” but rather saw change as an ecosystem comprised of many aspects, such as policy change, messaging, and funding. One aspect that he felt was often missing, however, was bottom-up, grassroots change. He noted that during his time at Atlantic Philanthropies, they tried to focus on finding people affected by inequality who wanted to be leaders. Foundations are best, he felt, when they enable people to bring about change for themselves.
When asked to elaborate on whether the largest, tax-exempt foundations had a disproportionate effect on policy and if that situation could be a problem, LaMarche looked to the history of philanthropy. 100 years ago, when many large philanthropic organizations began, people were critical of their founders—Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, among others—because they saw these organizations as undemocratic—that is, they could use large amounts of money to influence and act with little accountability. LaMarche asked, “Why have we lost our skepticisms of these organizations?”
To create accountability, he suggested the charitable deduction for foundations should not be held sacred. Further, it would be worth scrutinizing the size of organizations and whether they could have more democratic membership. There could be more criticism of such organizations, too, if more media outlets covered philanthropic beats.
When asked what work done by philanthropic organizations had actually gone awry due to a lack of accountability, however, LaMarche responded that the nature of philanthropy is such that some work supported by philanthropic funds will produce good effects and some will not. Still, he suggested that philanthropic organizations largely “play it safe” and do not always work on society’s most pressing issues. Moreover, most foundations do not necessarily support diverse communities or have boards made up of diverse members—they are, almost, organizations for the “1 percent.”
LaMarche was also asked whether he felt that foundations helped contribute to an overall lack of confidence in government solutions to social problems. He answered that this may be partially the case and foundations should not allow for a disconnect between the moral core of their work and their desire for measurable outcomes. Foundations should fill a void between government and justice.
He noted that philanthropy can be difficult in a hyper-polarized political landscape. Issues like health care and immigration are far more partisan than issues such as criminal justice or education reform. Moreover, there are legal reasons why foundations must be scrupulous about the political leanings of their work. Yet, he emphasized, if a foundation has a vision that requires partisanship, they should be more daring.