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The Dilemmas of Foundation-Backed Activism by Aaron G. Lehmer

<-- Back to Environmentalism in the 21st Century

Source: Earth Island Journal

The Dilemmas of Foundation-Backed Activism

by Aaron G. Lehmer

The financial assets of America's foundations have ballooned in recent years as the stock market has soared. From this new bounty, grant-making foundations distributed over $19.4 billion to nonprofit groups last year, a 22 percent increase over 1997 and the largest total amount recorded in US history, according to the New York-based Foundation Center.

But as foundation dollars have risen, so too has the number of professional philanthropists, many of whom are becoming increasingly engaged in hands-on grant-making and nonprofit program development. For some organizations, particularly the larger, more established groups, this trend has helped their programs and campaigns. For less established grassroots groups, however, foundation-driven program management has undermined much of their creative independence and flexibility.

Mark Dowie, author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the 20th Century, calls foundation-driven advocacy "imperious grant-making." Through his research for a book about foundations due out next year, Dowie said he estimates that at least 10,000 professional philanthropic consultants now operate in the US. "We've created a cadre of people who really think they know best what to do with money and a large portion of them think they know how to manage nonprofits," he said.

Examples of foundation-driven program development are occurring more and more frequently and involve more money, reports Pablo Eisenberg, Vice-Chair of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, in the January 28 issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. "Behind many of these programs is a lack of confidence and trust by foundation executives in the ability of grantees to run successful programs," writes Eisenberg. "That attitude ... has done as much as anything else to arouse the deep suspicion, frustration, and resentment that so many nonprofit executives have long felt toward their colleagues in the philanthropic world."

Among the foundations whose grant-making is the most hands-on, Pew Charitable Trusts stands out. According to Jim Britell, an Oregon-based environmental activist and political organizer, Pew has gone so far as to force changes in the executive structure of nonprofit groups. In an interview, he said that an editor of Green Cross, a publication of the North American Coalition for Christianity and Ecology, was driven out for environmental reporting that Pew considered too controversial. He also cited the case of the Endangered Species Coalition, where an "aggressive" female organizer was replaced in favor of someone Pew found more tractable.

In response, Barbara Beck, Public Affairs Manager for Pew Charitable Trusts insists that her organization has never requested that an environmental organization change a stated position or alter an internal policy. "We, like other philanthropies, pay close attention to the performance of groups with whom we work, and will often decline support to organizations that we do not feel are well managed or are technically capable of undertaking a specific project or activity."

Though Dowie says foundation directives can sometimes go too far, he admits that funder involvement can also yield positive results. In some cases, program managers benefit greatly from the advice, expertise, and creativity of foundation program officers, he says.

One proposal writer for environmental organizations agrees that some foundation-driven efforts are quite worthwhile. As an example, he says, the Goldman Environmental Fund made strides recently by funding new alliances between human rights groups like Amnesty International and environmental groups and has successfully elevated public awareness of the persecution of environmental activists internationally. "Pew's work on global climate change has also succeeded in getting big businesses to sign pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions," he said. "It hasn't made major advances in reducing global warming, but it has shifted the corporate climate on the issue from denial to recognition of the problem as worthy of action by business."

Robert Ferguson, Director of Foundation Relations for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York, said foundation involvement can often be an invaluable asset. "We're engaged in a very healthy dialogue with foundation program officers," said Ferguson. "If you've had a long relationship, they're more willing to make a long-term commitment to your work." But Ferguson acknowledges that NRDC, a large mainstream environmental organization, runs campaigns that fit within the program scope of about 80 percent of the foundations that fund environmental work.

Such funding, says Britell, tends to be for "name-it-and-save-it" projects that rarely, if ever, take on the corporations that are causing the problems in the first place. If you want to do grassroots organizing around problems like corporate crime or corporations' central role in environmental destruction, it's almost impossible to get foundation funding, he says. Since many of these foundations derive their funds from oil companies and other extractive industries, grantee guidelines often stress a preference for "win-win" program proposals that won't threaten such activities. This is why Pew funds journalists who are directed to do interesting stories about threatened ecosystems, but never stories that actually name the culprits behind the problems, Britell said.

Beck characterizes such criticism as coming from marginal environmental activists who, because of their "extreme positions and the absence of a real constituency," typically have a hard time obtaining financial assistance from any sector. "The tendency of these organizations to blame their lack of success on a plot by philanthropies is a convenient but disingenuous excuse for the fact that they have been able to garner little popular support for their positions among either the broader environmental community or the American public," she said.

But one environmental proposal writer affirmed that "many philanthropic foundations are simply public relations arms for major corporations." Because so many corporate executives sit on their boards, he also sees a reluctance on the part of many foundations to fund anyone who's overtly critical of companies.

In order to make foundations more accountable to the public interest, critics like Herbert Chao Gunther, president and executive director of the Public Media Center in San Francisco, argue they should be subject to greater scrutiny and public oversight. Others suggest that foundations should invite more broad-based participation in determining priorities and awarding grants by opening up their boards to representatives from communities and the nonprofit sector.

While supportive of such measures, Dowie says the biggest challenge facing activists is the minimal amount of funding given to environmental causes. "If you omit funds like foundation purchases of development easements and other similar expenses, genuine environmental funding is less than three percent of all foundation grants given in the United States," he said. As a strategy for increasing this amount, Dowie says environmentalists should target health policy-focused philanthropists. "The hot buzz-phrase these days is 'healthy communities.' Well, you can't get that without funding grassroots efforts to fight for clean air and clean water," he said. "That's the big pitch."

But Britell says the real answer to funding environmentalism is to get off foundation grants. Instead, he says grassroots groups should be funded through community-based strategies like phone bill solicitations so that activists are accountable to as broad a pool of donors as possible. "You're not going to get at the fundamental problems we face through foundation grants," he said. "They're part of the problem."

Aaron G. Lehmer is an environmental writer and graduate student living in Arcata, CA. He is also the Website Manager for Earth Island Institute and founder of, an on-line showcase of classic and contemporary rock artists working for positive social and environmental change.

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