BLOG: The Spillover Effect: Philanthropy Exchange 2014
Thursday, 3rd July 2014 at 11:07 am
In this latest Blog, Not for Profit Fulbright Scholar, Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine writes that philanthropists need to look beyond specific issues and support broad platforms of dialogue and debate to maximise their relevance and impact.
The conference opened with a statement that “opportunity has always been at the core of American identity, but today inequality is challenging that ideal”.
In a society as pluralist as the US, where opportunity takes many forms, there are just as many approaches to addressing its unequal distribution. One standout plenary exploring this further brought philanthropic leaders together to explore issues of inequality, diversity, race and gender.
Another panel looked at the 50-year ‘war on poverty’ and the ongoing role for philanthropy.
With the inadequacy of the minimum wage roundly accepted as a key driver of US poverty, there was broad support for foundations to fund only organisations that pay living wages, ie well above minimum wage. Interestingly, this discussion assumed that philanthropy’s potential impact was limited to the Not for Profit sector.
When I asked whether philanthropy could use its relationships with Wall Street to address the inadequacy of wages on a far more structural level – given how many foundations are associated with corporate America – there seemed to be no avenue (or willingness) to pursue such an approach.
While such reticence may reflect a range of issues, one is clearly the capacity of Not for Profits and foundations to advocate effectively for structural change.
Never far from the minds of any charity seeking to influence public policy, advocacy has been particularly topical recently: a furore emerged over how the Internal Revenue Service’s Exempt Organisations Division has been determining whether organisations seeking charitable tax exemptions are engaged in political activity (Tea Party affiliates among them).
In a country where advocacy is routinely linked to the function of democracy and public participation, such considerations are balanced on a spectrum of appropriate protections of free speech.
Another fascinating panel took up this issue. The sector’s peak body and two (self-described) conservative commentators discussed the evolution of election law; the ways groups supporting political candidates have affected charity law as they sought tax concessions; and the implications for other charitable activity such as advocacy. Chief among several concerns was how to ensure that appropriate measures denying tax benefits to political activity don’t tar with the same brush a far broader cross-section of legitimate charitable activity.
The challenge of effectiveness was ever-present. While the conference opened with an analysis that polarity was nothing new to North America, it was striking how many discussions came back to the polarisation of politics as a key stumbling block in what the sector wants to achieve.
That the expression ‘moving the needle’ is much-used among public policy proponents in DC reflects this: small shifts in entrenched positions are the most one can hope to achieve in this climate.
|Elected representatives from both major parties support the No Labels campaign for more effective government.|
A range of speakers shared their strategies for cutting through partisan barriers. In one session, representatives from No Labels talked about helping politicians in Washington DC find a way to work together again, including their PR coup of 80 Republicans and Democrats demonstrating this commitment through wearing ‘Problem-Solver’ pins at the State of the Union address earlier this year.
Meanwhile the Bipartisan Policy Center discussed its active promotion of bipartisanship through roundtables of elected representatives from both major parties working on detailed policy reform to reach positions they can take back to their respective parties for endorsement.
Perhaps the most intriguing idea about effectiveness was philanthropy’s role in media ownership.
A political scientist reminded us that 90 per cent of what determines whether change happens on our issues bares little or no relation to our work.
If we’re seeking policy change, he argued, we need to take responsibility for supporting the platforms where debates affecting those issues are happening. Good journalism is declining, he argued, not because of a lack of material to publish but because of dwindling support for journalism per se.
The ‘take away’ here: philanthropists need to look beyond specific issues and support broad platforms of dialogue and debate to maximise their relevance and impact.
Not to be deterred by the partisan state of affairs, I left inspired by Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker, who declared his personal commitment to remain 'radically optimistic' in the face of polarisation and despondency.
- What I’m reading: ‘A Shared Vision for a Stronger America’, No Labels
- What I’m watching: Highlights of the Tony Awards 2014 (which clashed with PhilX14 and is clearly an important part of Fulbright’s cultural exchange!)
About the Author: Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine is the Deputy CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, the peak body for charities and social services and the voice for people experiencing poverty and inequality in Australia. She was awarded the inaugural Fulbright Professional Scholarship in non-profit leadership in 2013 and is currently undertaking her Fulbright at the Foundation Center in New York City and the National Center for Charitable Statistics within the Urban Institute in Washington DC. Follow on twitter: @tboydcaine
The Fulbright Professional Scholarship in non-profit leadership is sponsored by the Origin Foundation and supported by the Australian Scholarships Foundation. Applications for the next Fulbright Scholarship close 1 August 2014.