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Philanthropy and Government: Striking the Right Balance

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Now that both major parties in the U.S. have presumptive nominees for the Presidency, it seems like a good time to share some thoughts on the relationships between philanthropy and government – relationships that Atlantic has considerable experience with in each of the countries in which we operate.

In the just society in which we all wish to live, government, business and the nonprofit sector all have key roles to play. We operate in a societal ecosystem where the economic and social health of all will be damaged by weakness in any of these elements. But right now in the U.S., there is an imbalance in this ecosystem. We need to restore a strong social welfare role for government, which is the only institution that is both democratically controlled and can deliver, to use a philanthropy buzzword, at “scale.” And we also need philanthropy that puts much more advocacy muscle behind the replication of its successful demonstration projects, and that recognizes the most sustainable investments are in strong organisations and experienced community leaders who can direct their energies and resources not just to the public policy needs of today, but those of the years to come, many of which we can’t yet see.

For various reasons, philanthropy has too often in the last several decades kept an arm’s length relationship with government and public policy. That has to change if we are to have any hope of making real progress on many of the leading challenges of our time: the reduction of poverty and the expansion of health care access, achieving a society that empowers and cares for the young and the old, providing justice and inclusion for immigrants and restoring or strengthening civil liberties.

For its part, government has experienced a steady loss of confidence in the last few decades, some of it well-earned, borne of failing schools and opaque and unresponsive bureaucracies. Here in the United States, for instance, we wouldn’t need to support programmes like Single Stop, which helps low-income families get counseling to obtain the benefits to which they are legally entitled, if government always worked as it should. And we wouldn’t need to spend resources making sure the state of Florida actually implements the restoration of voting rights for former prisoners, if government always worked as it should.

Fortunately these trends are beginning to turn around. Both Presidential candidates, for example, favor a stronger, affirmative role for government in many areas, and both have had engagement with foundations at various levels, Obama even having served as a trustee of the Chicago-based Joyce and Woods Foundations. And to judge from the strongly positive reaction to a recent Atlantic Reports on why foundations should fund advocacy efforts, there is much more interest and activity in philanthropy in cutting-edge public policy work. But there is still a ways to go.

Foundations can innovate, demonstrate, spur, fill in gaps, foster knowledge, identify talent, and do many other things that contribute to the betterment of society. But they cannot through their own funds alone begin to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and educate for participation in contemporary society many millions of young people. By definition their role must be catalytic.

In my first year at Atlantic I’ve learned much about models of working with government from Atlantic’s staff in the other geographies in which we make grants, and they illustrate to some extent the relationships between government and philanthropy in the U.S. In the Republic of Ireland, there is little tradition of investigative journalism and few think tanks to influence policy. Civil servants are of a generally high quality, and government is very centralized, so we form relationships with them – with the permanent government, as it were. This has paid off in co-investments by Atlantic with the Irish government in youth development programmes, and in the appointment of key ministers to advance the concerns of older adults in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In South Africa, our Population Health programme negotiates with the national Department of Health to support some the costs of upgrading nursing training facilities, and our Reconciliation and Human Rights Programme has partnered with the Department of Land Affairs to provide legal advice and support to farm-workers who face illegal eviction. The Legal Aid Board, which provides legal support for indigent people, has entered into a partnership with our grantee the Association of University Legal Aid Institutions to provide support in some rural areas. The Department of Social Development provides support to some advice offices in the Western Cape which also receive support from Atlantic, and the Department of Education matched an Atlantic grant to build a Life Sciences Complex at the University of the Western Cape.

In Viet Nam, of course, the government’s role is quite pervasive, and Atlantic’s programme has to interact quite closely with it. But there are many levels of government, and depending on projects’ needs and administrative requirements, and we work with the appropriate level of government as needed. In Viet Nam this ranges from public health programmes such as mandating motorcycle helmets to dramatically reduce traffic fatalities to co-financing the upgrading of rural commune health clinics. The Ministry of Health is also our partner in raising needed matching funds for large projects such as the National Hospital of Pediatrics. Through Harvard University, we also assisted the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy in creating more effective HIV/AIDS policies in their home localities. At times, we also press the Office of the Prime Minister and Deputy Minister to facilitate progress and overcome administrative hurdles.

Here in the United States, Atlantic’s relationship to government has taken two forms. The first is in a sense adversarial. We fund organisations that monitor, criticize and sue the government, like civil rights groups fighting draconian restrictions on immigrants cropping up all over the country, and civil liberties lawyers challenging Guantánamo, where our grantees had a big win in the Supreme Court recently and warrantless wiretapping. The second is an attempt at partnership, from working with the U.S. Labor Department to provide more employment opportunities for older adults in economically challenged regions of the country, to the State of New Mexico and the cities of Oakland and Chicago to match our investments in integrated services for middle school students.

We are of course in the throes of a Presidential campaign like none in recent memory, with higher turnouts and passions all across the country, and many people – including many younger ones who have not connected with the political process before – deeply engaged in choosing their government. The new administration, whatever its character, will be a fresh and important test of how foundations “get” advocacy for policy change. If John McCain takes office, some vital national issues may be in play, such as immigration reform, torture, and other post-9-11 civil liberties and human rights issues. If Barack Obama is inaugurated come January 20, there are additional opportunities to advance a progressive agenda, beginning with universal health care, the gaping hole in the U.S. safety net. To help advocates lay the groundwork for reform, the Atlantic board last week approved a $10 million grant to Health Care for America Now, a new national campaign to ensure that quality, affordable health care coverage for all is debated as an issue in 2008 and achieved in 2009. The campaign, which will be launched on July 8 in Washington, D.C. and in 44 states, is bringing together the nation’s most politically active labour unions, dozens of national organisations, and women’s groups, and is also being supported by thousands of doctors, nurses, small business owners, netroots activists, faith-based organisations and community organizers across the country.

Any new administration has a relatively short window to advance its agenda, and I would not want to look back on 2009 and 2010 and feel that Atlantic and other funders concerned with human rights and social justice did not do everything in our power to support advocacy groups in taking advantage of this moment, supporting and pushing the new administration as appropriate.

Gara LaMarche

This column was adapted from remarks made at the Annual Meeting of United Neighborhood Houses on June 11 in New York.

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