Why do Progressive Foundations Give too Little to too Many?

18 Julio 2005
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Why do Progressive Foundations Give too Little to too Many?
Michael Shuman
The Nation, 12 January 1998

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The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy recently reported that between 1992 and 1994, twelve major foundations on the right, often working in concert, pumped more than $200 million into conservative groups committed to discrediting existing public institutions and cutting loose private corporations from any kind of social responsibility. The top recipients were multi-issue think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Free Congress Research & Education Foundation and Cato Institute.

Having just completed six years as a director and fundraiser-in-chief for the Institute for Policy Studies, one of the few multi-issue think tanks on the left, I look at these figures with a combination of dismay and envy.

To put them in perspective, consider that I.P.S.'s annual budget of $1.5 million could run the Heritage Foundation for only about thirteen working days. Heritage received forty-two grants from these twelve foundations totaling $9 million, each averaging more than $200,000. I.P.S., in contrast, scores maybe one or two grants a year as large as $200,000, with most of its money coming from much smaller gifts.

When the author of the N.C.R.P. report recently appeared on a national radio program to discuss the findings, callers expressed outrage about the unfairness of the right having so much more money than the left. But this explanation for the effectiveness of right-wing philanthropy, which liberal program officers and activists repeat to one another, is a smokescreen for an embarrassing fact: Foundations that support progressive causes actually have lots of money, more than their conservative counterparts. The real problem-and it finally needs to be aired publicly-is that too much of this money is spent foolishly.

This observation comes from someone who ostensibly should have no reason to complain. Over the past fifteen years, I've raised more than $12 million from foundations. And I've done business with perhaps a hundred program officers, many of whom are smart, committed individuals with a laudable vision of social change. You know who you are, so please don't take what follows personally. But I think it's essential that all of us, especially grantees and grantors with personal stakes in the soft-money game, ask some tough questions about ends and means.

The stakes are huge: We are in a monumental struggle over the very future of governance and public policy as we know it. If progressive philanthropists insist we play whiffle ball while our opponents play hardball, we're destined to lose.

"Progressive philanthropy" may seem like an oxymoron. In a class struggle, can the owners and dispensers of capital really be trusted to finance their own overthrow? The reality, however, is far more interesting-and disconcerting. An enormous number of foundations fund some progressive groups some of the time. Seven of the ten largest US foundations, with assets exceeding $50 billion, fall into this category: Ford, Robert Wood Johnson, Kellogg, MacArthur, Packard, Pew and Rockefeller. I.P.S., to give just one example, has received grants from four of them.

Perform this exercise with the 100 largest foundations, and you'll find somewhere between a third and half fund some progressive groups (though the exact number depends on your definition of "progressive"). Still, given that many of the large foundations are founded and run by the corporate elite, no one should be surprised that most are ambivalent toward the left and are undependable supporters of activists' work. More difficult to explain is the grantmaking of those funders who openly embrace us as friends.

Most of these program officers belong to the National Network of Grantmakers, based in San Diego. The N.N.G., according to its mission statement, works "within organized philanthropy to increase financial and other resources to groups committed to social and economic justice." It aims to "eliminate discrimination and oppression based on age, class, disability, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation," and to "promote the significance and vitality of the grassroots community in the broader movement for systemic progressive social change."

A myth within the progressive community is that these funders have limited resources. Table 1, however, presents the twelve largest foundations listed in the N.N.G.'s annual directory. Altogether, their assets are nearly $8 billion-five times those of the right-wing Gang of Twelve discussed in the N.C.R.P. report (see Table 2).

If our friends are dispensing more money than our enemies, why are we faring so unimpressively in the nation's public policy debates? The answer, I'm convinced, has nothing to do with the merits of our arguments or the politics of specific program officers. The real problem is that the current system of progressive philanthropy is built upon principles of grantmaking that are dangerously counterproductive.

Here are just five of the worst culprits, each of which I'll introduce with paraphrases of comments I've heard repeatedly from program officers.

1. "Sorry, we fund only in the following issue areas"

Biodiversity, women's issues, education, health, nuclear proliferation, civil liberties, etc. These days, every progressive foundation tries to specialize in one or two issues. The impulse is natural, since foundation executives gain expertise, get to know their grantees and learn how to measure results.

What the right-wing foundations have convincingly demonstrated, however, is that the core institutions of a successful political movement must be multi-issue, just as real people are multifaceted. Table 3 compares two foundations of similar size: the conservative Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee and the progressive Public Welfare Foundation of Washington, D.C. Nearly half the top grantees of the Bradley Foundation are multi-issue think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute and Free Congress Research & Education Foundation. Also given priority are multi-issue magazines like The Public Interest , The New Criterion and The American Spectator . Even the most issue-focused of these conservative grantees still have fairly broad domains, like culture, economics or foreign policy.

The Public Welfare Foundation's top grantees, in contrast, are nearly all single issue. Indeed, the entire foundation is organized into highly segregated divisions: criminal justice, disadvantaged elderly, disadvantaged youth, environment, health, population and reproductive health, and community support. No multi-issue group is on the top-twenty list.

This kind of investment by the right in public policy has paid off handsomely. Its long-term support of conservative public scholars enables them to develop and promote numerous "new ideas." Unlike their counterparts in academia, these thinkers are freed from time-consuming teaching and administrative demands, and they are encouraged to frame their research in highly partisan ways.

Well-heeled right-wing intellectuals have come to dominate the national policy debate over the past decade. The list of concepts that have emerged from conservative policy factories is a long one: term limits, unfunded mandates, school vouchers, the balanced-budget amendment, workfare, the flat tax, the right to work, free-trade agreements, enterprise zones, commercial free speech and more. With ample funding, they have successfully pounded their message into the heads of millions, sowing confusion, apathy and opposition to public regulation of private corporations. Multi-issue institutions on the right also enable their public scholars to present a coherent, compelling story about the supposed horribles of Big Government, which much of the American public has now accepted.

Meanwhile, to fit neatly within the guidelines of progressive foundations, nearly all the organizations on our side focus on single issues like arms control or children. Despite the excellent work of many of these groups, the result has been a fragmentation of the social change movement. The small number of advocates fighting for each issue, each with parochial arguments, inevitably loses ground to what has become a visionary, well-coordinated conservative movement.

2. "We don't get involved in politics"

Nothing delights conservatives more than liberal funders' dedication to being "bipartisan," "nonpolitical" and "beyond left and right." However irritating it is for mainstream foundations to diversify their portfolios, their rationale, given their politics, is understandable. But for our friends to follow suit is downright reckless.

Many progressive foundations will give a grant to a more conservative grantee with "credibility" who takes an unexpectedly positive position on a pet issue. The Brookings Institution's foreign policy analysts, for example, enjoy remarkable support from progressive funders, even though the division's head, Richard Haass, a former senior official in the Bush National Security Council, spends most of his time attacking nuclear disarmament and trade sanctions against repressive governments like Burma. One left-leaning foundation, which focuses much of its funding on opening up US-Cuba relations, recently gave a big grant to Haass's division of Brookings-and cut off some of its other long-term grantees in the progressive community.

Single-issue thinking also allows funders to posture as progressive on one issue and remain quite conventional on the rest. Many "green funders" embrace anti-environmental policies such as free trade and wholesale deregulation. Some foundations seek better inclusion of sustainable development and human rights in US foreign policy while simultaneously making national investment in these priorities impossible by giving grants to apologists for military interventions and Goliath military budgets.

While our funders obfuscate their purposes with platitudes, right-wing funders mince no words about their objectives: to dismantle the institutions of government (except prisons, police and the military) and to make the world safe for business and the privileged. By doling out their limited funds exclusively to their ideological friends, they achieve much greater influence. William Simon, who served as president of the John M. Olin Foundation, made this philosophy clear twenty years ago in A Time for Truth , where he wrote: "The alliance between the theorists and men of action in the capitalist world is long overdue in America. It must become a veritable crusade if we are to survive in freedom."

3. "We don't give general-support grants"

Another reason right-wing foundations have been so successful is that they give support to a smaller number of well-chosen institutions rather than to a large number of projects. Public Welfare, with an asset base somewhat smaller than Bradley's, gives to considerably more grantees. Look again at the Table 3. While the average 1995 Bradley gift to its top twenty grantees was close to $350,000 in general support, the comparable Public Welfare figure was $110,000 in project support.

Progressive funders, perhaps driven by the New Left's historic distrust of leadership and hierarchy, are inclined to avoid general-support funding. The natural result is a proliferation of short-term projects attached to flimsy institutions. And inherent in institutional weakness is poor press work, poorly marketed publications, poor management and poorly paid core staff with low morale and high turnover.

Institutional weakness also means a brittle funding base. It means that young activists are reluctant to climb into positions of leadership, preferring instead to start their own single-issue fiefdoms, splintering a balkanized progressive movement still further. And it means that an organization cannot easily deviate from project promises and respond quickly and effectively to news-breaking events as they arise.

Adding insult to injury is continuous "advice" from some funders about becoming more media savvy and more self-sufficient. This almost always turns out to be hot air. A New York?based program officer once upbraided me for laying off a half-time press officer while, at the same time, the official rejected a funding request that would have made the layoff unnecessary.

In an era when most Americans get their information from mass media-television, radio, newspapers, cable, films, videotapes, the Internet-the continued reluctance to fund in these areas neglects a fundamental opportunity for promoting political change. Media strategy, publicity, marketing and advertising are all key components of political work. They not only get a message out; they also enable activists to engage in a two-way conversation with the American people.

Nonprofits would also be thrilled to receive institutional-development grants that enabled them to achieve greater self-sufficiency. Direct mail or advertising, or related business ventures like publishing, are among the most likely ways to develop a diversified funding base. Yet very few foundations will help get these efforts under way, even through loans. And even among those that do support such efforts, none give enough to insure that the job is done properly.

4. "We only give one-year grants"

Few worthy results can be achieved in a year. How many pieces of legislation have been passed, public policies put into effect or major projects completed in a year? Multi-year support, in contrast, allows coherent planning and program development. The right recognizes this, and gives much of its support to institutions over a multi-year period.

Progressive funders, however, usually insist that their grantees jump through the same hoops year after year. Executive directors and project directors on the left are forced to spend more time fundraising and less time getting real work done. A staggering number of progressive foundations give grants of several thousand dollars or less, which is almost surely less than the cost of time spent writing the proposal, traveling to meet with the program officer, redoing the budget, filling out forms and submitting a final report.

Why do progressive funders put their grantees through so much for so little? They claim it's "accountability." The real answer, I think, has more to do with the natural inclination of a bureaucracy to justify its own existence. A number of program officers at progressive foundations are former activists who decided to move from the demand to the supply side to enjoy better salaries, benefits and working hours. Yet they still want to live like activists vicariously-with none of the risks-by exercising influence over grantees through innumerable meetings, reports, conferences and "suggestions."

In short, while conservative funders usually treat their grantees like peers, whose work deserves long-term support, respect and trust, too many progressive funders treat their grantees like disobedient children who need to be constantly watched and disciplined. Their resistance to even the simplest reforms underscores the problem. Several years ago, the N.N.G. decided to urge adoption of a short, common application form, which would greatly cut down on grantee paperwork. To date, not even a quarter of the grantmaking institutions linked to the N.N.G. allow their grant applicants to use it.

5. "All we need to do is organize"

While the right is investing generously in waging public policy wars, the left is focusing much of its money on thousands of grassroots groups disconnected from one another and from national politics. These organizing efforts-many of them important, noble and underfunded-deserve the generous support of individual members and community-based foundations. But major foundations with a national focus that wish to support organizing should insist that grantees be connected with larger national debates, movements and institutions.

Too little is being invested today in answering a fundamental question: What exactly are we organizing for? Many of our pat "answers" are obsolete. State socialism lies in ruins, and Great Society liberalism is increasingly outmoded. One unanswered question looming large, for example, is how to provide decent work to everyone without destroying our ecological base. Can anyone say, with confidence, what our economic program is?

Progressive funders must be prepared, as their conservative counterparts were over the past generation, to invest in serious intellectual exploration-in books, journals, magazine articles and conferences-without expecting an instant return. And if we want this work to be relevant, it must be carried on alongside, and together with, grassroots organizing. Intellectual work can no longer be separated from organizing or campaign work.

If a conservative genius wanted to disarm the left, he might have come up with the following plan: Dis progressive multi-issue groups like the Midwest Academy and Pacifica Radio and dispense money primarily to single-issue groups. Give each one just enough money to survive, but not enough to succeed. Spread your resources over thousands of projects, not key institutions, so that everyone is pitted against everyone else. Make sure the best thinkers and organizers are preoccupied with fundraising for their next paycheck rather than fighting for real change. Promote organizing around obsolete political ideas rather than develop new ideas. And voilà ! You wind up with a left pretty much as marginalized as it is today.

I don't believe in conspiracy theories, and I don't think progressive foundations are beyond reform. Some of the few success stories on the left in recent years, such as the campaign by new environmental and labor coalitions to derail the President's fast-track negotiating authority on trade agreements, resulted in part from the decision of a few funders to rethink some of their grant-giving.

Reforms would make the lives of foundation program officers easier. Providing fewer grants to more multi-year initiatives would reduce the work load. General support grants are easier to administer than project grants. Investing in media, fundraising and institutional development ought to open up new sources of philanthropic support for progressive causes. And strengthening multi-issue advocacy should relieve some of the competing demands for direct-service funding.

There are many terrific program officers I've worked with over the years who understand the problems and would like to change their institutions, but they are too afraid to rock the boat. Who, either on the inside or the outside, wants to nibble on the hand that feeds? Even the N.C.R.P., a self-appointed watchdog of foundations, depends on grants and has numerous program officers sitting on its board.

Here's one modest challenge to foundation executives: If you doubt what is being said here, ask all your grantees to evaluate your foundation anonymously. Or have an independent third party survey them, or bring them together for a real conversation. There is an urgent need for an honest dialogue between grantors and grantees. The N.C.R.P. study is a poignant reminder that progressive funders have much to learn from the right, and need to start radically rethinking their practices and priorities.

Michael H. Shuman, a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, served as its director between 1992 and 1997. He wishes to thank David Callahan, Jeff Cohen, Bill Collins and David Kallick for help in framing an earlier version of this article.

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Table 1: Assets of Key Progressive Foundations (in thousands)



Charles Stewart Mott


Chicago Community Trust




Northwest Area


Public Welfare




Charles H. Revson


Jay & Rose Phillips Family






Mary Reynolds Babcock




Source: The Foundation 1000, 1997 edition.

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Table 2: Assets of Key Conservative Foundations (in thousands)

Lynde and Harry Bradley


Smith Richardson


Sarah Scaife


John M. Olin




Claude R. Lambe




Charles G. Koch




Phillip M. McKenna


Henry Salvatori


David H. Koch




Source: The Foundation 1000 and The Guide to US Foundations, Their Trustees, Officers and Donors, 1997 editions.

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Table 3: A Tale of Two Foundations

Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation

Heritage Foundation


American Enterprise Institute


Wisconsin Policy Research Institute


Free Congress Research & Education Foundation


Institute on Religion & Public Life


The National Interest/The Public Interest


Center for the Study of Popular Culture


Hudson Institute


Institute for Contemporary Studies


National Bureau of Economic Research


Ethics & Public Policy Center


Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation


National Strategy Information Center


George C. Marshall Institute


National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise


The New Criterion


Institute for International Studies


Madison Center for Educational Affairs


New Citizenship Project


The American Spectator


Public Welfare Foundation

Children's Defense Fund


Families USA Foundation


Natural Resources Defense Council


National Black Women's Health Project


Friends of the Earth


Environmental Defense Fund


Research Action Information Network for the Bodily Integrity of Women


Human/Economic Appalachian Development Corporation


Institute for Community Economics


Southern Center for Human Rights


Global Fund for Women


Centre for Development & Population Activities


Children's Rights, Inc.


Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste


Consumers Union


Food Research and Action Center


National Prison Project of the ACLU Foundation


Seventh Generation Fund


Tufts Center on Hunger, Poverty & Nutrition


Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation


Note: Grants to universities and local charities excluded.

Source: Both sets of data are taken from the foundations' annual reports. The Bradley Foundation list includes grants paid in 1995. Except for the National Black Women's Health Project, the Public Welfare Foundation list includes grants paid over a twelve-month period in 1995-96.