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#318 Eligibility is Not Entitlement – Both Should Matter to the Philanthropy World

July 31st, 2018

Richard Marker

Some years ago, when I was heading a large foundation that funded projects of all sorts domestically and internationally, it was not uncommon to get a certain kind of call from a group that did not get funded. The plaint: “we met all of your criteria; why did we not get the grant?”

I suspect that any reader of this piece knows that their surprised disappointment reflected a genuine naiveté. In the USA and in many other places, in the philanthropy world, eligibility simply opens the door for consideration. It means that a proposal passes certain pre-defined criteria that open the gate to the consideration stage. It is a very constructive tool for both sides: it should tell petitioners when not to waste their time and saves funders’ energies for the hard work of making choices among the eligible proposals.

Many on-line grant systems do that screening work for us. If a proposal doesn’t fit the formal criteria, the proposal cannot be submitted. Pretty clear and efficient. It may be true that some gems of ideas get lost along the way, we know, but it is also true that this process forces us as funders to pre-think what our priorities are and therefore makes the decision-making more focused.

In fairness, I should point out that because of the vagaries of many cultures and legal systems around the world, this distinction between eligibility and entitlement is often a puzzle to international grant seekers. Their response is not naïve, just culturally bound. In their cultures or countries, there is no distinction. – if you qualify, you get funded.

Now that doesn’t mean that funders are exempt from recognizing entitlements, just at a different stage of the process. For example, if we have chosen to fund an organization, and have told them so and we have both agreed to the conditions, the grantee is entitled to get their funds when promised, entitled to any support or feedback or technical assistance offered, and entitled to have a complete understanding of what kind of relationship and deliverable we as the funders expect. In other words, once we have committed, they are entitled – legally and ethically. [I hope that I am hearing a collective gasp that some of our colleague funders don’t pay when they promise and put the onus on their grantees to guess what will make them satisfied!] In other words, a contract is a contract.

Which brings me to a role that we as funders have in a profound equity issue in the USA about honoring entitlements. American workers have contracts with the government for retirement and health care coverage. Sadly, though, it seems that some politicians act as if they are running a private foundation – where they get to decide who among the eligible gets some money. But they are wrong: We as citizens have put money into government coffers in a legal expectation that when we are eligible we are entitled to that coverage. It was never intended to be considered a “good will” offering of a beneficent ruling power but a binding contract. The word itself is not trivial. We are “entitled” because we have a contract that guarantees it.

Those eligible for social security and Medicare, to take just 2 very real examples, are not grant seekers hoping that they will be among the few fortunate grant recipients. They/we are in the category of already being legally promised the funds – let me say that again – funds that the recipients ourselves have already put into the pot. It is a contract, and just as we funders must honor our contracted obligation to our grantees, so must our government honor the commitment to those who are entitled. It should not be retroactively negotiable with only one side having the power. [See how ‘equity” comes into the picture?].

Entitlement is not a dirty word, nor should it be allowed to be a politically loaded one.

But, the plot thickens: as we look more closely, we see that an even more pernicious trend is afloat both in the USA and elsewhere: to decrease the number of eligible. It starts with excluding “undocumented” immigrants, then those seeking legal refugee status, their families, and then considering adding new means tests or other “objective” limitations to exercise the rights to vote or gather or express ourselves.

In other words, if those in power cannot get around the “entitlement” obligation, some choose to reduce the number of those eligible. It is a slippery slope and plays too easily into nativist tendencies visible in too many countries. Far too many and much too close to home.

Why is this a philanthropy issue?

For ethical reasons, we as a sector believe that commitments matter. If we are committed to sustaining the social good, we know that it is only possible if commitments matter. By us and to us. And for all.

It is also a practical issue for us: there is always an implicit compact between what the public sector should and can do and what the voluntary sector can and might do. Philanthropy doesn’t function in a vacuum. Our capacity, our priorities, and our choices can only make sense if they are understood in the larger context of social good. If, perish the thought, the current governing group in the USA chooses to renege on its contract with the American people, who will be expected to feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for the uninsured ill, and enable a dignified dying? In Europe and the middle East, and here in the USA if there are many thousands of those seeking refugee status – seeking safe harbor from certain death and starvation, who is responsible for the landless and powerless?

One would hope that the first answer is a government that respects its people, preserves their rights and hard-earned privileges, but when that respect becomes tenuous, there is only one sector whose primary mission is the social weal and good, and that is, philanthropy. It is far too great a task for our capacity – financial or otherwise – to meet those human needs in this century. We already have an unconscionable divide between the haves and have-nots; those who have unfettered access to their rights of citizenship and those who must fight for their rights at too many turns. If we don’t stand firm, those divides can become cataclysmic.

Our sector has recently reemphasized and articulated our key role in addressing systemic issues of equity of all sorts. One of the ways in which we must be outspoken, and adamant is to not allow the meaning of words and the obligations of governments to become distorted beyond recognition.

Entitlement is one of those words. Eligibility is another.

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