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#341 Foundations Must Not Fall Into the “Partisan” Trap

June 19th, 2019

Richard Marker

As with so many of my colleagues in the philanthropy world, I have been involved in the “complete count” effort regarding next year’s USA national census. This involvement was a national attempt for our sector to help correct for historic under-counts of lower income and other marginal populations. Since those numbers have a 10-year implication for allocation of federal funding, representative apportionment, and more, this has been seen as a commitment by the philanthropy world and the organizations we support to equity and equitability. Our involvement was never understood as a partisan or political involvement, but rather a sector-wide role to do something that should have been politically neutral to support a constitutionally mandated action.

Why then did a foundation program officer demur about taking a public position on the census after a profoundly moving day bringing hundreds of local stakeholders together. Her argument: her board won’t take “partisan” positions.

The 10-year census is constitutionally mandated. It was never intended to be “political” but rather an objective tool for democracy to function at the most equitable level. And while certain populations have notoriously been undercounted, that has never been because of purposeful interventions by politicians. [I acknowledge that those undercounts may have been unintended consequences of inequitable public policy but not purposeful.] Yet in this go-round, we now know unequivocally, there has been a systematic attempt to co-opt the census process for overtly partisan purposes. As of this writing, there is still the faint hope that the Supreme Court will honor the intent and history surrounding the census and disallow the last-minute citizenship question imposed by the current administration. But the damage is done and far too many fear the government and don’t trust the data gathering. And the fact that this foundation staff person felt an implicit restriction is only one of the signs. It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

Some months ago, a parent of one of the victims of one of the all too many school shootings [for which the USA should be ashamed and angry] bemoaned that talking about rational gun policy has become “partisan”. He himself was a lifelong Republican, but the very fact that he tried to discuss his concerns with Republican politicians about this branded him as not one of them. He thought he was discussing policy but the party with which he had always identified has defined the very discussion as a partisan issue, and he was on the wrong side. He was furious and frustrated.

Since their inception, there has been a debate about how porous our social safety net of Social Security and Medicare should be. But let’s be clear: Social security and Medicare are mandated contracts with all American workers. Everyone has money withheld and contributed throughout their working career with the assumption that the government will honor its contract and provide what they [we] have every right to expect. Yet many in a single party now try to argue that it is not a contractual obligation at all but simply an annual gift that can be discontinued or privatized or reduced at their will. These politicians have made this a partisan matter and not a discussion of genuine ethical public policy.

Any reader, I am sure, can add to this list during this dismal era in American politics.

What are we as funders to do? Most foundations have a history of choosing to be overtly and explicitly non-partisan, often restraining from legal and legitimate advocacy since they don’t want to appear “partisan.” The danger, of course, is that as certain political forces try to make every matter of the social weal and public policy to be no more than a partisan divide, it can serve to intimidate and limit much needed public discourse on policy and civil behavior, and to silence some of the most educated and thoughtful independent voices [including but not limited to us].

Those of us in the philanthropy sphere must resist this willful usurpation strenuously. All of our work is in dialectic with public policy, and we have an obligation to help formulate public policy with a vision of an engaged and enfranchised populace. Just because one party chooses to make policy discussions “partisan” does not mean that we must yield to that. It is demagogic and violates the intent of the Constitutional system under which we operate. Sadly, it incurs a like reaction by the other major political party. When every issue is “us vs. them”, with only political winners or losers, public policy, civil society, and the very nature of what America stands for is radically harmed. The American ethos is the inevitable loser – even if a few, a very few, will win.

To be sure, there are legal limits to our role in the political process – certain lobbying is not permitted for private foundations, but much more is permitted for public charities. As a rule, though, advocacy for policy that is not related to a candidate or pending legislation is not lobbying and is permitted by all. It is not partisan to have an opinion and point of view, and the philanthropy world should be a clarion and courageous voice in the face of the purposeful “partisan” divide in this country. We must never allow our voices or those of our colleagues to be stifled. Those of us who have important leadership roles in public discourse must never feel intimidated by others’ partisanship for us to exercise our forceful, thoughtful role in the public sphere.

It is not only our right; in this misanthropic era, it is the only right thing to do.

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