Meet the Old-Money Philanthropist Leading the Fight for U.S. Development Aid

To David W. Douglas, grandson of hybrid corn seed inventor Henry Wallace, philanthropy consists of more than writing checks and checking asset fluctuations. For one thing, he personally monitors the projects he funds through the Wallace Genetic Foundation. For another, as I wrote last week, he believes in moving the needle on issues he cares about, such as clean drinking water and U.S. assistance to fight poverty in developing countries.

While Douglas was working with Water Advocates, which began life in 2005 and was intentionally sunset on Dec. 31, 2010, he found the right model for his advocacy funding: "I put money into it, Wallace Genetic put money into it, but because it had a sunset clause, it was not perceived by other groups as a competitor or that it needed credit," says Douglas.

Douglas decided to pursue a similar approach to his interest in U.S. development assistance. He thought that the United States shouldn't increase funding for one sector of foreign aid at the expense of another. He wanted to see groups advocating "outside their own silos—for broader support across all sectors of foreign aid." Thus was born Advocates for Development Assistance.

In 2011, ADA paid Washington lobbying firm K&L Gates $50,000 to advocate for foreign aid funding at a time when Tea Party conservatives were waging a fierce campaign to downsize spending in this area, along with the rest of the federal budget. Foreign aid, though, was seen as especially vulnerable at a time of rising isolationism.

Former Rep. James Walsh, a Republican who represented a Central New York district from 1989 to 2009, has worked with dozens of well-heeled clients as a K&L Gates lobbyist, according to Politico. But he cites his representation of the New Mexico-based ADA, which advocated to prevent budget cuts to development aid line items, as particularly notable.

“We weighed in very, very successfully,” Walsh said, noting that its $50,000 campaign, coupled with those of other groups, helped preserve level funding for water access programs and other aid initiatives. “It was a particularly huge success because everyone wanted to cut foreign aid.”

Says Douglas: "ADA is a time-limited project that provides additional research and advocacy on behalf of increasing the U.S. poverty-focused foreign aid accounts. ADA works with existing organizations that will be around after we sunset (at the end of 2015)."

In late June, at an event on Capitol Hill, ADA and many of its partners, including U.S. AID, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the State Department and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, highlighted some of the benefits of poverty-focused foreign aid. 

According to Douglas, the event emphasized a number of factors:

(A) Greater attention on the results of child survival and health in the last quarter century (probably the greatest story in the history of human health, given the number of children that are NOT dying before their fifth birthday thanks to the prevention of key diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea, measles, malaria, AIDS, TB, polio, etc.). (B) The diverse allies that have come together to make these results possible—a tremendous collaborative worldwide effort, for which the US, both federal agencies and Americans in their private capacity, played an indispensable role. (C) The need to pivot quickly from past results to future needs—to focus on the importance of accelerating progress to continue to improve children's health worldwide, given that everyone knows the interventions that work effectively.

Beyond his longstanding connections to key players, a main reason that Douglas has succeeded in getting so many people around the table is that ADA isn't just an unthreatening time-limited entity, it's super-collaborative. 

"The way this work is effective is when it's done very collaboratively with no one group owning it, or claiming credit," says Douglas. "There's a lot of credit to go around.”

But Douglas would rather walk the walk, which seems to be a Wallace mantra. "There remains an interest within the family,” he says, “of knowing well the work of the grantees we're supporting, staying generally within the broad environmental realm, focusing on action and practical results."