Mixed Messengers? On Foundations as Moral Cheerleaders for America

I’m sure some people could think of not-so-nice things to say about that full-page newspaper ad signed by 39 foundation presidents that appeared Sunday in the New York Times and other top newspapers. The ad, citing the “recent killings of people and police officers in communities across the country” offers a message of hope based on America’s past track record of steady progress toward “dignity, equality, and justice,” and it calls on readers to chime in with their optimistic thoughts at #reasonsforhope on Twitter. 

Sounds nice, right? But I’m imagining that more than a few advocates working in the trenches on race, policing, and guns looked at the list of foundations on the ad, and then at their own list of funders, and noticed something amiss. Or maybe they Googled the cost of a full-page New York Times ad—which starts at around $100,000—and mused about how far that money could go in their shoestring operations. Or perhaps they composed in their mind a much stronger ad, in which foundations took a stand for something more tangible and that actually mentioned the words “race.” Even Hillary Clinton spoke the once-radical phrase, “structural racism” in her acceptance speech the other night; couldn’t foundations have mustered the same courage here? At the very least, couldn’t that ad have mentioned the color of the “people” who’ve lately been killed, along with police officers? 

Today, though, let’s resist the temptation to shoot fish in a barrel and instead move on to an interesting question raised by this effort, which is this: What role do foundations have as moral cheerleaders for America?

The implicit premise behind the expensive ad is that foundations have an important role in publicly encouraging the better angels of the American psyche—and are also uniquely qualified to do so because, as the ad said, they support “organizations working for change all across the country,” and which are working to promote dialogue “neighbor to neighbor, community by community.”

Jim Canales, the president of the Barr Foundation, who signed the ad, suggests in a blog post yesterday that foundations have an unusual vantage point because the business they’re in is “fundamentally a hopeful one.”

I think there’s something to these points, especially about hope. If you think of all the other major institutions in U.S. society, it’s hard to name many others that so often express their missions as advancing the well-being of humanity writ large. That’s not government’s role, exactly, with its practical focus on providing a collective way for citizens to solve problem. It’s not the role of business (whatever techies may say), with its bottom-line imperative. It’s not the media’s role or that of the military. Political parties might say something similar, but as partisan entities, they’re not cheering on everyone’s better angels. Ditto for religious institutions, more or less.

In any case, all the institutions I just mentioned have hemorrhaged public trust in recent decades (except the military), which makes them imperfect as society-wide cheerleaders. Some slice of Americans instantly tune out when the hope message comes from, say, Hillary Clinton, Rick Warren or Mark Zuckerberg, or even the president of the United States, a figure now viewed in more narrowly partisan terms than at any time in history.

Foundations, in contrast, don’t carry much baggage—yet—and most really are in the business of pushing some version of hope, regardless of party or creed or quarterly returns. So it does seem like there's a vital cheerleading opening here that, if anything, foundation leaders should play more often, when so many other would-be cheerleaders are distrusted.

We can argue about the content of these uplifting messages (more details, please!) and we can argue about the venue (maybe not an expensive full-page ad to reach the mostly liberal upper-middle class professionals who still get the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times in hard copy). But fundamentally, the cheerleading role makes sense for foundations in an age of cynicism and polarization.

Going forward, though, there are few clear challenges to effectively playing that role.

One is that it may only be a matter of time before foundations join the ranks of distrusted institutions. After all, these elite-run entities are products of concentrated wealth at a time of rising anger against inequality and wealthy elites. That fact is likely to loom larger in the public’s mind as an era of legacy foundations run by technocrats gives way to an era of mega-foundations run by living donors. Look no further than the field of K-12 funding to see how quickly the backlash can grow and how toxic it can be.

With more funders pushing into controversial public policy issues, and often in non-transparent ways, the risk grows that these institutions will lose the public’s trust as high-minded institutions with noble intentions. The ever-greater warehousing of tax-subsidized wealth at a time of fiscal austerity is also an invitation to popular ire. Which is one reason why the foundation sector would be well advised to embrace—not reflexively fight—growing calls for reform. The stakes are too high, here, for the sector to not get ahead of this curve.

Second, and more obviously, foundation leaders need to be mindful of appearing hypocritical in their cheerleading role or hogging the spotlight, as people sitting on piles of money often do. It’s the change makers in the field who should be out front, and the last thing those folks want to hear are foundation CEOs giving lip service to priorities that, in practice, they’ve been underfunding for years.

Enough said.

Related: Philanthropy’s Leaders Need to GetAhead of theCurve on Reform—While They Still Can