We now rely on the politics of corporate charitable foundations to fund the things our government should be responsible for

Of late, I’ve taken an interest in the business of American philanthropy and the effective (or ineffective) uses of the $336 billion we give to charity in a year. Progressives ought to be interested because the charity business is big, it has an impact on social issues and public priorities, and it works (or should work) in tandem with public policy and public spending. It’s also one of the relatively unexamined facts of our contemporary life that deserves more scrutiny.

How do we feel about a breast cancer barhopping fundraiser called “Boozin’ for Boobs” on the Jersey Shore? Is it OK to encourage people to drink a lot, even if it’s “for a good cause?” How do we like the “boobs” characterization? Somebody commented to me that didn’t give the donor very much satisfaction, because “there are so many other ways to give, and volunteer, actually work on the issue.” Somebody else suggested that it was a function of the Jersey Shore, where such barhopping is organic.

Last year’s Boozin’ for Boobs reportedly raised about $20,000, which was donated to the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Komen raises about $36 million a year. ACS raises over $900 million a year. Is it possible that the money could have been better donated to Monmouth County cancer projects, where it might have had more impact?

And what about the number of reputable clinical studies that link alcohol consumption to breast cancer, maybe as many as 25,000 new cases a year? How do we balance the $20,000 fundraising “success” against the potential human cost? Are there other ways we could call out a weekend army of volunteers / donors and get them to look beyond the pink ribbon?

Shifting gears: What if the Koch brothers approached a nonprofit with the offer of a possible grant? Some people have said that such a grant in New York might be suspect, whereas a Koch grant in a more conservative area might not raise red flags. The example came up in a conversation among development directors here, and the predictable political red flags went up right away.

Except in New York, David Koch has given $100 million to New York Presbyterian Hospital for the David H. Koch Center. $66 million to Memorial Sloan Kettering, and that’s before the recent $150 million gift for an outpatient medical facility, and many millions to other New York hospitals, the David H. Koch Wing at the American Museum of Natural History, the David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum, the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. Apparently some of the city’s major institutions have found it possible to overcome any misgivings.

And these examples give rise to the question: is there any truly “clean” money out there? Money untainted by the donor’s politics (Left or Right), the industrial origins of the fortune, the labor practices, environmental offenses, securities frauds, scandals and other crimes against society. We can probably pile on when it comes to Koch politics – but what if the gift was offered by different brothers (e.g. Rockefeller)? What about the original source of that money? John D. Rockefeller was known for his strong-arm practices, for secret deals, for demanding kickbacks and for his generally aggressive business style. Plus it’s a fortune built on the oil industry, about which there is plenty of controversy.

What would we say about the Gates Foundation? It spends more on global health than most countries in the world, and more than the World Health Organization. The media is usually full of praise for Bill and Melinda (and Warren Buffett, the other trustee) and their supersized philanthropy. But now we have the phenomenon of a private institution making a suppressed impact on the health practices and policies of small impoverished nations. Now we have the creation of coalitions, chains of supply and services, all in existence because of the impulses of one donor.

I’m not pitting the Gates model against the Koch model. I’m simply wanting the debate to be about what is good and durable and true for a society that has come to depend on private philanthropy for medicine, clean water, cancer treatment, arts and culture – things we ought to be demanding of our governments.

I remember leading workshops of nonprofit grant-seekers when the topic of “clean money” would come up, as it almost always did. The Playboy Foundation? “Absolutely not,” some people would say. “Give me the address,” others would counter. The debate would pivot on a few questions: is it OK to use “bad” money for “good” purposes? If we wind up with a long list of untouchable prospects, doesn’t that create a disadvantage for us in the fundraising marketplace? What if a controversial donor announces a new funding initiative that is EXACTLY what we want to do?

Is it fair to apply these standards to foundations and corporations without also scrutinizing the pedigree and politics of individual donors? If a nonprofit takes a gift from a “bad” donor but doesn’t make it public, then maybe no harm, no foul. The simple business of getting funding is often not so simple after all. There’s an old joke, probably passed along by grizzled fundraisers who mentored me: “Please don’t tell my mother I’m in fundraising, she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse.”

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