Article featured in the September 2016 issue of Alliance magazine.
There are increasing signs of philanthropy influencing policy and policy networks but, as yet, no overarching theory of how it does so. Philanthropic traditions vary, as do the political, social and economic contexts in which foundations operate. Influence can be exerted in different ways – not only through the ‘hard power’ of financial resources but also through the influence wielded behind the scenes and out of public view. It can be exerted by empowering others or funding research.
Influence over public policy is only one type of influence, but it is particularly important to debates about the role of private resources in the public sphere. These vignettes do not aim to give a comprehensive assessment; rather, they present a snapshot of philanthropic influence from across the world of philanthropy.
INFLUENCING PUBLIC POLICY
Early childhood development in Brazil
Early childhood development is critical because of the long-term effects that it has later in life. In Brazil, the Amazon River basin is home to 150,000 children under three years old spread across an area larger than Peru or Colombia. They are deprived of access to many basic human services and are the most difficult segment of Brazilian society to reach. This isolation is one reason why most of the social indicators in the state of Amazonas are worse than the national average.
Between 2011 and 2016 a grant of €1.1 million from the Netherlands-based Bernard van Leer Foundation (BvLF), and an additional €3 million funding from the Institute for Development of Social Investment (IDIS) and other partners, enabled IDIS to establish a welfare project in two main phases: first, creation of a pilot based on home visits by primary health care agents; second, the enactment and implementation of a public policy to scale it up to all children in the Amazon state.
The second stage involved the convening by IDIS of a group of public agencies, civil society organizations (CSOs) and academics to discuss the evaluation of the pilot project and the importance of scaling it up, followed by an advocacy process to lobby the executive and the state congress. A rigorous monitoring and evaluation system provided the evidence for the public policy development. Both stages were successful and the implementation of a law embodying the substance of the project is proceeding.
‘Without the support of civil society and local authorities, the will to scale up the project to a public policy benefiting all children would have been absent.’
The initiative mobilized a range of different partners – funders, government, CSOs, academics and community leaders – all critical to its success. Without the support of civil society and local authorities, the will to scale up the project to a public policy benefiting all children would have been absent. IDIS played a crucial role conceiving and setting up the project. Yet without funding and input from BvLF, it is unlikely that the pilot project would have been possible.
INFLUENCING PUBLIC POLICY
Supporting LGBTI rights in Southern Africa
A reception to celebrate activists at the July 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, co-hosted by the Ford Foundation and the Other Foundation, was themed ‘powering change’. The reason was simple: activism has been the power behind change in the AIDS arena – especially action by previously silenced groups such as African LGBTI groups and sex worker networks.
Deep and transformative rather than formalistic policy change is required if those on the fringes of society are to benefit. When those on the margins are placed at the centre of focus, real change is achieved in the priorities of whole societies rather than among political elites alone.
The Other Foundation was set up in 2013 as an LGBTI community foundation in Southern Africa. It was a legacy initiative of the Atlantic Philanthropies through a five-year matching grant. For the past three years it has raised the matching requirement from individuals and private foundations, including the Arcus Foundation, the Baring Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Dreilinden Foundation and others.
The foundation has worked especially to raise funds from the LGBTI community in Southern Africa through its innovative A Million Ones campaign, which aims to raise 1 million South African rands a month from the South African LGBTI community. This is also being matched by a few high net worth individuals internationally.
‘It supports LGBTI advocacy, community mobilization and service delivery groups through grantmaking and operational projects, including groups that have been key actors in achieving the recent decriminalization of homosexuality in Mozambique and the registration of the national LGBTI community organization LEGABIBO in Botswana.’
The Other Foundation’s aim is to achieve lasting social change that advances the human rights, safety and social inclusion of LGBTI people across 13 countries in the region. Its strategy is to locate LGBTI struggles in Africa primarily as struggles for social justice and freedom – rather than claims, in the first instance, to individual sexual rights. It supports LGBTI advocacy, community mobilization and service delivery groups through grantmaking and operational projects, including groups that have been key actors in achieving the recent decriminalization of homosexuality in Mozambique and the registration of the national LGBTI community organization LEGABIBO in Botswana.
Its core purpose is to be a resource (especially a financial resource) for the LGBTI community and it shies away from actively leading policy change initiatives. Other actors such as the key LGBTI advocacy groups in the region are more appropriately placed to do that. However, the foundation plays an active role in gathering support for such groups – from individual and institutional donors, from the public through mass media and social media messaging, and through research that informs advocacy and campaigning strategies.
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INFLUENCING PUBLIC POLICY
Climate think-tanks in Germany
Agora Energiewende was created in 2012 in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011, which had a huge impact on public attitudes to energy in Germany. The two foundations that established Agora – Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation – had a clear mission to fight climate change and work for a sustainable energy system.
The creation of Agora was a strategic move, founded on the belief that there is considerable potential for such an organization to be effective in Germany, where parliament had passed the ‘Energiewende’ bill in 2010, favouring renewable energy over nuclear and petroleum energy.
Agora is a Berlin-based think-tank with a team of approximately 20 staff and an annual budget of €2.8 million. Its mission is not to advocate for goals but to search and advocate for the best possible implementation of goals which have already been set by policymakers through the democratic process.
An advantage it has over many other research institutions and think-tanks is that it works independently of particular interests and particular stakeholders representing economic or political winners or losers in energy transition. The ‘Council of the Agora’, for example, which lies at the heart of its activity, convenes different stakeholders and perspectives (policy actors in the German federal system, lobbyists, research institutions, trade unions, etc) every three months for wide-ranging and confidential debate; it is organized to represent a comprehensive view of energy transition rather than any one particular policy perspective. It offers a platform for involving stakeholders in a dialogue on the future of energy transition.
‘Agora’s biggest political success in its short history was in January 2014, when its former CEO, Rainer Baake, was appointed under-secretary of state in the German Federal Ministry of Economic and Energy Affairs, with a responsibility for energy policy.’
Agora’s biggest political success in its short history was in January 2014, when its former CEO, Rainer Baake, was appointed under-secretary of state in the German Federal Ministry of Economic and Energy Affairs, with a responsibility for energy policy. By then Agora had already seen a number of its policy suggestions implemented in recent iterations of energy legislation, especially amendments of the Renewable Energy Law, the main thrust of which is to regulate feed-in tariffs. Such success in so relatively short a time has triggered legitimate concern that Agora might be too close to the current German government. As a strategic response, its two partner foundations have granted additional resources to intensify communication efforts and to give Agora a broader, European dimension.
Over the last decade or so, prominent US foundations have supported the movement to reform what is widely seen as a failing public school system. Few would dispute their right to do so. However, in the summer of 2013, Philadelphia news sources reported that a group called PennCAN had secretly financed a poll that encouraged Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett to blame Philadelphia’s fiscal crisis on the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, in a bid to gain support among the state’s conservative voters. The practice is known as astroturfing – the creation of apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are actually set up or funded by others.
These tactics have been used extensively by the education reform movement in the US, say critics, to lobby for the establishment of charter schools, the introduction of teacher evaluations and, according to an article in the Huffington Post, ‘the promotion of the use of school vouchers that allow tax dollars to be diverted from public education to pay private school tuition’.
‘The rights and wrongs of the US education reform debate notwithstanding, critics argue that the astroturfing approach is undemocratic: an illicit use of private money to slant a public issue. What’s more, they argue, philanthropic money is indirectly funding political lobbying.’
PennCAN is Pennsylvania’s arm of 50CAN, a national corporate education reform institution funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation. The rights and wrongs of the US education reform debate notwithstanding, critics argue that the astroturfing approach is undemocratic: an illicit use of private money to slant a public issue. What’s more, they argue, philanthropic money is indirectly funding political lobbying. While private foundations themselves are prevented by law from lobbying on specific legislation, many of the recipients of foundation money for educational reform, claims Dissent magazine, are non-profits with a different regulatory status, which can do a specified amount of lobbying. They can also set up other types of organization like political action committees (PACs), which can and do lobby and campaign.
‘Hired Guns on Astroturf: How to buy and sell school reform’, Dissent magazine, Spring 2012.
‘A Tree Without Roots: Astroturf and corporate education reform’, Huffington Post, 21 October 2014.
The UK recently recorded what is thought to be its biggest ever donation to a political cause. Businessman Arron Banks gave £5.6 million to the Leave.EU campaign, one of the main lobby groups behind the UK’s exit from the European Union. The group was supported by the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP).
‘There are signs, moreover, that Banks’s ambition to influence British politics might extend beyond the EU referendum. He is quoted by the Guardian newspaper as saying that Leave.EU would continue in the role of a ‘right-wing Momentum’, the grassroots social movement mobilizing to try and keep Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.’
There are signs, moreover, that Banks’s ambition to influence British politics might extend beyond the EU referendum. He is quoted by the Guardian newspaper as saying that Leave.EU would continue in the role of a ‘right-wing Momentum’, the grassroots social movement mobilizing to try and keep Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.
Banks has also said that he is considering backing a new political party which would take in members of UKIP, Labour and the Conservatives. He speaks of the need to reform UKIP ‘root and branch’, but he has also said: ‘with a million supporters there’s also a wonderful opportunity if we want to do something, to back something. I think a new party, a brand new party.’
UKIP was once described as the UK’s answer to the Tea Party, the populist faction of disaffected conservatives which arose in the US in 2009. It remains to be seen whether Banks’s political and philanthropic activities will resurrect the label.
BBC News website, 16 September 2010
Carbon Tracker Initiative
Few groups have been more influential in the divestment and climate change debates than the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI), a small organization initially funded by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Polden Puckham Charitable Foundation. In founder Mark Campanale’s words, ‘turning an abstract scientific concept into precise numbers for financial analysts to evaluate had the effect of bringing investors and shareholders into the climate challenge’ (Alliance June 2016).
The importance of its work has been widely hailed. The Guardian describes it as having ‘changed the financial language of climate change’. ‘CTI has triggered the Climate Swerve – a major historical change in consciousness,’ writes the New York Times.
‘Without the intervention of philanthropy, the initiative might never have got off the ground, since it was doing research the mainstream was unwilling to engage in. As a result of its work, the risks of fossil fuel investment are widely accepted in government and investment circles.’
Without the intervention of philanthropy, the initiative might never have got off the ground, since it was doing research the mainstream was unwilling to engage in. As a result of its work, the risks of fossil fuel investment are widely accepted in government and investment circles.
In addition to its critical role in funding CTI, philanthropy has also been instrumental in setting in motion and taking part in a divestment movement. In the four and a half years since CTI published its Unburnable Carbon report in November 2011, over $3.4 trillion has been pledged to fossil fuel divestment, with foundations representing a quarter of the total divestment commitments. In the US, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Wallace Global Fund have led the way, while in Europe the Ashden and Mark Leonard Trusts have been the movers behind divestment from 30 foundations together worth over $8 billion.
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Israel studies from classroom to campus
The growth of philanthropy in higher education can compensate for public sector cuts but can also influence the direction of scholarship. The highly contested nature of knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given its perceived bearing on the final outcome, makes the field of Israel studies highly politically charged. Against a backdrop of concern about anti-Zionism and anti-semitism on campus, Jewish philanthropists and foundations have funded the creation of posts in Israel studies in recent years. For example, a wave of philanthropic donations saw the number of posts at US universities increase by 69 per cent between 2005 and 2009.
In some cases, these donations form part of efforts to promote Israel on campus. As one prominent organizer put it, they help with ‘grooming a new generation of scholars’ who can ‘speak up’ for Israel at universities around the world.
In the UK, the (late) philanthropist Lord Weidenfeld brokered the establishment of posts in Israel studies at Oxford University and Sussex University, explicitly linked with the motivation of combating boycotts of Israel. Weidenfeld told the Jewish Chronicle in 2012 that he viewed such posts as vital in the fight against anti-Zionism and anti-semitism.
While many of the academics recruited are deeply committed to rigorous scholarship and do not shy away from criticizing the historical role or contemporary behaviour of Israel, and while the recruitment and selection of post-holders is, in theory, independent, non-Zionist scholars do tend to be excluded, or end up excluding themselves, while those more sympathetic to or supportive of Israel receive funding and positions. It is also notable that scholarship perceived to delegitimize Zionism is underrepresented within Israel studies conferences, associations and journals.
‘The growth of Israel studies has also coincided with the growth of Palestine studies as a rival field of study. While Palestine studies currently lacks the philanthropic firepower of Israel studies, it already mirrors some of the traits, and could lead over time to an area studies ‘arms race’.’
The growth of Israel studies has also coincided with the growth of Palestine studies as a rival field of study. While Palestine studies currently lacks the philanthropic firepower of Israel studies, it already mirrors some of the traits, and could lead over time to an area studies ‘arms race’. These and other relationships between philanthropic foundations and universities are increasing calls for greater transparency and public disclosure of funding agreements and background correspondence.
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