Saturday, November 8, 2008

Foundations Embrace Advocacy

The New York Times reports that a growing number of philanthropists such as George Soros, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, Warren E. Buffett, Jeff Skoll, and Bill Gates, and the foundations they endorse are spending increasing amounts and raising their voices to influence public policy, which is a marked shift from their traditional, behind the scenes position.

The article discusses the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's efforts to address taxes, deficits, and fiscal responsibility.  Established in 2007 by Peter G. Peterson, a Wall Street billionaire and former commerce secretary during the Nixon administration, the foundation financed a documentary examining the United States' addiction to debt titled "I.O.U.S.A."  In addition to the documentary, the Foundation is using advertising and public appearances by foundation experts to educate the public and increase engagement in those issues.  Its Website offers op-ed articles and letters to public officials and editors, some of which have appeared in newspapers.  Also, all members of Congress received a copy of a report by the foundation, “The State of the Union’s Finances,” and Mr. Peterson and David M. Walker, the foundation’s chief executive, have met with members of both parties to discuss the nation’s deficit.

Joel L. Fleishman, author of The Foundation: A Great American Secret, cited three reasons for foundations’ interest in influencing public policy: (1) greater ambition to tackle big and seemingly intractable problems, (2) growing frustration over government gridlock caused by partisanship and, (3) an increasing number of foundations that plan to spend down their assets by a specific date, making them eager to make a mark upon the world.

“Many foundation donors and trustees are just avid about the issues they care about and willing to push limits as far as they can to get things done,” Mr. Fleishman said. “They’re frustrated and want to show they have an impact.”

Another example the article discusses is the Gates Foundation, which spends roughly 10% of the more than $1 billion it gives away each year on advocacy efforts like increasing public awareness of issues; helping nonprofits reach policy makers and the public; and working with policy makers to provide information, expertise and ideas. 

Patty Stonesifer, the Gates Foundation’s former chief executive, said the problems that the foundation was seeking to conquer — H.I.V./AIDS, malnutrition, the failings of public education — were so enormous that success required involving government.

Ms. Stonesifer cautioned, however, that it was difficult to link changes in public policy to a foundation’s investments in advocacy. The Gates Foundation is often credited with helping increase government aid to combat AIDS internationally, but, Ms. Stonesifer said, “you don’t really know what did cause it to rise, though we do feel like we were part of the range of voices and provided some of the evidence that led to it.”


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