Philanthropy and the State

What Makes Philanthropy Political?

Editors’ Note: After a brief hiatus, HistPhil continues its Philanthropy and the State forum with a post from Amy Schiller.

Spring 2016 is shaping up to be a watershed moment for philanthropy’s role as a political tool. Even setting aside political donations within the presidential race, two incidents have generated tremendous public conversation about what exactly makes philanthropy “political” – and whether such approaches are desirable. The controversy over Peter Thiel funding the lawsuit against Gawker (viewed by some as an attack on freedom of the press) and the Gates Foundation’s admitted stumbles in education reform demonstrate, as others have noted, the application of so-called philanthropy for aggressive ideological projects. Where Foucault (famously inverting Clausewitz) said “politics is war by other means,” we might say that, sometimes, philanthropy is politics by other means: funding think tanks, lawsuits, press, with the aim of reshaping society according to a particular ideology (neoliberal, libertarian, or progressive).

Discussions over philanthropy’s political character tend to focus on explicit shifts in the balance of power, between private donors and public governance. There is, however, another way of looking at philanthropy as a political force, in a more classical sense: does philanthropy, its discourse and practices, nurture our ability to build and share a world in common? Or does it reinforce individualistic egotism, a desire to claim as much of the world for oneself only?

It would be easy to look at some of the most high-profile acts of philanthropy (however stretched the definition) and firmly conclude that it mainly serves the latter purpose. I would suggest instead that philanthropy can be both “political,” that is, supportive of a common world, built on solidarity with others, and “anti-political” (again, in the classical sense), a method of reinforcing individual power and control over others.

One New York Times article from this past February exemplifies the spectrum on which we can evaluate philanthropy as “political”: In “Public Housing, Private Donors” (February 11, 2016), Ginia Bellefante covered the launch of the Fund for Public Housing, a non-profit arm of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). The new director, Rasmia Kirmani-Frye, was one of the first to propose positioning public housing as a philanthropic cause, over objections that highlight how constrained our understanding of philanthropy can be: public housing lacks the prestige of museums or universities; there was little to offer by way of donor recognition; racist and classist assumptions may make public housing residents seem less appealing as beneficiaries; giving to a public agency might be less efficient than a privately-designed and governed program. Indeed: if philanthropy is as anti-political as we seem to believe, then the lack of personal control and recognition, and the absence of solidarity with low-income residents, would all but guarantee the Fund for Public Housing’s failure.

My aim is not to paint the Fund for Public Housing as exclusively solidaristic or individualistic, but to point out the contradictions and overlaps therein. It is easy to criticize the Fund’s existence as inherently anti-political, as a weak substitution of private generosity for public neglect. The Fund intends to raise $200 million over three years for capital repairs for public housing structures. Meanwhile, NYCHA faces annual operating deficits and estimates that its 328 developments contain $17 billion in unmet capital repairs. It would be ludicrous to suggest that the fact that some people might be persuaded to donate to this unsexiest of causes demonstrates that all is not lost for the republic, when the republic already failed its responsibility to the citizens residing in public housing.

A better institutional political solution to NYCHA’s budgetary shortfall and aging buildings would be a collective discussion about re-allocating the retrenched federal funds, along with community representation in oversight and a demand for NYCHA to immediately address the many problems of neglect, or at least hire the staff necessary to do so. The announcement of the Fund for Public Housing did not quote any residents; instead it celebrated the first major gift to the fund, from Deutsche Bank — though the Fund did solicit applications from NYCHA residents to serve as a representative board member.

Yet (you knew there was a “yet,” right?), given all the weaknesses that public housing faces as a philanthropic cause, the pitch for support struck some important notes. Where I might have expected a case based on abject, pitiable conditions, with cliched sympathetic characters (elderly grandmother, hardworking single mother, cute young children), the city and donors took different tacks.

Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen framed public housing as “part of New York City’s fundamental fabric, in everyone’s neighborhood and connected to the life of every New Yorker,” a statement of political equality and mutuality, perhaps deliberately countering views of public housing residents as a separate class concerned largely with their own living conditions. Shola Olatoye, chairwoman of NYCHA, said the Fund was seeking funders who identified first and foremost as  “New Yorkers…who value New York as a diverse place,” underscoring that the pitch was not about pity for residents or the abject state of NYCHA buildings, but about public housing’s omnipresence in the civic and topographical landscape of New York (“the sell isn’t about fixing up our buildings; it’s about the fact that one in twelve New Yorkers lives in NYCHA housing”). A spokesperson for the DeutscheBank Foundation, the first major donor to the Fund, similarly framed the rationale for the foundation’s gift as an investment in the city, with public housing playing a valuable role in helping families and neighborhoods flourish, somewhat surprisingly bonding the fates of those families with those of a multinational bank. Both city officials and the lead donor translate the philanthropic work of the Fund into a project of metropolitan solidarity, advancing a principle that donors should have a stake in the overall well-being of people with whom they share a common identity, particularly a geographic one. The Fund for Public Housing is something in between the poles of political solidarity and anti-political pity: not a straightforward appeal on the basis of suffering, nor a revolutionary movement of equals that might alter political decision-making for public housing.

If the Fund for Public Housing provides one microcosm of philanthropy’s fluidity, its ability to be simultaneously political and anti-political, two other examples provide firmer evidence and a more complete portrayal of what might determine the political and anti-political qualities of philanthropy (particularly in relationship to the state).  In the same article announcing the Fund for Public Housing, Bellefante refers to two precedents for private support to public entities, implying that both iterations had the same posture towards, and effect on, the public good: park conservancies and charter schools. Granted, conservancies and charter schools are structured differently, with divergent attitudes towards public versus private control. Conservancies supplement the budgets of parks departments, which remain under city control, whereas charter schools exist to compete with traditional public schools with private management. Their structural differences are just one way that these two iterations exemplify, respectively, the firmest examples of political and anti-political philanthropy.

There is also the question of what control donors have, over both the institution they help fund, and over the way other citizens can inhabit those institutions. A conservancy involves far more surrender of donor control, though clearly donors maintain significant potential influence over an institution when the philanthropic arm provides, as it does for Central Park, 75% of the park’s budget. The question of philanthropic oversight has become more urgent in recent years, yet the articulated policy of the Conservancy, as per a 2015 report by the Trust for Public Land, is that final decision-making authority rests with the city agency, and the ultimate “ownership” stake belongs to the overall public.

The political nature of conservancies goes beyond deference to elected bodies for governance. The respective missions of parks and charter schools demonstrate wholly different attitudes towards equality and autonomy between funders and non-funders.  Parks are utilized with far more autonomy than the students of a charter school, and not just because many of a park’s beneficiaries are adults. People can play or sit, laze about or work on a painting or read or any other task; they can play sports, or observe games from a contented distance. Granted, parks do have rules that are not necessarily determined or administered in democratic fashion: areas of grass are limited seasonally, there are rules for apportioning time on the tennis courts and baseball diamonds. Likewise, schools are more heavily governed as daily stewards of hundreds of children.

But a person in a park benefits from the conservancy’s largesse without having to submit to the same strict governance as heavily-disciplined and monitored inhabitants of a school (students, teachers, and administrators alike). Visitors do not have to demonstrate their worthiness to access the park via a test, nor do they have to limit their bathroom visits. The factors that make the conservancy model of state-adjacent philanthropy “political” are the underlying understanding of universal autonomy, surrendering the expectation of donor-driven control of both the institution and its beneficiaries. It remains an open question whether or not the Fund for Public Housing will reach its goal, or continue relying on a solidaristic case – and there is cause for concern that donors may see the Fund as yet another opportunity to govern a less-powerful population. But the discourse around the Fund’s creation at least demonstrates that what makes philanthropy “political” is a more complicated question than we often think – and yet in some ways, is simpler as well. Philanthropy has a political character when it reminds us that our fate is bound up in others, that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

-Amy Schiller

Amy Schiller is a writer and Ph.D. candidate at The Graduate Center of CUNY. She is currently writing a dissertation on the political qualities of philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, The Daily Beast, and other publications. Previously a capital campaign director and political organizer, Amy has consulted for nearly a decade on major gifts fundraising efforts.

One thought on “What Makes Philanthropy Political?

  1. “Philanthropy” as conventionally defined is “private initiatives for public good.” Under current law, charities may not participate in campaigns for particular candidates in elections, nor advocate for specific laws in legislation, both of which are obviously political processes and too susceptible to private benefits. The rise of 501(c)4 “nonprofits” advocating for particular candidates, is evidently not “philanthropy”—such organizations are tax-exempt, but donations to them are not tax-deductible.

    It seems to me that these conventional distinctions suffice to allow donors to support public initiatives as philanthropy when there is an arguable public good to be achieved; the safeguard would be to make the donations to a private philanthropic corporation affiliated with or otherwise dedicated to the public initiative’s public good.

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