Changing priorities at two foundations affect funding for hundreds of small scale advocacy groups across the US. It looks as though free lance advocacy is losing out to the broader strategic objectives of political campaigning.
The mainstream press has missed a noteworthy development at a couple of relatively small foundations—which nevertheless have been a mainstay of support for certain types of nonprofit advocacy. The Chronicle of Philanthropy (Michael Anft) reported that the Public Welfare Foundation (EIN 54-0597601 Form 990) under its new president Deborah Leff was limiting its focus to a few key issues. As a result, many of the 400 groups a year that annually benefit from the foundation's grants (typically in the five figure range) would most likely have to cut back.
Unfortunately, many of the articles mentioned in this article are behind subscriber walls, and some aren't even on the Internet yet, but that's just the point. Mainstream news outlets aren't even noticing this story and the underlying trend it reflects.
This drew a notably vehement response from Chronicle columnist Pablo Eisenberg, a long-term proponent of grassroots advocacy. Mr. Eisenberg made it personal by criticizing Ms. Leff's new policy and the transparency of the process by which it was arrived at:
Ms. Leff says she consulted with many grantees during the planning process. That does not seem to be borne out by many grantees whose names had been submitted for consultation by the staff. Nor does the president seem to take much, if any, time to listen to visiting grantees or grass-roots organizations.
Later on, Mr. Eisenberg discloses the reason for his impassioned reaction:
Probably half of all the local grass-roots environmental-justice programs in the country have depended on Public Welfare money. Another quarter of foundation support came from the Beldon Fund, which has shut its doors and plans to spend all of its assets by 2009. So from where will the money for this important movement come? What other foundations are ready to step up to the plate?
The Beldon II Fund (EIN 38-2756784 Form 990) confirms on its web site its intention to go out of business in 2009. So it was the double blow to Mr. Eisenberg's favored constituency that aroused his fury.
And other notable details emerged in the response to the column. Gara LaMarche, CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies came to the defense of Ms. Leff, noting:
[I]n her early months at Public Welfare [Ms. Leff] launched a million-dollar initiative to promote paid sick leave policies. She's off to a great start.
We have previously talked about Atlantic Philanthropies, a Bermuda-based charity that reveals little information about itself, though it does operate a US-based charity, the Atlantic Foundation of New York (EIN 13-3562971 Form 990), which discloses no information about salaries. Like the Beldon Fund, Atlantic Philanthropies has set a sunset date for itself in 2020.
This gives us a hint of what has happened at the Public Welfare Foundation. Instead of hundreds of grants in the $25,000 to $75,000 range, there are now are far fewer grants of much larger denominations.
But I was curious about the choice of issues. Paid sick leave policies? A little digging turned up a likely rationale: ballot initiatives about paid sick leave are making progress in Ohio and possibly other states expected to play a key role in the 2008 presidential election. It's part of a get-out-the-vote strategy similar to the role played by gay marriage ballot initiatives in 2004.
I think I get it. Sorry, Pablo, but that grassroots advocacy stuff is so 1970s. Now it's all about the vast strategic designs of presidential campaigns and the huge piles of money they demand for their execution. The truth is, your favorite grassroots efforts at environmentalism haven't anywhere near the impact of a mass media project like An Inconvenient Truth, which not only raised awareness but actually provided a return on investment.
So, half a bravo for Deborah Leff and the Public Welfare Foundation for trying something different that actually might work. Still—paid sick leave? I really doubt that it's going to rally the Democratic core the way that a ban on gay marriage did for the family values Republicans , but I'll keep an open mind.