Foundations of public good By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

Foundations of public good

By Shea Howell

January 3, 2012

The Occupy Wall Street movement has opened up the conversation about the control the 1% have over public policy. While we all know that much of this control comes through good old-fashioned campaign contributions and high priced lobbyists, the role of foundations in directing policy has been less understood. But more and more, journalists are exploring the murky world of foundation decision making and the outsized influence these foundations have on public policy.

Nowhere is this influence clearer than in the city of Detroit. In spite of the turmoil over a looming financial collapse, Mayor Bing chose to emphasize the return of the Detroit Works Project. This foundation led initiative to redesign the city was widely considered a failure. It succeeded only in increasing tensions, decreasing public trust, and enraging many citizens who believe that downsizing Detroit means moving people out of their homes and neighborhoods.

The return of Toni Griffin to the leadership of the project demonstrates just how little the mayor and the foundations paying her salary understand about their flawed process. Rather than acknowledging to the public that the whole idea has been badly handled, the re-launched Detroit Works Project seems to think it has a public relations problem. Its emphasis now is convincing citizens to agree with its decisions. Charles Cross, the co-director of community engagement, stresses the openness of the group to answer questions. He explains that the new location in Eastern Market gives a place where “people can walk off the street and talk to somebody. Not somebody who takes their name and passes along a message, but somebody who is right there and is knowledgeable about the project.”

This physical location is augmented by street teams, posters, bus ride-alongs and the use of social media, all designed to “answer questions.”

What neither the organizers, the mayor nor the foundations seem to understand is that democracy is more than asking questions. It is certainly more than officials giving vague answers. Democracy includes the right to say no.

Democracy requires the ability to make real decisions about our own future. It does not mean creating public relations campaigns to get people to agree to things they know are not in their own interest. It means the ability to direct resources for the common good.

Democracy is being subverted by foundations whose interests seem less about the common good and more about imposing their particular vision of progress on the rest of us.

Whether it is Gates Foundation efforts to convince us that charter schools will save education or Kresge, Skillman and company telling us that some neighborhoods are better than others, we the other 99% need to challenge the role these foundations are playing in public life.

In a recent article by David Morris on foundation giving, he says:

“Foundations account for about 13% of all charitable giving, about $40 billion a year. Foundations may help the needy but they rarely advocate for them. “At a time when America is having a debate about the social contract, philanthropy is silent,” opined Emmett D. Carson, president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation recently told the New York Times. “We are silent about the depths of the problems of homelessness, joblessness, foreclosure, hunger, and people are starting to believe that philanthropy is irrelevant to the core needs of their communities.”

He concludes, “While most Foundations do not engage in campaigns to expand policies that extend a helping hand to our neighbors, a growing number are engaging in campaigns whose result may be the opposite.”

The old ways of decision-making, whether influenced by corporate donations or foundation dollars, will not create a new city. That challenge requires us to create new, meaningful ways to engage with one another to determine our future.


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