Monday, April 12, 2004

Politics and philanthropy

I've just returned from the Donors Forum of Wisconsin's annual meeting. Now, I'm a New Yorker living in San Francisco and thus bring all the coastal biases there are about the middle of the country. I've never been to Wisconsin before. Sure, I know about the State's illustrious history in terms of progressive politics as well as their more recent experience as home to many welfare reforms and voucher experiments - not quite the stuff that makes progressives proud.

Well, the philanthropists and nonprofits at last week's meeting should be proud. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, one thing must be very clear to all of us who toil in the independent sector - its too polite and too apolitical. I've been to many -- too many -- philanthropy conferences in my time and I have never heard anything remotely controversial spoken from the podium. No one disagrees, no one says "I don't think that is the right strategy," and certainly no one has ever said, "They're promoting a political agenda that I don't agree with and that I think needs to be countered." Yet that is essentially what happened last April 8th outside of Milwaukee.

Gara LaMarche of the Open Society got it started by discussing the recent NCRP report, "Axis of Ideology" about the politically conservative foundations. This is appropriate, since Wisconsin is home to Bradley and several other of the larger conservative foundations. Bradley was, in fact, one of the co-chairs of the meeting. After LaMarche made his plenary comments about the need for philanthropy (center and left) to have a voice and use it, to take a stand for the politics that undergird their programs, he made direct reference to the success of the conservative foundations in doing so.

He got a response. I don't know if Mr. LaMarche was there to hear it or if he had left, but one of the Bradley Foundation Board members rose to the challenge to speak directly on behalf of the Foundation's programs and the values they believe they are promoting. He, in turn, was followed by a board member of another Wisconsin foundation, who noted that "since the political gates have been opened," let us use our voice. He offered an open question to the assembled hundreds,"What will you tell your children, 25 years from now, about where you stood on the issue of gay marriage?" Implied in his comments were the idea that, 25 years from now gay marriage will be a given in our society.

Given the setting of the meeting, only the podium speakers got to air their thoughts. But my hat is off to all of the aforementioned for using the podium for its true purpose.

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