Monday, November 13, 2023

Civil society, polarization and pluralism

Photo by Ruy Reis on Unsplash

A headline in today's Chronicle of Philanthropy, reads:

"Philanthropy’s Job in Polarized America: Make Partners of Enemies, a New Poll Says"

Which raises an obvious question, 

"Why do you think philanthropy is the solution and not part of the problem?"

We often talk about civil society and philanthropy as if they only do good. And then we go on to debate the meaning of good. While that can be hard, we're often pretty clear we know what it isn't when we see it. 

So when I see headlines about Project 2025 - a coordinated effort by more than 80 nonprofit organizations (both c3s and c4s) to put loyalists to Donald Trump in positions up and down government and across state and federal jurisdictions - I don't just doubt the willingness of these groups to "make partners of enemies." I doubt the willingness or ability of groups on the democratic side of the ledger to do so either. I also doubt the willingness of most media outlets, almost all of which seem to have become aligned with one political side or the other. 

I've written a lot over the years about the blurring of the lines between charity and politics. This is most clear in the way funding now works - flowing between c3s and c4s, coming out of donors' LLCs and DAFs. The money moves in ways that removes donors names from donations and goes in and out of organizations in between reporting dates, which often come long after the money has been used. As I first wrote following the Citizens United decision in 2010, the scale and appeal of political money will be too much for charitable nonprofits to ignore. In taking such money, and even perhaps in trying to ignore such funds, nonprofit activities are increasingly aligned with one political side or the other.

We need better mechanisms for tracking money through nonprofits and into political activities. We need to be able to follow dollars into politics, no matter what kind of organization they flow through. We need to be able to track and report this funding in more useful time frames than oft-delayed tax filings. And, we need to be more honest with ourselves and in our writings about civil society and philanthropy. Which requires acknowledging that some (measurable, but not yet measured) percentage of both funders and nonprofits are deliberately pursuing political ends while masquerading as nonpolitical entities. Only when we acknowledge this reality can we begin the process of writing new rules for reporting, transparency, legitimate activities, and meaningful accountability. Which, of course, helps explain while the sectors themselves aren't necessarily interested in acknowledging this reality.

Philanthropy and nonprofits are small p political. Your theory of change, the problems you choose to address, and the ways you seek to solve them reveal political assumptions and allegiances. This has long been true. Now, as the ideologies and paths to change proposed by the country's two political parties grow ever further apart from each other, these associations become more obvious, more visible. Add to this the constant growth in political giving, and it seems that civil society is growing increasingly capital P political, and that at least some of that is due to the preferences of funders. It's hard for me to see how any of this positions civil society or philanthropy as the recourse to social and political polarization.

There are things that we can do to bridge our differences. But we should first recognize just how broadly our political differences influence things like where we live, work, shop, read, worship, play, travel, and donate our time and money. And not assume that every philanthropic or nonprofit organization is interested in or equipped to help with that bridging. It seems that some portion of them are quite invested in exactly the opposite.

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