Rachel's Democracy & Health News #839
January 26, 2006


Rachel's summary: "Democracy is in crisis in the so-called advanced
countries of the world and in the so-called developing countries. Here I
will reflect mainly on the United States because I know it best. In other
countries the issues of democracy will differ. In most cases with which I
am familiar the differences will be matters of degree. But the
obligations of the philanthropic sector are the same." -- Stephen

By Stephen Viederman[1]*

Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger and Courage. Anger at the way
things are, and courage to change them. -- St. Augustine

The question raised by the organizers of the Philanthropy Australia
Conference session October 12, 2005, was this:

"As I see it what is the role of philanthropy in modern democracy?"

My answer:

The role of philanthropy is to help ensure that modern democracy
fulfils its obligations to the commonweal by keeping governments and
other institutions wielding power, including corporations, the media,
and educational institutions, accountable and transparent to all
citizens and residents. Philanthropy has a unique opportunity, and
therefore responsibility, since it is master of its own resources, and
not reliant on outside funding. The ultimate goal must be structural
reform and transformation, not simply amelioration of the present
situation. It helps by supporting those organizations that are
committed in theory and in practice to community, equity, justice, and

Democracy is more than voting. It requires of us all a commitment to
the commonweal, the common good: to justice, equity and community.
Julian Burnside, in his opening address to the Philanthropy Australia
conference on October 9 spoke eloquently of the need for this when he
directed our attention to the needs of the vulnerable, the powerless,
and the unpopular.

Democracy is in crisis in the so-called advanced countries of the
world and in the so-called developing countries. Here I will reflect
on some of the issues and the responses in the United States because I
know it best. In other countries the issues confronting democracy will
differ. In most cases with which I am familiar these differences will
be matters of degree. The responses of philanthropy will also differ.
But the obligations of the philanthropic sector I assert are the same.

** Reacting to hurricane Katrina, President Bush stated that the
government would do all it could, and called on all Americans to do
their part in the recovery and rebuilding. Subsequent actions have
shown that the government is not fulfilling its obligations either
administratively or financially.

Foundations in the U.S. are supporting rebuilding efforts through
local organizations in the affected communities by dealing with
structural issues not just charity.

** Federal rules require Government contractors to pay the prevailing
wage in the place where the work is done, and to hire locals first. In
a series of cost-plus contracts for Katrina cleanup these rules were
waived. If these rules had been implemented they would have had a
significant social and economic impact on the survivors, and would
have reflected what many believe to be the Government's social compact
with its citizens.

Foundations support groups that monitor the actions of government and
the press making transparent the opaqueness of government and

** In October the Government emasculated the inter-governmental
National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (NEJAC) by declaring
that race was no longer to be considered an issue in guiding federal
agencies in their cleanup of environmental problems. This despite the
fact that studies over the last two decades that led to the formation
of NEJAC to coordinate the work of all Federal agencies, demonstrate
that race is a central factor in environmental issues.

Foundations are supporting constituency-based economic and
environmental justice community organizations to reverse this
decision, working through their elected public officials and public

** Law in the U.S does not require voting. The proportion of
eligible voters who actually participate in elections is small.
Challenges to voting rights are increasing, especially the rights of
the poor and people of color. A requirement that voters show picture
identification recently adopted by some states in the south is in
effect a 'poll tax," requiring people to prove eligibility (and incur
cost to do so) rather than assuming they are eligible. In the November
2005 election for Mayor of New York City, and for the governorship of
New Jersey, fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters went to the
polls. Voter apathy is strong. The influence of corporate money and
lobbyists, the "K Street" phenomena, induces a sense of powerlessness.
The cost of elections favors candidates who are among the very rich,
like the New York winner, Michael Bloomberg, and the competing
candidates for the governorship of New Jersey, who self-financed their
bids for office. It also favors candidates with great money raising
machines that make big promises to the givers, especially the
corporations, to be made good at a later date.

Foundations are supporting nonpartisan voter registration and
education on the issues, and get-out-the-vote campaigns.

** Prospects for significant campaign finance reform are stymied
by promises made to the rich and powerful, and by the strength of
incumbency. As a result some of the very best possible candidates are
discouraged from running for public office, at any governance level.
Populist commentator Jim Hightower, in the sixties an elected
Secretary of Agriculture in Texas, highlighted the problem in the
title of his book, If the gods had meant us to vote they would have
given us candidates (2000).

Foundations are supporting efforts to describe a fair program for
campaign finance that does not favor the wealthy, and are actively
involved in supporting public education around these issues.

Foundations are also exercising their ownership obligations in the
companies in their financial portfolios by filing shareholder
resolutions and by voting their proxies requesting companies to
publish in their annual reports the recipients of their political

** The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) recently
proposed sweeping changes to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), which
became law in 1986, and which is the premier environmental regulation
credited with providing citizens with the right-to-know and actual
information about pollution sources in their neighborhoods. First,
EPA has proposed requiring facilities to report their toxic emissions
only once every other year instead of every year. Companies would not
be required to produce a report covering two years of data -- they
would simply get a pass every other year. The second proposal would
allow facilities to release ten times as much pollution before
triggering requirements to report on the quantity of toxic chemicals
released. In response, an industry group, the American Chemistry
Council, has launched a major chemical industry public relations
campaign claiming that the TRI is not so essential.

Foundations are supporting community-based and national environmental
organizations to respond to this effort at emasculating an important
tool to protect the health and welfare of communities.

** At the end of October the House of Representatives passed
overwhelmingly the Housing Finance Reform Act, which includes a
provision that disqualifies nonprofits from receiving affordable
housing grants if they have engaged in voter registration and other
nonpartisan voter activities, lobbying, or produced "electioneering
communications." Organizations applying for the funds are barred from
participating in such activities up to 12 months prior to their
application, and during the period of the grant even if they use non-
federal funds to pay for them. Most troubling, affiliation or
association with any entity that has engaged in any of the restricted
activities also disqualifies a nonprofit from receiving affordable
housing funds under the bill. This is a significant step back from
previous rules and regulations.

Foundations are supporting vigorous efforts at public education and
mobilization to maintain the right of community and nonprofit
organizations to participate in the democratic process.

** The Congress is now (mid-November 2005) considering
legislation that would reduce tax rates on the very wealthy while
considering cost-cutting offsets in Medicare, student loans, food
stamps for the poor, and programs for children, directed toward the
poor and middle class. The bi-partisan Congressional Budget office
found that similar tax cuts recently enacted have been ineffective in
stimulating the economy, the ostensible reason for the tax cuts then
and now.

Foundations are supporting public education efforts, advocacy and
mobilization to insure that people are aware of these assaults on the
'safety net' and activated to let their elected representatives know
their concerns.

** A foundation working on issues that are perceived as unpopular
by the present Administration was told by its lawyer not to engage in
policy or strategic discussions by email in order to avoid government
eavesdropping. What they are funding is perfectly legal.

The foundation in question is not backing down. In addition, groups of
foundations are protesting at this federal-level abridgement of their
rights as foundations to act in the public interest supporting causes
the present Administration considers unpopular.

** The Administration has been secretly paying psuedo journalists
significant amounts of money to report favorably on its initiatives.

Foundations are supporting watchdog groups that are exposing
government's efforts to at best confuse, at worst to lie, to the

** Corporate power is at an historical peak, and the abuse of
that power, including a lack of accountability to shareholders,
stakeholder, employees and communities, is considerable.

Foundations are owners of significant corporate assets and some of
them use these assets to achieve great corporate accountability and
transparency toward the common good. Corporations are the greatest
economic force in the world today. Foundations in collaboration with
other concerned owners are increasingly filing shareholder resolutions
and voting proxies in support of shareholder resolutions that support
human rights, the environment, workers, and equal opportunity, among
other things. These combined efforts have been successful in changing
corporate behavior.

These observations on the state of democracy are not a counsel of
despair, as dispiriting as they are. They are rather a call to action
for the philanthropic community in the U.S. to provide more support to
assist community and watchdog groups hold governments and other
powerful organizations at all levels accountable to all citizens and
residents of the country, not just to a chosen few. They can help
groups to insist on greater transparency on all aspects of government,
corporate and other institutional activities.

Foundations in the U.S. can fund community organizing, advocacy and
mobilization around public issues, although they cannot fund support
for the passage of specific legislation. There are many non-
governmental organizations that desperately need support to defend the
public good at community, municipal, state and national levels.
Foundations support voter education and registration, and 'get out the
vote' campaigns. Voting is a basic right in a democracy. Foundations
also support public education campaigns around specific issues.

Many foundations in supporting these efforts focus on groups that have
real constituencies, grassroots rather than Astroturf. The groups they
seek are those where the dialog and decisions are part of a democratic
process, to which the group is accountable. This is democratic base

Any response to the challenges to democracy requires philanthropy to
look inwardly as well. To whom are we accountable? Are we transparent
in our relations with grant seekers and the public-at-large? Are our
efforts focused on structural and systemic change to protect
democracy, or are we satisfied with amelioration of the problems
facing our nation, filling in for government?

As the African-American slave, abolitionist and intellectual Frederick
Douglass observed in the 19th century: "If there is no struggle, there
is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, yet depreciate
agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the
ground...Power concedes nothing without a demand."

South African Archbishop and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu a century
later notes: "There can be no neutrality. If you are neutral in
situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If
an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you
are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."

What philanthropy in the U.S. is doing pales in the face of challenges
to democracy today. Social justice philanthropy, a rough measure of
what is needed, is estimated to be only about 15 percent of total

Philanthropies in every country will have to assess the problems of
democracy in their countries, the political and social culture, and
design appropriate responses to protect and nourish democracy. To
reframe Julian Burnside's challenge to foundations, democracy cannot
survive without inclusion of the vulnerable, the powerless, and the
unpopular. Who comes to the table of democracy will decide what
democracy really means. This is the challenge to philanthropy in the
U.S. and worldwide.


* Stephen Viederman is an activist, educator, writer, speaker and
consultant on a wide range of issues including sustainability; the
social role of higher education; the future of philanthropy and
whether it can meet the challenges of democracy and civil society;
environmental and economic justice; redefining fiduciary
responsibility and issues of social investment; the limits of
corporate social responsibility within the context of how we define
the economy; population and the environment; and science and public
policy. An underlying theme in his work is the problem of effecting
long-term institutional change toward a just society. In 2000 Steve
retired as President of the New York-based Jessie Smith Noyes


[1] These notes are an expansion of ideas presented at Philanthropy
Australia's Conference in Melbourne on October 12, 2005. I am
profoundly indebted to PA for their invitation to participate. On
October 17 I delivered the Stegley lecture at the Centre for Asian
Philanthropy and Social Investment at Swinburne University, "Equity,
democracy, community, and philanthropy". The text of that lecture will
be available on the Centre's website sometime in February 2006.
Since I see these remarks as part of a continuing dialog, reactions as
well as comments and critiques are very welcome. Contact me at
stevev@igc.org, with "NZ Philanthropy" in the subject line since I
have a very active spam blocker.

This article was prepared at the request of Philanthropy New Zealand.
An earlier version appeared in Philanthropy New Zealand News, Vol. 2,
No. 40, Summer 2005, pgs. 14-16.