Shaking Foundations

September 6th, 2006

Katrina made New Orleans one enormous laboratory, which didn’t end with dumping the science projects growing in the fridge. We’re about to be one of the biggest things to ever happen to Urban Planning (and all the social theory that goes with it), we are, as far as I know, the first city in the U.S. to switch to a primarily charter public school system, the flood gates and levee repairs are the biggest nail-biter to date in the 21st century, and then there’s the over-arching test of whether and how we’ll survive at all (which plenty of latter-day Know Nothings are anxiously waiting for us to fail).

And then there’s the nonprofits. Last November, Pablo Eisenberg wrote about the future of the nonprofit world in International Center for Nonprofit Law‘s journal, which Karen at brought to my attention. There seems no better place or time to examine the ramifications of his questions “in the field,” than here in New Orleans, where every org worth its charter is involved one way or another, and when private money with a public mission is so critical at every level.

Eisenberg’s first matter of cocern for the future of nonprofits is hardly a new one. It seems there can’t be too much policing against fraud — something we do well to remember in these parts, where some people can’t seem to keep their hands off of donated Durangos. He goes on to detail other threats to the integrity of the sector, like conflicts of interest and increasing commercialization, but less obvious and more interesting to me is his call for all nonprofits in general, but foundations in particular, to promote democratic institutions and practices. By this he doesn’t seem to mean that cancer foundations or Save the Chinchilla drives, say, should quit funding medical research or chinchilla rescue and launch voter registration drives instead, but he claims that:

from its earliest days, a primary mission of the nonprofit sector has been the preservation and strengthening of American democracy. This role has taken many forms: protecting civil liberties and individual rights; leveling the playing field for all citizens; building strong democratic institutions; providing a social safety net for the neediest members of society; and assuring a competitive free-enterprise system.

An interesting assertion because, while I guess I’ve always assumed that nonprofithood should entail some self-sacrificial greater good, I’ve never seen it taken to that level of abstraction and articulated that way. I don’t know if I would have concluded myself that there’s a democratic obligation on the part of foundations and charities, but now I have a hard time saying why that shouldn’t be the case. Between tax-exemption and a stated mission to pursue, a fund or funder yields a certain control to the issue itself, whatever it may be — even if it’s Save the Chinchillas, just what constitutes the Good of Chinchillas is not entirely up to you to decide once you get 501(c)(3) status for it.

Eisenberg goes on to point out that the combination of our eroding social safety nets and the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor have simultaneously made philanthropy more necessary and more concentrated in fewer hands:

The enormous expansion of foundation assets in recent years has added to the inequities in American life. As public support for social programs, job training, affordable housing, and projects to feed the poor and temporarily house the homeless have been reduced, the burden for such responsibilities has increasingly fallen on private individual and institutional philanthropy. Public responsibilities are becoming a matter of private charity. An elite, growing, and unrepresentative group of private foundations are now making decisions about the allocation of funds for social welfare. In a sense, “noblesse oblige” is slowly taking over what should be public decision-making.

Far from leveling the playing field, civil society appears to have acquiesced or, at worst, abetted a national policy that has slowly made it more difficult for many citizens to enjoy equal opportunities and, at the same time, made it easier for wealthy citizens to assert greater control over society.

Noblesse oblige is not what I want to rebuild New Orleans on. As luck would have it, shortly before reading this article, I was talking to my brother, Ben, whose reading list is always worth checking out. It turns out Ben is in the middle of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, about Robert Moses an “idealistic advocate for Progressive reform” who went on to become more powerful than mayors and governors of New York, largely via sitting (unelected) on boards and committees. I haven’t received the copy I ordered yet, but from what I understand, Moses’ noblesse oblige was not much appreciated by the end (even around here: as an advocate for cars and freeways over public transportation, he happens to be the guy who proposed the Vieux Carre Riverfront Expressway, giving us the Second Battle of New Orleans).

One of the most interesting responses to Eisenberg is H. Peter Karoff’s. He ethusiastically takes up the call for greater transparency and public accountibility in nonprofit workings, lambasting paternalistic attitudes among some foundation trustees:

Major foundations more often than not have viewed themselves as the source of innovation, “the manufacturer,” with little if any input from recipient organizations and communities, “the users.” Strategic and Venture Philanthropists likewise often view themselves as crucial to innovation. It is assumed that the nonprofit organization recipients and programs will not, cannot, perform without them. Nonprofit organizations, which are often intermediaries between funders and communities being served, are sometimes guilty of the same patronizing assumptions about constituencies and clients.

Karoff points to the Internet and Open Source software development as the torchbearers of the new Democracy, and the exemplars for future nonprofit management. It’s an admirable and popular sentiment, praising the organization of the Internet and proposing it as a model, but I’m not sure it always means very much without a closer examination of what sorts of collaboration take off and why, and whether the problem being proposed for solution Internet-style lends itself to such a strategy and how. What does it get the chinchillas? And what does it mean for the GNOF, the NOCSF, the LRA Fund, etc.?

I don’t really know, but I think a large part of the answer comes from the zealous nut phenomenon (thanks to Karen again). To add a little to what Karen has already excerpted on her site from the Project for Public Spaces article on the passionate amateurs who are deeply engaged in the upkeep and development of their own communities:

More and more developers, designers and leaders are now realizing that the success of a public project depends on the participation of the public itself. That seems obvious, but it took a long time for many decision makers to figure that out.

The article goes on to note that foundations in some places (like the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint, Michigan) are starting to shift their focus toward the crazy neighborhood ladies (and gentlemen) when it comes to civic improvement.

Whatever happens, it should be interesting to watch the numerous funds and organizations at work here, local, national and international, and their degrees of responsiveness to the public they aim to serve. This debate takes on so much more urgency when actual public policy is being determined by foundations (no offence to the chinchillas). I see some interest in “public input” on the part of the UNOP and its funders, but it’s not quite the same as the kind of democratic responsiveness and public involvement I see in the Eisenberg PPS articles, not yet anyway. How the planning teams themselves relate to their assigned districts will be the test, I suppose.

5 Responses to “Shaking Foundations”

  1. Karen Says:

    So far the UNOPs efforts at Public Outreach have left a bad taste in our mouths. The idea that there is any substitution for “walking the beat” so to speak ignores the reality that most authentic grassroots organization comes from time spent face to face. Any Foundation of Planning Team should be asked to live, in a flooded Neighborhood.

  2. Jed Says:

    I, for one, am scared stiff by the paternalism and false piety I’ve witnessed coming from the non-profit sector. I heard an interesting comment once by a member of PHRF. He said that New Orleans’ worst fate (maybe an oversimplification, but it’s a very bad one), is to become like San Francisco, “The Kingdom of the Non-Profits”. SF (where I spent the past two years) is completely run by those folks, and they have usurped the role of a legitimate, functioning democracy, often to the determinent of their constituents (witness how little progress has been made in solving the homeless problem). The biggest issue I have is that the big funders in the non-profit sector talk the language of the right wing: government has failed us, therefore it is our role to provide. This is entirely bogus and it is a testament to the state of civil society in this country that we have to depend on the noblesse oblige of a decidedly non-progressive group of folks to protect our basic human rights and fulfill our public needs, without the “authentically democratic” input that democracy (and not some board) is supposed to provide.

  3. becky Says:

    It took me a while to sort out my thoughts for this post, because I don’t want to come off like I’m down on donating, volunteering and generosity in general, but I’m scared stiff too by the extent to which public policy and programs are shifting into private hands, however well-intentioned (or not – non-profit doesn’t necessarily mean saintly). I’m getting tired too of the “government has failed us” line of argument. Some office-holders have certainly failed us, but one of the best things about our form of democracy, I think, is the underlying social contract that persists regardless of who’s currently elected to what position – particularly that public decisions should be made on public record, and that checks and balances must exist at every level, because no one office or agency can police itself. There’s no accountibility without someone to be accountible to. I fear sometimes becoming a social engineering experiment with no controls. And maybe none of this would bother me half as much if I didn’t already look to the non-profit sector for inspiration and leadership in selfless dedication. I really hope that the arguments of people like Eisenberg and Karoff are being heard and continue to be discussed, because we need philanthropy more than ever as we see more and more public programs cut, and I think any organization with a public mission has to be looking at how they can elicit truly substantive involvement by the public they hope to serve if they want to achieve the best they can for their chosen sphere.

  4. Karen Says:

    I would also add that there seems to be a serious need to evaluate conflict of interest.

    For instance does it seem odd that the CSO has named a developer, Al Petrie as the District Rep. This is in no way suggesting that Mr.Petrie is unable to represent the wants and needs of his fellow residents, it kust illustrates the slippery slope we are on.

  5. Neighborhoods’ Planning Network » Public Meetings, Private Foundations Says:

    [...] Please read the work of this local resident and see what concerns we, as citizens, share: Becky Houtman. Thank you to Karen Gadbois for so eloquently bringing this resource to our attention. Article, Government, New Orleans Community Support Foundation, Politics, public process, Urban Planning See Also: Good Outside the City Point of View, News Articles of Interest, Inspiring Article: A SPUR to Thought, New Orleans Community Support Foundation Board Meeting Agenda, Have a voice, attend this meeting! [...]