Philanthropy and Government: Perfect Strangers or Bosom Buddies?

So, yes, the title of this post does reveal the last decade in which I regularly watched television. Thank goodness for my students, who let me in on secrets of the modern world, like those Real Housewives shows that I first thought they were joking about!

This week, while my students are keeping up with American Idol (is that even still on?) so that I don’t have to, I’m blogging about a somewhat random collection of reports and analyses about the worlds of philanthropy, advocacy, and social entrepreneurialism, I guess so that you don’t necessarily have to read them!

Today’s report is from Grantcraft, and it relates to something that’s of significant interest to me–the “best” relationship between private philanthropy and government, in the pursuit of solutions to our most vexing social problems. Getting this right is tremendously important, because of what both philanthropy and government bring to the social problem-solving enterprise: the former innovation and a capacity for risk-taking, in particular; and the latter the fiscal resources and legislative authority to institutionalize the most promising strategies discovered in the philanthropic world.

Or, at least, that’s how it could/should/WILL work!

This particular survey solicited the insights from more than 1500 grantmakers, about not just how they’re currently working with government (or why they’re not) but about how they envision this relationship, and what they see as the best strategies for engagement without co-optation  and mutual challenge without devastation of the relationship.

Some of they key findings, that I believe have implications for how we view philanthropy and government as complementary forces for good:

  • Foundations are working with governments on many levels; in at least some cases, this means building skills and relationships at more local levels first, the same way advocates can.
  • Foundations see advocacy as a critical piece of their relationship with government (in terms of providing information, informing policy debates, and trying to shape policy approaches). This is a critical insight both because it suggests that at least some foundations are committed to playing an advocacy role AND because it correctly characterizes advocacy as part of a partnership with government, rather than an inherently oppositional activity.
  • There is a distinction between collaboration and coordination: the latter seeks to build understanding on both sides about the other’s work, and to find ways to work together, while the former may increase the risk of co-optation. The respondent grantmakers emphasized their role in criticizing government, as a sort of “loyal opposition”, that, if more vigorously pursued, could, I believe, create more space for nonprofit organizations (dependent on both foundations and government for financial survival) to engage in such critique, too.
  • Perhaps the part that made me the most encouraged in the survey was the strong opinion, expressed by several respondents, that philanthropy has to be on guard against being used as “cover” for government’s abdication of its core responsibilities, as part of the social contract between a citizen and his/her state. A direct quote: “we need to be sure that we’re not being used to fund programs and activities that the government should do.”So nothing like kicking the week off with optimism, right? About the enthusiasm and acumen with which at least some grantmakers evidently approach their interface with the government, and about the potential that such a joining of forces has to provide some real momentum in our struggles for social justice.

    And you can still check out the report for yourself, unless the title has you longing for some 1980s TV

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