Remarks Of Senator Timothy E. Wirth Mobilizing for Social Change: Impacting Policy, Politics and the Legislative Agenda

Mobilizing For Social Change: Impacting Policy, Politics And The Legislative Agenda

March 22, 2005


Megan Rabbitt

Thank you for your kind introduction and welcome. It is a pleasure to be back in Southern California and to take part in this distinguished lecture series.

I have been asked to talk about mobilizing for social change and the intersection that exists – or should exist – between philanthropy and public policy. There could be no better place to talk about this than the Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy, which includes in its mission the goal of strengthening philanthropic and nonprofit work in the area of public problem solving, and research on important issues, some of which I will touch on this afternoon.

We are close to Hollywood so I thought I might begin by recalling the movie “Kinsey,” not because it will make my remarks any racier, but because it contains a useful reminder about the history of philanthropy.

The movie, of course, chronicled the life and work of Alfred Kinsey, something of a distant memory today but recognized by all of us who came of age in the 1950’s and 60’s. Before Kinsey, human sexuality was seldom discussed, poorly understood and about the furthest thing you could get from a science. By opening the doors of knowledge and understanding, Kinsey and his team helped launch the field of reproductive health, and his work has improved the lives of millions. His research also influenced a major field of public policy, and continues to do so to this day.

One of the striking subtexts of the film – and the reason I bring it up today – was the catalytic role played by the Rockefeller Foundation (which had the wisdom to get the research started) and by Herman Wells (the remarkable President of Indiana University, who had the vision and political bravery to keep it going). The consequent emergence of the important field of reproductive health is a clear example of the impact which bold and principled philanthropic leadership can make. Brains, fortitude and cash are a powerful combination, capable of changing individual lives and enhancing the experience of humanity writ large – as progressive philanthropy has demonstrated time and time again.

The record speaks for itself – focused philanthropy grounded in a commitment to social change with a consistent point of view and persistent engagement helped stimulate in the 2nd half of the 20th century a golden age of progressive government:
• Civil rights legislation and the voting rights act;
• Development of compensatory education;
• The launch of public television and its flagship Sesame Street;
• Legal services for the disenfranchised;
• An enduring network of community health centers all across the country;
• The environmental and women’s movements; and,
• The creation of a reinforcing network of international institutions and global treaty agreements.

These achievements did not occur because Committee Chairmen in Congress woke up one morning and had a good idea:

• They resulted from creative investments in the social, environmental, economic and physical sciences;
• They resulted from wise and effective leadership and skillful nurturing of nonprofits capable of organizing at the grassroots; and,
• This leadership was provided by purposeful and resolute philanthropic leaders willing to take risks in pursuit of strong public policy and shared public goods.

Unhappily, these examples of dedicated progressive philanthropy – closely tied to the marketplace of public policy – seem more a memory than a description of today’s events or tomorrow’s trends. With a few notable exceptions, it is hard to detect in America today a concerted progressive voice, fueled by advocate philanthropy. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The progressive impulse has slowed markedly, and has been replaced by a conservative movement that has nurtured its new ideas, organized its constituencies, captured the media, and impacted out government – but with a very different point of view.

For those of us in the progressive camp of society and philanthropy, these are sobering times. If you are like me, you probably have a general, uneasy feeling that you are on the losing side in the battle for social, economic, environmental and global progress.

And we are.

I think it is fairly obvious that the conservative movement today is dominating the marketplace of ideas and has successfully outflanked progressives in organization, communications, politics and overall initiative.

Think back on the thought leaders and key ideas that have shaped the public policy agenda in recent decades. From the 60s and 70s, we remember James Bryant Conant and education; Martin Luther King and civil rights; John Gardner and public television; Paul Ehrlich and population; Paul Ylvisaker and poverty; Rachel Carson and the environment; Betty Friedan and women; Ralph Nader and the consumer movement. But the 80s and 90s were dominated by Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley challenging government and liberal principles of social and political organization; Arthur Laffer championing supply-side economics; Alan Bloom seeding the challenge to liberal education; Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell claiming a Moral Majority and counterposed religious texts with social progress; and Newt Gingrich famously devising the Contract with America.

These examples, and others which I will discuss, are illustrative of the fact that the conservative movement is the Wal-Mart of ideas today — and as a result, they are a juggernaut in public policy. Today, public discussion and the legislative agenda are shaped primarily by conservative ideas. Control of all three branches of government has flowed steadily into conservative hands; their ideas and initiatives dictate the direction of our politics, our country and much of the world.

None of this happened by accident. These developments are the result of purposeful work. Led in the 1970s by Kristol, Buckley, William Simon, Lewis Powell and many others, conservative leaders rallied to the cause of limited government, private enterprise and alternatives to the so-called welfare state. They envisioned creation of idea factories, new partisan organizations, training institutes and the corresponding machinery for public relations. They coordinated policy initiatives with direct mail, radio, speakers’ bureaus and pundit training, and developed an integrated communications capacity that is manifested daily on Limbaugh, Fox, Gaylord, the Washington Times, and the Weekly Standard. Individuals, foundations and corporations coordinated their efforts and largely financed this effective new network.

Working loosely together, a group of conservative philanthropies blossomed – including Olin, Scaife, Earhart, Smith Richardson and Bradley — spawning even more like-minded philanthropies. They shared common cause and a similar sense of how to get things done:

• Be patient;
• Invest in ideas;
• Provide general support;
• Cooperate and Coordinate;
• Develop new communications tools and strategies; and,
• Train tomorrow’s leaders at all levels of society, and keep them well fed with policy initiatives, talking points and documentation.

Many analysts have traced this conservative resurgence to the Goldwater electoral debacle of 1964. The history is almost eerie in its familiarity.

In 1964, the Republicans were routed, and the Democrats were in the ascendant – twelve years later, for example, Jimmy Carter’s election was accompanied by huge democratic majorities in the Congress, a majority of better than 2-1 in the House. Progressive initiatives dominated the public policy landscape – affirmative action, the poverty program, the women’s movement, environmentalism, consumer campaigns – and conservatives wondered if they would ever get back to power, or would be a permanent minority for decades to come. Again, the parallels to today are eerie – but also instructive. With alarm, focus and purpose, conservatives began to invest and build – and are now harvesting agendas that were seeded nearly 40 years ago.

This change first came to my attention in the early 1970’s. The Coors family lived and brewed beer in the Congressional District that I represented. In addition to spending generously in their attempts to remove me from public office, the family was not shy about investing in conservative social and political institutions reflecting their view of the world. When they announced that they were going to invest nearly a million dollars to start something called the Heritage Foundation, I remember being delighted – this was money I wouldn’t have to worry about. How wrong I was.

Buoyed by the Reagan election in 1980, the Coors family and other like-minded conservatives persisted in their support for an array of growing and newly effective institutions, such as:
• The Cato Institute, whose signature policy issue today is the privatization of Social Security;
• Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation, dedicated to modern culture wars;
• The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, an early Star Wars supporter;
• The Family Research Center, helping to catalyze the Right to Life movement and “family values” issues;
• The American Enterprise Institute, which along with Heritage are now among Washington’s most influential public policy think tanks;
• The Federalist Society, dedicated to altering jurisprudence in America;
• And, The American Legislative Exchange Council, advocating conservative agendas for state legislatures.

These initiatives were complemented by development of effective grassroots outreach capabilities – constituencies for change. And let me give you another example from my backyard: the President of a prominent and well-endowed Colorado philanthropy recently reminded me of how he had initiated a novel economic development program for Colorado Springs. To stimulate jobs and purchasing power for the city, he persuaded a new institution called “Focus on the Family” to move to Colorado. The hope was that underwriting this anchor tenant would encourage the growth of others with like-minded purpose.

The effort has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams: James Dobson’s Focus on the Family has grown into a major political force and my friend tells me, is now surrounded by 65 like-minded institutions that have moved to or grown up in Colorado Springs – making the city a hot bed of conservative thought and action. Now there is even a prominent highway sign outside of Colorado Springs, directing travelers on Interstate-25 about the approaching exit for the Focus on the Family Visitor Center.

Bolstered by the recent and aggressive prominence of such players as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and Stephen Moore of the Free Enterprise Institute, these are no longer fledgling, fringe players. They are having a determinative impact on the legislative, policy, and political agenda in America today. And they have done an impressively effective job in a relatively short period of time.

Disagree as I do with most of their ideas and initiatives, I admire the skillful way in which these efforts have been mobilized; these individuals and organizations have used to the fullest their right to participate in America’s democratic experiment.

Some on the progressive side brush off these efforts as a vast right wing conspiracy, as if something had been done in a closed, clandestine, and perhaps illegal fashion, and therefore is to be ignored. It was anything but, and the lessons are clear:

Among other steps, the leading edge of the conservative philanthropic and nonprofit movement simply took full advantage of the law’s unambiguous approval of investments in advocacy as a tool of social and political change. They decided what they wanted to do; they worked closely with like-minded individuals and institutions; and they invested their scarce resources – most often tax-exempt dollars – patiently and persistently.
The lesson of this history should be clear to the progressive community – if we are willing to learn it.

Unfortunately, in contrast to our aggressive conservative counterparts, progressive philanthropy has faded from the marketplace of democratic change and social action, becoming scattered and risk-averse. Contrary to 40 years ago, it is difficult to find many progressive voices as public advocates for change.

It seems to me that there are a number of reasons for this retreat – some understandable, and most, disappointing.

A central reason is probably reflected in the governing structure of many of the larger, historically progressive foundations. Board membership is an honor, and recognition of success in other fields. But I suspect that a careful research project would reveal that most Board members know little about the dynamics of social and political change in America, and if they do, may not approve. Normally they are not recruited to be advocates, they may not think that foundations should be embroiled in advocacy activity and may simply fear that controversy from organizations they govern might blow back on them.

Directly related to Board membership is Executive leadership and institutional mission. If Board members don’t want to rock the boat, the staffs they hire – particularly at the highest level – will probably be pretty safe choices as well. Soon, ambitious advocacy grants will start to disappear from grant-making dockets.

Another factor that discourages progressive engagement is probably the decline of public social services under conservative government. A well-known conservative purpose has been to “starve the beast” of big government. One significant and probably unintended consequence has been the diminution of social action by foundations and non-profits that are now scrambling just to help provide basic social services. Consequently, they have less time or energy for the very social or political action that might reduce the need for such services, or might even endanger remaining prospects for funding from the very governmental institutions they were initially trying to change.

Finally, I also believe that much of this Board and staff caution reflects two other powerful and troubling realities:

First, a fundamental misimpression about the law governing philanthropy and non-profits, and what the legislation actually says about advocacy.

Board members hear the word advocacy and up pop images of picket lines, police cars and lawsuits. The fact is that the law not only allows, but also actually encourages foundations to invest in advocacy and to be active in the public marketplace.

It is essential that the philanthropic and non-profit communities be absolutely clear on this point: advocacy is okay. It is allowed under the law. Advocacy is nothing more than the promotion of a point of view. Permitted and effective advocacy includes a wide range of public education efforts that are completely unrestricted and open to every private foundation. For public charities, it also includes the ability to lobby for specific legislation.

The basic rule of thumb is simply this: if you are a private foundation, advocacy is okay as long as you don’t directly engage in, or explicitly fund, efforts to persuade elected officials to vote one way or another, or engage in partisan politics. If you are a public charity, as most non-profits are, a certain percentage of your income can fund lobbying efforts; there is broad latitude to engage in public education efforts that promote a point of view, again just so long as you don’t engage in partisan politics.

Boards and philanthropic leaders need not take my word for it – here is what the IRS wrote just this last December in a carefully orchestrated response to a request for clarification of what foundations can do:

• “Yes, private foundations may make grants…to public charities that lobby”;

• Yes, “private foundations may engage directly in a wide range of educational activities that influence the formation of public policy” – from communications to public policy discussions; and

• Yes, “foundations may engage in nonpartisan election-related activities such as voter registration, ‘get-out-the-vote’ drives, voter education projects and candidate forums”.

This recent IRS communication along with regulations issued in 1990 governing Section 501 (h) of the Internal Revenue Code, clearly describe the conditions under which private foundations can support public charities that lobby.

So if the law is clear, why do organizations remain so wary? Why have so many philanthropies (and the non-profits they fund) retreated from the very advocacy and social change role that once characterized their work, and which yielded so many positive institutions and changes for America? These are questions which progressive philanthropy should be asking, particularly if they want to return to the public policy arena they once dominated.

For many in progressive America, the larger trends and developments I’ve discussed may be pretty discouraging.

But instead they should be empowering – for they call us to marshal a sense of purpose, urgency, and even indignation to the task of reinventing the progressive movement, and to start anew in seeding and cultivating powerful new ideas for equity, opportunity and justice.

As you can tell, I believe that the sector in which I work is due for a strong measure of reflection and reinvention. Many people are starting to work in the progressive community as a whole, and these efforts need to include a self-evaluation by the progressive philanthropic community.

As you can also tell, I believe that the field of public debate, engagement and policy is now sharply tilted in one direction, and needs to be brought back.

I think of where Joe Coors was nearly 40 years ago – he resolved to try to beat us, with ideas and organization – and he did. We now need to learn from Coors and Kristol and Simon and all the rest.

It is incumbent on all of us in the progressive camp to pick ourselves up, put our heads together and get our hands dirty. Too much is at stake for us to cede the field. This is the stuff of the democratic process.

In his introductory statement, Bob Ross reminded us of our privilege.
For those as privileged as we in this room, we have a special duty to enter the debate and to turn this around.

We certainly have the resources – and if we acknowledge the problem, we’ll be on our way. We’ll be up for the task – – and it certainly will be a fun ride!

Thank you very much.


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