Sunday, July 24, 2005

Foundations roll over, act as terrorism police


Not only are foundations self-interested slime, they are also habitually "risk averse" (that means cowardly) if they suspect they might attract negative government attention.

So it is not surprising that:

United Way of Allegheny County is requiring its more than 3,000 partner agencies to sign a federal anti-terrorism form in order to receive monies during its upcoming annual campaign, a change resulting from the USA Patriot Act. The "USA Patriot Act Anti-terrorism Certification Form" requires nonprofit organizations to certify that they don't knowingly employ people or support groups whose names appear on terrorist watch lists compiled by the government.
. . .
"What does it mean to be a good citizen anymore?" [Peggy] Outon, [founder and director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University,] said. "For a nonprofit to have to testify that 'I'm a patriot' -- my gosh, we get up in the morning to try to make the community stronger.

"It's just interesting we live in a society now where we have to testify to patriotism." Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The New York Times reported last year that the ACLU had rejected grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations rather than examine themselves for promotion of terrorism. The exact language of Ford's grant letter was: "By signing this grant letter, you agree that your organization will not promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state, nor will it make subgrants to any entity that engages in these activities." The ACLU responded in effect (my paraphrase): "Huh? What's that mean? You want us to intuit what it means?"

What the United Way in Pittsburgh has chosen to do sounds as if it is letting vague government requirements make it a full partner in spreading fear among small non-governmental organizations. But is it the United Way's job to police unknown intentions and vague suspicions?

Teresa Odendahl, formerly director of the National Network of Grantmakers (that's the liberal funder caucus) has researched the implications of this kind of thing and reported about it here. [ Warning: pdf.] Her findings are depressing if predictable. Confronted first with a Presidential Executive Order and then ambiguous Treasury Guidelines that enlisted foundations in "the war on terror," the foundations complain, point out the futility of the government's demands, and roll over.

We observed a kind of cognitive dissonance among foundations concerning the Treasury Guidelines. Grantmakers are eager to point out that their giving priorities and processes have not changed as a result of new security legislation . . . .Yet in the same breath those interviewed mention discussions with legal counsel and rattle off the lists they check and other ways they have adapted to this new environment. In fact, all of the foundations we contacted check lists. Some do it daily, others weekly or monthly. In implementing the new list checking systems, the price tag varies from being negligible for some grantmakers to as high as $500,000 for one or two other notable foundations.

And no wonder the process is expensive:

The Vice President of a major foundation described its comprehensive list checking procedures. When a conversation starts between a program manager and a potential grantee, the appropriate program director is told, and members of the organization are checked against the lists. Then when the grant is made, the organization is checked again, and at the fund disbursement step, the organization and principals checked yet a third time. Additionally, all active grantees are checked every day.

Big brother is alive and well and masquerading as a funder of charitable organizations!

Naturally other parasites want a piece of this new market. There are commercial data base outfits that contract to check "watch lists" for the foundations. And

Universities are also getting into the game. In recent weeks, the government has released the prototype for new search technology “to sniff out terrorists.” Agencies including the Federal Aviation Administration are investing in a new search engine, or “text analysis system,” being developed at the University of Buffalo to “mine a corpus of documents for associated ideas or connections – connections between two unrelated concepts, for example, that would otherwise go unseen or would take countless hours of investigative work to discover.” It’s a kind of government google, specifically funded for anti-terrorism efforts. . .

Funders did want Odendahl to understand that they knew all this certifying grantees as terrorism-free was not making anyone safer.

Many compliance officers at foundations scoff at the practice. “What does certification do? Wouldn’t a terrorist just sign the letter?” One Program Officer shared with us her frustration, noting that certification language is “useless and embarrassing.” Yet a majority of the grant letters we have looked at now require anti-terrorism certification. . . .

‘Compliance’ with new regulations has come to mean a tacit agreement among grantmakers and grantees to ignore the inane and untenable and adopt only those regulations that are seen as most vital in protecting organizations against legal and political liability

So what does all this mean to ordinary small scale nonprofit organizations? It seems to mean foundations are becoming even more careful than they always have been to limit their grants to known, large, conventional charitable entities. Innovative and oppositional groups (think your local Peace Education Project, whether "peace" refers to gang violence or the US invasion of Iraq) can forget it.

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