Monday, August 08, 2005

Late to Lakoff: "philanthropic" follies

When lots of folks in the Democratic activist set were reading Don't think of an elephant in the summer and fall of 2004, I was worrying about making voter contacts. And, later, during the mourning and post mortems, I didn't think I could bear to ingest the latest nostrum offered for our political ills.

But having finally gotten around to reading George Lakoff's primer on what ails progressive efforts in the contemporary US political environment, I have quite a few observations that I'm going to divide into a series of posts.

Let's start with a bit for which I want to offer raving, leaping applause: Lakoff vividly nails how "progressive" foundations (the institutional funders of nonprofit enterprises) pretty well guarantee political impotence among their grantees.

Progressive foundations spread [their] money around. They give twenty-five thousand dollars here, maybe fifty thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand. Sometimes it is a big grant. But recipients have to do something different from what everyone else is doing because the foundations see duplication as wasting money.

Not only that, but [these] are not [unrestricted] block grants; the recipients do not have full freedom to decide how to spend the money. . . .

The emphasis is on providing direct services to the people who need the services: grassroots funding, not infrastructure creation. . . . the [nonprofit] organizations [that foundations] fund have to have a very narrow focus. They have to have projects, not … areas they work on. Activists and advocates are overworked and underpaid, and they do not have time or energy to think about how they should be linking up with other people. . . .The system forces a narrow focus-and with it, isolation.

Lakoff must have applied for a lot of grants from "progressive" funders, because he certainly nails the absurd bind that organizations which are dependent on foundation funding find themselves in. The game is to sell the funders on your definition of a problem, then show you are uniquely the answer to the problem as you define it, so that funding you will give the foundation a sense that it is doing "good" work.

This is a profoundly dishonest process; its conventions reward deception, most obviously of the funder, but also self-decepton within the recipient organizations, as they internalize the behaviors that pay the bills. It is easy to begin believing that your program or your idea is the unique truth that will enable you to achieve your progressive ends. Far too many nonprofits, perhaps especially those that aspire (in the lingo of foundations) to be "changemakers" come to believe their self-presentations. The ability to present a striking, solo "initiative" (that's another foundation-favored noun) is rewarded. But what restoring a potent progressive politics requires is the ability to see one's work as a small piece of a larger, longer term strategy.

Lakoff thinks this self-defeating behavior comes out of the way that progressives understand and attempt to live out their moral system -- I'll accept that some of that is at work, but also we really shouldn't forget that foundations exist to provide a tax dodge for the very wealthy. Consequently we shouldn't be too surprised that they don't fund coherent progressive initiatives that might actually upset the status quo.

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