Greater Good Blog

Promoting the Public Welfare: Learning from a Century of Philanthropic Efforts to Improve Government

Loren McArthur and Ryan Ulbrich
Promoting the Public Welfare: Learning from a Century of Philanthropic Efforts to Improve Government

Last week, during the second virtual convening in our Future of the Social Sector series, Arabella Advisors’ CEO Sampriti Ganguli explored crucial questions about the relationships between philanthropy, government, and the social sector with two leaders in the space: Xavier de Souza Briggs and Cecilia Muñoz.

Their conversation took place against the backdrop of the large-scale social, economic, and environmental challenges currently confronting our society. With its scale, organizing power, authority, and public accountability, government is essential for addressing these challenges—as is apparent from the ongoing vaccine rollout. Unfortunately, a concerted effort to curtail government and delegitimatize its role has led to distrust of governmental institutions among large segments of the American public, undermined government’s capacity to improve the public welfare, and threatened the foundations of our democracy.

For more than a century, philanthropy has served as an effective partner and complement to government—seeding policy reforms, addressing gaps in social services, helping to build new public institutions and fields, accelerating innovation, and generating new mechanisms for public sector accountability and justice. What can philanthropy learn from its history working in conjunction with government, and what is philanthropy’s most effective and proper role vis-à-vis government today?

The conversation between Cecilia, Xav, and Sampriti explored this rich terrain. (To hear it in full, click here.) Drawing from and building upon that conversation, we have identified four partnership roles philanthropy can play to bolster government in service to the public good.

1. Philanthropy can backstop government institutions facing crises.

Following the City of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing in 2013—the largest local government bankruptcy in American history—foundations provided hundreds of millions in funding to Foundation for Detroit’s Future, an initiative aimed at helping the city emerge from bankruptcy and restore its economic vitality and cultural institutions. Philanthropy helped bring Detroit back from the brink, shoring up underfunded city pensions, protecting the sale of artwork from the Detroit Institute of Arts, and even funding senior staff positions within city government to stabilize the city’s internal operations and functioning.

More recently, during the 2020 election cycle, philanthropy provided a critical infusion of resources to support elections administration and safeguard US democratic institutions as they faced their greatest internal threat since the Civil War. At a time when local elections administrators were experiencing unprecedented obstacles stemming from the pandemic, including a massive shortage of poll workers and a large-scale shift from primarily in-person voting to absentee balloting, philanthropy stepped up: A wide range of funders provided support for local elections offices and NGOs working hard to ensure the effective functioning and integrity of our democratic elections despite the COVID crisis.

As these examples illustrate, philanthropy’s role as a backstop to governmental institutions in crisis is crucial. Of equal importance is philanthropy’s support for tax and fiscal policies that ensure that government institutions are adequately resourced, and so less vulnerable to crisis in the first place. Unfortunately, this is an area where philanthropic investment has been lacking. According to Foundation Center data, foundations invested less than $200MM in public finance initiatives in 2018. Philanthropists can address this blind spot by supporting groups that advocate for equitable tax and fiscal policies, such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Americans for Tax Fairness, and State Priorities Partnership.

2. Philanthropy can help ensure access to government benefits and services.

Philanthropy has also played a vital role in helping ensure that benefits and services reach communities that government has too often excluded, including Black and brown communities, immigrant communities, indigenous communities, and others. Philanthropy can serve as an implementation partner, helping translate policies into concrete actions and services and complementing government knowledge with a local understanding of the systems, structures, and actors required to reach the right communities at the right time.

Today, philanthropic capital supports organizations like Benefits Data Trust, which analyzes data across various government benefit programs to proactively enroll eligible individuals and students. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its grantees have helped drive enrollment in the Affordable Care Act among hard-to-reach communities; and initiatives such as Made to Save, COVID Collaborative, and State and Territory and Alliance for Testing have supported the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. At a time when the federal government’s commitment to ensuring an accurate 2020 Census count was lacking, philanthropists also invested in get-out-the-count initiatives aimed at reaching historically undercounted communities.

3. Philanthropy can strengthen government accountability.

By supporting grassroots organizing, policy advocacy, government watchdogs, and public interest litigators, philanthropy can help uphold the public will and promote government accountability. This role is especially critical today, when the public’s faith in democratic institutions has been tested, long-held norms of transparency and oversight within government have frayed, and there is a broader recognition that government has failed to address longstanding racial and other inequities. Movement organizations can help build the power of communities that our political institutions have historically excluded, creating opportunities for people in those communities to further develop and deploy their public leadership skills, gain influence in the political and electoral arenas, and hold elected leaders accountable to their priorities.

Philanthropy has also played a vital role in supporting local journalism and news outlets in the face of major disruptions to their business models during the last two decades. Through initiatives like NewsMatch, funders are mobilizing philanthropic capital to support nonprofit news organizations that serve a crucial role investigating and exposing government corruption and keeping the public informed about local and state government.

4. Philanthropy can catalyze the creation of new institutions, programs, and fields.

Because of the political incentives operating on elected officials, who often face intensive media scrutiny and are under pressure to deliver results within two-, four-, and six-year election cycles, government tends to be short-term in its focus and risk averse. Philanthropy, however, can be patient, assume a longer view, and allocate risk capital to test new programs that government can later scale, or it can match capital that leverages government investment in new institutions.

Andrew Carnegie was a pioneer in scaling a foundational public institution—the public library. Between 1890 and 1930, he used grant capital to incentivize towns to commit land and operating funds for almost 1,700 libraries. In the 1960s, The Ford Foundation funded the design of the first Head Start program. That effort morphed into the Office of Head Start at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, now serving tens of millions of low-income children and families. The Rockefeller Foundation collaborated with government reformers to build the entirely new field of public health through support for research, university departments, professional associations, and even health codes. More recently, the Public Interest Technology University Network—a collaboration of academia, philanthropy, and the tech sector—is helping to build the emerging field of public interest technology by cultivating a new generation of civic-minded technologists at the intersection of technology and policy.

Philanthropy can complement and partner with government in multiple ways—as emergency responder, innovation lab, promoter of equity and access, risk taker, field builder, long-term planner, and more. With our institutions of democracy under immense pressure, the need for philanthropy to bolster government and help ensure that it serves all communities is essential. Philanthropists can draw inspiration from a rich history and many contemporary models as they pursue this vital work.

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