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The following articles appeared in Left Business Observer #70, November 1995. They retain their copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

Foundation culture

by Gina Neff (writing as Gina Graham)

Gina Graham once lived in the world she wrote about, so that wasn't her real name. It can now be revealed that her real name is Gina Neff and she lives in New York City. Her piece on microcredit and the Grameen Bank is on this site.

Most civilians don't think much about the role foundations play in shaping our public lives. A new generation of right-wing foundations has funded America's rightward drift. And despite their aura of generosity and liberalism, mainstream and even "progressive" foundations often act as a constraint on politics.

Foundations may spread around wealth but their purses come with strings. IRS regulations on tax exempt giving limit foundation funding for political activities and lobbying. More important, and more powerful, are the limits that foundations place on themselves. Program Officers describe funding decisions as "maximizing our return," "leveraging our impact," "focusing our portfolio." From cushy offices, foundations tell nonprofit groups how to do their work and shape policy by dictating which nonprofits, which programs, and which issues are worthy of their dollars.

Foundations talk about changing society, but funding for distinct, fragmented one-cause projects does little for real change - and funders' preference for one-shots over general organizational support maximizes the funders' leverage over recipients. And, besides, it's hard to shake the gut feeling that someone making $134,000 a year (average CEO pay at non-family foundations), and giving away $7 million each year (average at independent foundations) isn't really in touch with the grassroots they are "seed-funding.