How Institutional Philanthropy Can Support the Occupy Movement

The challenge for institutional philanthropy and the Occupy Wall Street movement may come down to the internal contradiction of the nonprofit sector’s financing structure. On the Occupy Philanthropy webpage, the list of upcoming events includes a panel, “Occupying Philanthropy: Increasing Foundation Support to Social Justice,” to be held at the annual conference of the Left Forum in March, the theme of which is “Occupy the System: Confronting Global Capitalism.” Meanwhile, the annual conference of the Council on Foundations will be held in late April and early May. It would be hard to imagine two more contrasting programs—the Left Forum’s agenda of anti-capitalist, socialist, and anarchist discussions, and the Council on Foundation’s gathering of well-heeled liberal and conservative philanthropists, whose institutions prosper on investments made in the corporate sector that Occupy Wall Street, here referred to as the Occupy movement, decries.

Can institutional philanthropy—foundations established by the very wealthy and capitalized by investments in the stock market, hedge funds, and offshore investments—support a movement that challenges the very capitalist economic system that sustains it?

As of March 1, 2012, 62 people, largely from progressive funding organizations and foundations, have signeda letter on behalf of the nascent Occupy Philanthropy movement calling on institutional funders to provide financial support to the Occupy movement. The letter stated, in part, “We in the philanthropic community cannot let this moment pass. We have for so long wanted this kind of mass mobilization for justice. We have held conferences, gatherings, phone meetings, and spent countless sums in an effort to support the creation of a movement that is broad based in scope and calling for systemic change. Occupy presents a unique opportunity for the philanthropic community to creatively respond to these efforts and to the long standing and prior work of community organizations and leaders to promote economic equality for the 99%.” The letter’s signees include some respected private foundations long associated with social justice funding, including the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation in New York City, the Quixote Foundation in Seattle, and the Rasmussen Foundation of Alaska. Progressive public foundations that raise money to make grants also signed the letter, such as the Funding Exchange and the Third Wave Foundation. And some philanthropic luminaries, notably Jerry Greenfield of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, also signed.

Rick Cohen | NonProfit Quarterly

However, the cumulative resources of the signers, largely from small foundations, don’t add up to much compared to the somewhere close to a trillion dollars of tax exempt assets in foundation endowments. The trustees and executives of the large foundations in control of those assets look a lot more like the boards of Fortune 500 corporations in terms of their social and economic status than they do the protesters who once resided in New York City’s Zuccotti Park or Washington, D.C.’s McPherson Park.

Still, institutional philanthropy has long had a streak of funders oriented toward repairing some of the damage that its business mogul financiers caused. In her 2003 book, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, Keene State College Professor Joan Roelofs argued that foundations may be impediments to social change and that their role is often to tamp down or soften the advocacy and organizing efforts of their grant recipients. That is, relatively strident activists become nicer, more mainstream, and less controversial with the assuaging presence of foundation grant dollars—and they almost always resist biting the hands that feed them and sometimes even avoid biting the hands that created the capital that feeds the foundations.

How do foundations interested in nonprofit due diligence fund a movement that operates significantly outside of a traditional nonprofit, 501(c)(3) structure, without even clear leadership delineations, decision-making dynamics, and governing boards? In other words, who are they funding? For a foundation sector increasingly focused on metrics, what metrics would foundation funders use for a movement that eschews a formal structure of demands and operates more nimbly? Indeed, Occupy often responds to events (for instance, Occupy protesters plan to remobilize in the spring for the May G-8 summit in Chicago), focuses on short-term actions (such as Occupy Salt Lake’s plan for protest theater about corporate influence at the Utah state legislature), or organizes to rectify specific injustices (such as Occupy D.C.’s Freddie Mac protests over the lender’s foreclosure on a Bowie, Md. homeowner).

Nonetheless, while acknowledging the constraints involved, there is no reason why institutional philanthropy cannot fund the Occupy movement, but doing so will require its leaders to consider several key questions, some of which follow…