Learning from the Bad Guys

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As a “lefty American” traversing the ground of the voluntary sector in the UK, I have often had a strange mixture of feelings:

  • a déjà vu experience of seeing very recognizable developments from the US in the 1990s being repeated here: at the behest of a governing party hewing to the perceived center (here the Labourites, in the US Clinton and Democrats), advancing policy prescriptions that rely upon “public choice” economics, privatisation of public services, faith-based approaches, charitable entrepreneurialism, public-private partnerships, and so on
  • some envy and admiration of the greater cohesiveness of the UK social sector, which is far more “joined-up”, in terms of general public acceptance of an ethic of social service, and better success in aligning the work of public and voluntary sectors. The decentralization of American service structures means that many examples of progressive, excellent public/voluntary service regimes can be found at state and local levels. Yet most American progressives would gladly take the social, educational and health regimes in the UK over their own.

One of the strongest lessons we had to learn in the states in the 1990s was from the success of the conservative social movement. Its attack on the welfare system, its laser-like focus on research and crafting populist messages, served as the intellectual framework for the dominance of their worldview in the media and political discourse. The progressive forces, always disorganized and under-resourced in the best of times, were slow to adapt, and the result was ineffectiveness in domestic policy, not to mention foreign interventions such as Iraq that are more well-known abroad. So what have we learned from this experience?

The Grant Givers

In 1997, the National Coalition for Responsive Philanthropy brought to light a phenomenon that had been noted by progressive groups locally. In Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations, NCRP documented the grantmaking activities and strategies of 12 of the nation’s largest and most visible conservative foundations. In particular, the study examined grants made to public policy nonprofits from 1992 through 1994, and also profiled the major grant recipients, reviewing their history, leadership, strategies and policy achievements. It was the first major attempt to document the impact that these philanthropic institutions had on politics and society. The study concluded that conservative foundations and their grantees had achieved a respectable and enviable level of effectiveness because of six factors:

  • The foundations bring a clarity of vision and strong political intention to their grantmaking programs;
  • Conservative grantmaking has focused on building strong institutions by providing general operating support, rather than project-specific grants;
  • The foundations realized that the state, local, and neighborhood policy environments could not be ignored in favor of focusing solely on the national level;
  • The foundations supported the development of conservative public intellectuals and policy leaders;
  • The foundations supported a wide range of policy institutions, recognizing that a variety of strategies and approaches is needed to advance a policy agenda; and
  • The foundations funded their grantees for the long term, in some cases for two decades or more.

Due to the success of the 1997 report, NCRP published follow-up the studies in 1999 and 2004. These reports provided in-depth analyses of the top 20 and 79 conservative think tanks, respectively. It assessed their operations, areas of policy interest, marketing and communications strategies, governance structure and types of financial support, including foundations, corporations and individuals. These publications had a significant impact on the philanthropic community and continue to be influential today.

The Politicians & Public Policy

From a political perspective, NCRP’s earlier work on conservative philanthropy was relevant and well timed. The data analyzed in the first report reflected grantmaking activity in the years immediately preceding the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections. The second report came out as the Democratic and Republican parties were gearing up for what would prove to be the most contentious presidential election in U.S. history, and third for the election of 2004. The information that conservative public policy institutions—thanks in large part to funding from conservative foundations—were providing to candidates for public office had a substantial impact on the issues that were debated during those elections.

After the 2000 elections, conservative lawmakers expanded their power, controlling essentially all three branches of the federal government. According to journalist William Greider, George W. Bush represents the third and most powerful wave in the right’s attack on liberalism. The first wave of the attack came from Ronald Reagan, who organized the right around many ideological slogans for reform and proved the viability of regressive tax cuts. Newt Gingrich represented the second wave and gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in two generations.

This imbalance of power allowed President George W. Bush to govern without having to compromise his domestic or foreign agendas. Widespread Republican control of state governorships and legislatures provided the right with more opportunities to implement and solidify its agenda. With the strong presence of the right behind him, President Bush was a far more formidable challenger to Democrats then any of his predecessors. Of concern to many in the nonprofit (what is called in the UK the “voluntary”) sector— both on the left and the right—Bush promoted using faith-based organizations as a solution to myriad social problems and fought for government grants to be opened to religious organizations through the Charity, Aid, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Act.

As part of this general plan, he created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, as well as faith-based liaison offices in the key ministries. Bush has also proposed other legislation that would further shrink the tax base while fattening the pockets of the already wealthy, such as the proposed elimination of taxes on stock dividends and the establishment of tax-sheltered personal savings accounts. While these further attempts to eliminate the taxation of capital have failed, the groundwork has been set for future attempts.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 provided conservatives with even more opportunities to expand their power, pushing the Patriot Act through Congress in the days following the attacks, as well as orchestrating and launching military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, all in the name of national security. Similarly, the economic downturn— which began before September 11—has provided the Bush administration and its congressional allies with many opportunities to drastically reduce taxes and slash spending for social services, all in the name of economic security. But as chaos and bloodshed persist in Afghanistan and Iraq and the economy continues to sag at home, public opinion of President Bush and the Republican Party is shifting from glowing to glowering.

The Consequences

Regardless of presidential approval ratings and the outcomes of the 2004 elections, it is undeniable that conservative public policy institutions and their philanthropic supporters have had a tremendous impact on Congress’s and the administration’s penchant for waging war, curtailing civil liberties, and slashing taxes and social spending.

Undoubtedly, conservative values, goals, ideas and ideals have become the norm in United States politics. It would be difficult to argue that the political right is not winning, as it dominates at all levels and branches of government. The many foundations and nonprofit organizations undoubtedly helped advance, market and strengthen the conservative agenda in all policy realms, including international affairs, defense, social policy, tax policy, education and civil rights.

The success of these organizations is not something that progressives would celebrate. But the manner in which foundations on the right support, fund, and relate to their grantees is certainly to be admired. With resources that pale in comparison to centrist and liberal foundations, conservative funders have supported public policies that now impact the entire nation. Perhaps that is why foundations on the right tend to spend very little on evaluation—they can easily see their impact in the newspaper, on TV, in America’s classrooms and in the courts.

The Lessons for the UK

So what are the key “take-aways”?

  • Focus on the long-term – Richard Mellon Scaife starting funding right-wing think tanks following the 1964 republican presidential debacle, and the movement really took hold during the Reagan terms of 1980-88, but began to bear fruit in the 1990s. Progressives perennially feel besieged–their sense of social justice pushes them to react to ongoing developments to protect the underprivileged in the present. That present-mindedness, however, means that progressives will always be playing catch-up to conservatives.
  • Focus on process – As policy devolution and service tendering take hold, we have to adapt to their implications. Policymaking is not just one activity that happens in Whitehall. We can take a lesson from the American conservative playbook: advocate for investment in organizations that help set the policy agenda, inform and mobilize the public, lobby lawmakers, broadcast progressive ideas, challenge regulations and laws in the courts, and monitor policy implementation, at the local as well as national level.
  • Get your messages aligned – There is considerable organic alignment and cohesion on the right. Conservative funders and nonprofits are all naturally committed to the broader goals of the political right; deliberate coordination is not necessary. Yet their messages sound as if they were centrally aligned to a branding book. Progressives always seem to be talking in a vacuum chamber—they need to work to make their messages accessible to their grassroots supporters, the mainstream and new media, as well as traditional support bases in academia, the arts and left-wing politics.
  • It’s not just about money – To the extent that the voluntary sector in the UK can speak with a common voice to its traditional funding sources, they need to advocate for the principles described here. Yet the strength of the progressive movement must always be its ties to the people we are meant to be serving. We have to give more than lip service to organising the people, and that means coming up with new ways for people to speak on their own behalf to power.

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