Taking Philanthropy to the Max (Jun 07)

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Roughly a year ago, Montana’s senior senator, Max Baucus, stunned the annual meeting of the Council on Foundations. At that time — still the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee — Baucus made a few off-hand comments about Congressional attention to charitable reform legislation and then read a prepared speech about the need for increased foundation attention to the needs of rural America.

For those of us who witnessed the speech (and possessed an advance copy of his text), the Senator didn’t seem to simply ask for high-minded rhetoric, tearful statements of philanthropic concern, and examples of best practices. He asked foundations to double their grantmaking to rural areas — and what he called the “philanthropic divide” states, the 10 or so states receiving substantially less foundation grantmaking per capita than the rest of the nation. He gave foundations a 5-year timetable and asked for their specific plans and strategies — by Labor Day — for hitting the mark.

In the interim, Baucus’s status shifted from ranking member to chair of the Senate Finance Committee, due to the avalanche of Democratic victories in the November elections. Since then, foundation trade association flacks have talked up Baucus as a positive contrast to his Republican predecessor at the helm of the Committee, Charles Grassley (R-IA), as interested more in the substance of what foundations deliver to society than the mechanics of their financial and ethical accountability (e.g., excessive compensation, trustee fees, self-dealing, conflicts of interest).

That’s a pretty unkind characterization of Baucus, to assume that his support of Grassley’s accountability agenda for the past few years (remember the 2004 hearings and roundtables on accountability, the devastating committee report on The Nature Conservancy , and the legislation that was eventually incorporated as a component of last year’s Pension Protection Act [PDF]?) was relatively passive get-along, go-along behavior for someone who has served nearly 29 years in the U.S. Senate. Baucus’s own staff did a report [PDF] on the predatory nonprofit behavior of Jack Abramoff and associated nonprofits run by Grover Norquist and others, with implications affecting a variety of nonprofits if Baucus now chooses to pursue the recommendations he floated in that report.

In any case, in response to Baucus’s rural challenge, the Council on Foundations has fashioned a conference titled, “Creating the 21st Century Agenda for Philanthropy and Rural America,” slated to be held in Missoula, Montana from August 7-9. The cynics out there assume that this is a light-touch brush-off, the Council giving lip service to the Senator, maybe getting some major foundation players to funnel a few grants to his favorite Montana charities, and hopefully his interest will wane in looking for a doubling of foundation grants to rural America.

What might Baucus accept from the foundation sector? It’s hard to predict the behavior of our nation’s political leaders. But aside from the various hustlers and consultants pitching rural philanthropy products, sometimes with the “my friends” cadences of snake-oil salesmen, there are a number of legitimate rural nonprofit groups — trade associations from rural states, technical assistance providers, research and public opinion polling groups, and grassroots rural nonprofits that might be less easily satiated with glad-handing. Based on discussions with nonprofits and foundations during the past year, we pose some questions of what they might look for from the Baucus/CoF program.

Frequently, rural nonprofits are afterthoughts. Everyone likes to speak for them, assume that they know what rural nonprofits — and rural communities — want and need. In Missoula this coming August, it might be refreshing if foundations were convinced, maybe even compelled to listen to the groups on the ground, not the hucksters, not the pitchmen and pitchwomen promoting themselves wrapped in the toga of concern for rural America, not the charlatans that plague foundations with philanthropic product fads. Unfortunately, the cards are stacked against rural nonprofits again. According to the draft conference brochure that the Council on Foundations is circulating, participation in this conference (except for invited presenters) is limited to “Grantmakers and Government representatives. Nonprofit organizations must meet the general eligibility for membership in the Council on Foundations in order to register.” Once again, the foundation sector has crafted a safe space for it to talk about issues in philanthropy — safety defined as exclusion of the nonprofit delivery system without which foundations couldn’t deliver the value of their tax exempt largesse.

We’ll try to squeeze into Missoula in August to cover this event for Nonprofit Quarterly and report back to you.