Two Foundation Presidents: Philanthropy Can’t Make Good for Bad Public Policy

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October 31, 2016; Houston Chronicle

NPQ has long expressed concern about the dangers of private money in public systems. Here, two leaders on Houston’s philanthropic scene do the same.

Anna Stern of Houston Endowment and Elena Marks of Episcopal Health Foundation collaborated on a letter printed yesterday in the Houston Chronicle after its editorial board recently urged the Houston Independent School District to accept $7.5 million from the Kinder Foundation, writing, “Philanthropic gifts are needed in an environment where the state legislature is abdicating its constitutional responsibility.”

Stern and Marks, however, say that kind of statement alarms them. It’s not just that philanthropic dollars cannot replace public dollars; they should not, especially when the backdrop of public policy and spending is inadequate to the needs of communities and families. They point out:

Locally, HISD is facing a $162 million loss in revenue due to the state’s public education funding system, and we are spending $70 million in Harris County property tax revenue due to the state’s refusal to accept federal funds to insure low-income citizens.

Philanthropy is not capable, they reiterate, of continually propping up on an ongoing basis the poorly funded and inadequate systems caused by irresponsible government. “Our foundations’ missions are broader in geography and scope,” they write. “But even if we focused all of our efforts on these two government-generated shortfalls, the amount needed is more than twice our combined annual budgets. Sound public policy, not philanthropy, is the solution to these problems.”

As many have noted before them, Stern and Marks say the role for philanthropy as it works alongside government is in helping with experimentation: “Whereas government tends to move incrementally and may be risk-averse, especially when there is uncertainty about budget implications, philanthropy can support government innovation by funding pilot programs and underwriting start-up costs that enable government to experiment with relatively little risk.”

Our foundations are currently co-funding such an initiative. Working with the Harris Center for Mental Health and Houston Police Department, we are underwriting the costs of a pilot program that places mental health counselors at HPD’s 911 call center so that counselors rather than police officers respond to calls that are best handled by the mental health professionals. The two-fold goal of the pilot is to provide appropriate help to 911 callers and to reduce HPD costs associated with dispatching police officers where they are not needed.

If the pilot is successful, we expect HPD to institutionalize this practice. If the pilot is not successful, all of us will have learned new information, and the two foundations—not the governmental entities—will have absorbed the financial costs.

—Ruth McCambridge