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Stimulus for Cotton Candy, Tango and a Fish Orchestra? Wacky, or Actually Worthy?
Nov 5, 2009; ProPublica | Remember Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece awards? Between 1975 and 1988, the Wisconsin populist (an anti-pork Democrat) gave out awards to government-funded projects that were on their face ridiculous, laughable, and embarrassing to the agencies awarding the grants and those receiving them. Among Proxmire’s best known awardees were grants examining whether tequila-drinking sunfish might be more aggressive than their gin-drinking brethren. In most cases, the Proxmire award winners might have been agency grantmakers a bit short on common sense and public relations, but not ill-intended. With the current federal stimulus money moving all too slowly (as the nation’s unemployment rate passes 10 percent), some stimulus-funded projects look like they were designed for the late Senator’s awards. ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism portal created by a $10 million grant from Herb and Marion Sandler, has been monitoring stimulus expenditures. According to ProPublica, the White House last month had announced it would stop certain questionable stimulus projects, citing “projects to straighten headstones, freeze fish sperm and steam-clean bird droppings from buildings.” Lo and behold, this month’s listing of stimulus projects actually funded included the headstone, fish sperm, and bird dropping projects that the White House said it would kill. A call for Senator William Proxmire, call for William Proxmire!—Rick Cohen
Fees on Nonprofits Vetoed in one Penn. County
Nov 7, 2009; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | We’ve been following a trend the Minneapolis Post called, “death by a thousand cuts.” See our Newswires from Minneapolis and Washington state here. More cities and towns across the country have decided to levy fees on nonprofits despite their 501(c)(3) status. Here we finally have some good news. Allegheny County, Penn. Executive Dan Onorato vetoed a bill recently to impose county fees on nonprofit organizations. Citing violations of the county home rule charter, state law and the Pennsylvania Constitution, Mr. Onorato vetoed the measure which, in part, would collect as much as $13 million in fees from as many as 25,000 properties of tax-exempt organizations, excluding churches, schools and government buildings, starting in January.—Aaron Lester
Is It Public, or Is It Private? Increasingly when it comes to giving, it’s a little bit of both
Nov 9, 2009; Wall Street Journal | It’s time for the WSJ annual “Philanthropy Report.” In this article, the WSJ astutely picks up on a trend in current foundation behavior, the increasing connection between foundation giving and government programs in “public-private partnerships.” Cited as examples are the $35 million from two of George Soros’s philanthropic institutions, the Open Society Institute and the Soros Foundations Network, enabling New York state to receive $140 million in matching federal funds. As potential drawbacks, WSJ notes luddite criticism from a New York State state senator that Soros could have used his money better for job creation rather than for “welfare,” suggesting that foundation involvement in public/private partnerships exposes foundations to opposition for supporting unpopular or controversial causes. The bigger issues, skipped by the WSJ and its commentators, are that some public/private partnerships could end up making grantmakers into uncritical gap-fillers for underfunded government programs, leading to legislatures actually writing in funding gaps to be filled by foundations. If gaps to be filled are left to the discretionary decision-making of foundations (or if decision-making is to be formally off-loaded to foundations, as in the Obama Administration’s Social Innovation Fund), the public arena for weighing and judging needs and priorities will shift from citizens’ elected officials, where there is at least some process for public examination and review, to private foundations’ trustees who are generally invisible and immune to the scrutiny of the public.—Rick Cohen