Money and Power in Post-Election America: Why This Conference?

February 2013

Philanthropy has become more engaged with government and in the process of policymaking than ever. Connections between funders and policymakers and influencers are formal (e.g., the Race to the Top, i3, Partnership for a Healthier America and the Social Investment Fund) and the policy spectrum wide-ranging (e.g., health care, public education, poverty alleviation, tax policy and immigration reform).

As they move more directly into the public sphere, many foundations and individual donors have become more political, more assertive and more involved in matters of deep social and cultural conflict. Concomitantly, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has colored philanthropy’s approach to every civic issue from the access to vote to the secrecy of donors’ (and their foundations’) political contributions. Philanthropy is at an unprecedented nexus of money and power as we begin its second century.

The work of philanthropy is part-and-parcel of an evolving social and political ecosystem. Its actions can have an impact on how entire systems function—say, K-12 education or income distribution or the availability and quality of health care. But it’s not at all clear that funders fully understand how they can make a difference at the systems level, nor that their increased politicization may have resulted in greater competitiveness but no fundamental change.

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Fresh off the heels of the 2012 election, foundation executives, individual donors and civic leaders will come together to examine what philanthropy’s evolving relationship with public policy and government means in the context of the rapidly changing political scene. Some big questions we will consider together:

  • How is America’s polarized political culture changing philanthropy? How has the political culture shaped the types of projects we fund, demands on grantees and partnerships with government?
  • How successful or challenging have philanthropy’s investments been in the realm of policy change and with government?
  • At the start of this new political cycle, what should we do now (or not do) given the ongoing polarization?