Uniting Around a Shared Vision: Philanthropy and Citizens United

Thursday, October 4, 2012
By Becky Rafter, Director of Stakeholder Engagement, Funding Exchange
As Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance always says: “We’re in a fight for the soul of our country.” Such an epic struggle calls for big ideas. And participants and speakers served up several during Philanthropy New York’s recent panel on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
The issue that resonated most with participants was voter suppression efforts, what Tova Wang of the The Century Foundation called “the flip side of money in politics.” Citizens United gives corporations a bigger vote than a person; meanwhile, millions of individual voters will have difficulty voting this year, including 6 million voters who have committed a felony. One participant demanded, “How did we get to this point?”
According to Tova, voter suppression laws, which are emerging in places like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, have been in the pipeline for years. These include restrictive voter ID laws, cutbacks on early voting and restrictions on community voter registration drives. Yale University’s Maxim Thorne reminded us that the far right, which germinates these laws as part of its long-term vision of restricting participation in our democracy, owes its gratitude to philanthropy—a field under-utilized by progressives and their allies.
A startling statistic from Free Speech for People’s John Bonifaz reinforced Tova’s argument. He pointed out that, despite overwhelming bipartisan support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, only 22% of people have ever even heard of this landmark decision. People aren’t engaged! Entire communities are being systematically shut out of participating in the political process. We must “pursue policies that increase voter participation and engagement” at the same time, Tova urged; “the Right is not separating these issues, so let’s not separate them either.”
The panelists each contribute to this larger struggle for democracy in three distinct ways. Tova suggests implementing and maximizing election laws and procedures, such as expanding Election Day Registration (recently successful in North Carolina) and Motor Voter bills, as well as enhancing voter protection.
John is working tirelessly to limit corporate political “speech.” Free Speech for People is part of a constellation of national groups working to pass a 28th amendment to the Constitution—otherwise known as the People’s Rights Amendment—which states, more or less, that corporations aren’t people, and that money isn’t “speech.”
Maxim argues that rather than limiting political “speech,” we’d be better served to increase “speech” for everyone. He argues that we must do more to advance racial and economic justice, and that we can use the tools provided in Citizens United to build power. In addition, Maxim holds that a necessary component towards accountability is to increase household (read: “the 99%”) ownership of corporations and philanthropy. Maxim also warned that progressives are beginning to fall into the trap of “group think.”
Rather than silencing corporations—and foundations—Maxim suggests that we change them. He cited a recent article in Harvard Business Review, which states that companies’ success in the long term may be closely related to having goals beyond shareholder value, including goals aimed at employee and customer value. The Funding Exchange Network pioneered a similar philosophy of directly involving community members in funding decisions and leadership.
Taking cues from those communities who best understand their terrain and struggles is key. In order to make change, Maxim implores progressives to “stop ignoring corporations” and instead start convening them.
One participant, who recently commissioned a study to explore the impact of Citizens United on American businesses, asked, “What is Citizens United costing the nation in terms of GDP and other factors? Are there ‘angels in the business community’ who could lead such reform efforts?”
However, the discussion wasn’t all angels and agreement. In one participant’s view, transforming U.S. companies would be arduous, if not impossible, in today’s political climate. Others felt similarly about the amendment campaign. Given that the Supreme Court of the United States has become so conservative, and since “everything ends up in SCOTUS anyway,” another participant wondered, “is it worth going after a constitutional amendment when there are so many other issues?”
John reminded us that even if a constitutional amendment is not passed, its value is in “its ability to change the dialogue in the country.” Both he and Maxim agreed on two counts: that grassroots organizing is vital for success; and that a crucial next step is to disseminate information about Citizens United to a broader audience. Somehow this issue has yet to attract people from diverse race and class identities, as well as education levels and immigrant history.
The role of philanthropy is crucial in addressing the trajectory of our democracy. A top priority is to respond to the crisis around voter rights while at the same time funding construction on a broad-based, long-term plan that brings into alignment the strategies laid out during the panel—but also makes room for new voices, leadership and non-traditional tactics.
Targeted outreach to community giving circles, donor networks and funder affinity groups, such as Interfaith Funders, the Black Philanthropic Network and Funders for LGBTQ Issues, could help to develop new partnerships, advance current goals and find new solutions. Moving forward together around a shared vision, across differences of demographics, sector, ideology, geography and organizational culture, makes way for robust debate and increased participation. Soul of the country? Indeed.
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