By Karyn Pomerantz and Ellen Isaacs, 8-8-2020
“I’m very much afraid of this ‘Foundation Complex.’ We’re getting praise from places that worry me.” Ella Baker, 1963 quoted by INCITE!.
In our time of fervent uprisings against racism and the increased unity of workers, many foundations and ruling class opinion influencers like the New York Times (NYT) call for re-imagining or re-creating capitalism in order to save it. Non-profits, corporations, and universities have issued statements deploring inequality and racism as if they just discovered them.
This article discusses the role of foundations and corporations that fund non-profit advocacy, educational, and health organizations. Their motives are actually self-serving, providing tax benefits for themselves (depriving the government of tax revenue) and earning valuable public relations for corporate America.
We will specifically examine the liberal Soros Foundations and the Ford Foundation, their motivations, and the consequences that organizations and movements experience by accepting their support.
In July 2020, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, wrote an opinion piece in the NYT and gave an interview to the Washington Post attacking the extremes in wealth in the United States. His opinion piece captures the anxiety the ruling class has about the vulnerability of capitalism:
“If we are to keep our American dream alive, our democratic principles flourishing, and our market system strong, then we must redesign and rebuild the engine that drives them. … capitalism must be reformed if we are to save our democracy. … Without hope, American dreams deferred or denied will continue, as the poet Langston Hughes wrote, to explode (“Are You Willing to Give Up Your White Privilege?” (NYT, 7-25-2020).
Intentions: Why Do Philanthropists Fund Non-Profits?
Is funding advocacy groups an act of generosity or an attempt to control the movement from threatening capitalism itself? Do you ever wonder why philanthropists fund anti-racist organizations?
Like the carrot and the stick, the ruling class uses violence to control protests, incarceration and policing to control potential militants, and surveillance on one hand and cooptation, including funding, on the other.
In the 1960s when anti-racist activists in the South demanded better wages and equal accommodations, President Kennedy opposed them fearing a loss of electoral support from Southern politicians. Instead, he pushed for voting rights campaigns and enlisted a foundation to fund them. The Administration viewed voting as a less threatening demand. His offer created a debate over direct action vs. voting registration within the movement leading to a compromise to do both:
“Many in SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] felt that the Kennedys were trying to co-opt them and that organizing for voter registration was selling them out” (https://snccdigital.org/inside-sncc/the-story-of-sncc/where-do-we-go-from-here/)
During the Depression of the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt threw money into life saving (for some) New Deal programs to prevent revolution, acknowledging that he intended his spending to preserve capitalism. In addition to enacting jobs and welfare programs (which mostly excluded blacks), he acted as a friend of the left and workers by using their rhetoric, supporting unions to some extent, funding some socialist politicians, and endorsing tax policies to reduce wealth inequality. His successful strategy dampened the revolutionary aspirations of many left parties.
“It was now a matter of seeing whether a representative democracy could conquer economic collapse. It was a matter of staving off violence—even some thought—revolution” (Historian Arthur Schlesinger quoted in https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/06/18/was-it-only-fear-itself-fdr-and-today).
There is nothing about these programs that would change the inherent inequality and exploitation that defines capitalism. Politicians and funders may want to decrease the differences in income between rich and poor to stave off revolt, but they have no intention of changing the fundamental way the system operates: paying workers less than the value of what they produce to earn profit.
Funding Streams: Corporations
Corporate funding of non-profit health, educational and advocacy organizations is not new. Major corporations support public health and medical research, such as drug development and behavioral studies. Tobacco companies supported some civil rights groups in the 1960s to quell anti-smoking campaigns, framing smoking as a matter of individual choice. At the same time, they blanketed black neighborhoods with cigarette advertising. Soda companies give money to the American Diabetes Association and the American Dietetics Association while opposing any restriction on soda size or sales, and pharmaceutical companies, such as Gilead, support HIV and Hepatitis C research and outreach while charging exorbitant prices for life saving medications. Food companies that produce ice cream and chocolate have purchased Slimfast and Jenny Craig diet programs. (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/aug/07/fat-profits-food-industry-)
Universities also depend on corporate and governmental “external funding” to stay solvent, allowing funders to offer “Requests for Proposals” that determine what issues are studied. Taking such money affects researchers’ activism and opposition to harmful agricultural practices, such as using antibiotics and crowding animals in cages, that promote the emergence and spread of microbial diseases. Scientists who did oppose dangerous agro companies and other businesses have suffered attacks on their careers. Researcher Dr. Tyrone Hayes who discovered that the Syngenta’s pesticide atrazine causes sexual changes in frogs was harassed and accused of conducting inferior research by the corporation (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/02/10/a-valuable-reputation). The gasoline industry attacked Dr. Herbert Needleman who discovered the chronic toxic effects of lead, causing a multi-year suspension of his research (https://portside.org/2017-07-22/herbert-needleman-passing-pioneer-and-public-health-hero).
Scientists depend on funding their research to achieve credibility and career advancement, trading this for the loss of scientific independence. As philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes, quoted in Big Farms Make Big Flu (Rob Wallace, 2016):
“What universities should do is not serve as experts to those in power who define the problems. We should redefine and question the problems themselves. Is this the right perception of the problem? Is this really the problem? We should ask much more fundamental questions.”
Wallace compares scientists to the chickens they study:
“With research increasingly proletarianized, its objectives confounded with capital’s, whatever his or her country of origin, the “Scientific American” becomes as subject to an artificial selection as any chicken he or she studies. A top-heavy bird with its beak snipped off. A protoplasmic commodity in tweed or white coat, clucking at request for proposals for a little seed money.”
Corporations also establish charities to fund interventions for health and social problems that were previously the government’s responsibility. Donating millions to housing problems in San Francisco by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Gates’ funding for AIDS programs does not change the exploitative nature of their companies. As The Guardian reports, this corporate social responsibility, CSR, enhances company public relations. However:
“Wealth redistribution is placed in the hands of the wealthy, and social responsibility in the hands of those who have exploited society for personal gain (The Guardian, 5-24-18).”
Funding Streams: The Ford Foundation
The Ford Foundation, a billion dollar enterprise that funds liberal organizations, accumulated its wealth from the Ford Auto Company owned by the anti-Semitic, fascist Henry Ford. (This is not rhetoric; Ford supported American and German Nazis as Hitler took power). Auto workers created this wealth as do other workers in industries that established foundations, such as the W.K. Kellogg Company and the Kaiser Aluminum Corporation (not associated with Kaiser Healthcare).
Henry Ford established the Foundation in 1936 to shelter his wealth from taxes. Grants covered different organizations and causes throughout its history. It donated to charities, cultural institutions, and non-violent civil rights organizations, such as SCLC (Souothern Christian Leadership Conference), but did not support the Black Power movement or the Black Panther Party.
The Ford Foundation was a favorite conduit of money to support Cold War politics. The CIA disbursed money to foundations to counter pro-Soviet culture. John McCloy became Foundation president in the mid 1950s after serving as Assistant Secretary of War, World Bank president, chair of Chase Manhattan Bank, lawyer for oil corporations, and director of other companies (Petras, 2001). He exemplified the close ties between ruling class interests and philanthropy. Through the Foundation, the CIA funded periodicals and arts organizations, and human rights advocates as long as they didn’t criticize the US.
Today, President Darren Walker earns a $705,000 salary (www.fordfoundation.org) and urges an agenda promoting equity and social justice. Presiding over a Board of corporate officers, he pledges to fund social justice groups for longer periods of time with larger grants. He envisions lessening the wealth gap by diversifying the boardrooms, instituting tax and investment policies to lower corporate income, giving up notions of entitlement, and ending legacy admissions to universities that favor children of the rich. Paraphrasing Audre Lorde, revolutionaries cannot use the master’s money to create a money-free society.
Funding Streams: Soros Foundations
One of the most generous and acclaimed liberal charitable organizations in the world is George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Soros is a Jewish Hungarian who fled communism to study economics in London and then founded a spectacularly successful hedge fund. He is currently worth $8.3 billion and made some of that money during the crises of the 1990s by betting against the British pound and the currencies of Thailand, Malaysia and Japan, among others. He thus helped to destabilize all these economies and earned the nickname “the man who broke the Bank of England.”
Once he became wealthy, Soros founded his charitable organization with a donation of $18 billion from his personal hedge fund. Its main aim is to promote a form of capitalism that includes free markets, free expression, globalization and social justice and equality. He calls himself a centrist, but he opposed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and began funding liberal and Democratic groups, giving $18 million to Democratic political campaigns in 2016 alone (https://theweek.com/articles/811191/how-george-soros-became-bogeyman).
Soros, along with Taco Bell heir Rob McKay, was also a founder of The Democracy Alliance in 2005, which has close ties to the Democratic party. The group has funded the Organization for Black Struggle that helped organize 2014 Black Lives Matter-related protests in Ferguson, and gave $176,000 to various groups leading protests over the Michael Brown and Freddie Gray killings. According to Politico, Black Lives Matter is currently meeting with the Democracy Alliance to discuss funding, along with Color of Change, “on how to connect the Movement for Black Lives with current and needed infrastructure for Black organizing and political power.” (https://populardemocracy.org/news-and-publications/major-donors-consider-funding-black-lives-matter-0)
In early July 2020, Soros announced that the Foundations will distribute $220 million to racial justice organizations headed by black leaders. Included will be $150 million in grants to anti-racist groups, such as Black Voters Matter Fund, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Poor People’s Campaign. Another $70 million will support political education, internships, and community involvement in criminal justice and policing (NYT, 7-13-2020 and https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/newsroom/open-society-foundations-announce-220-million-for-building-power-in-black-communities).
Consequences of Funding NGOs
How bad could this funding be? Shouldn’t we acclaim this generosity? Can we maintain our goals while accepting tainted money? Or is such money “tain’t enough?”
Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other groups issue radical calls for defunding or abolishing the police and reinvesting the monies in social benefits, like education, housing and health care. (https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-defunding-the-police-really-means/) And it’s true, if we had equality and a good standard of living for all, there would be little low-level crime. But the fallacy is that high-level crime, making profits by exploiting workers or super profits (like Soros) by manipulating the wealth of nations or banks, is what defines capitalism. There have to be poor workers to maintain rich bosses. So therefore, the police are needed to control the discontent and acts of desperation that poverty and inequality engender. So as long as BLM and other movements do not call for abolishing capitalism, they are not a fundamental threat to the system. In fact, they are part of the glue that holds it together, a part of the glue that liberal philanthropists recognize is essential to preserving the system. The latest Movement for Black Lives Platform (a coalition of many groups, including BLM) calls for tax reform, jobs programs, more black-owned businesses and grants to black supported organizations (among other demands) but does not call for ending capitalism itself. (https://m4bl.org/policy-platforms/economic-justice/)
Protests: Militant, But Not Revolutionary
Despite the radical image of multiracial protests led by militant black activists, the agenda of which is genuinely anti-racist, there is not a recognition that, since racism is inherent in US capitalism, capitalism must be abolished. Black Lives Matter does not directly fund Democratic candidates, but it promotes #WhatMatter2020 campaign aimed at increasing the voice of black voters that could potentially benefit Democrats. The campaign’s priorities include racial injustice, economic injustice, LGBTQ rights, voter suppression, and “common-sense gun laws”—all items high on the Democratic Party’s agenda. (https://abc6onyourside.com/news/nation-world/as-black-lives-matter-donations-surge-some-want-to-know-where-the-money-goes)
As we’ve seen, foundations established by businesses fund non-profit organizations (NGOs) that allow people to address social problems without threatening capitalism. Although the staff of some of these non-profits may want to follow a more radical agenda, they fear they will lose their funding, thereby censoring themselves and their members. For example, the American Library Association and the American Public Health Association have opposed resolutions and boycotts that support Palestinian workers; universities have issued statements against gun violence but not against police murders.
It is difficult to refuse cash when organizations need it to advance their social agendas. Is it better to accept the money and do some good or reject it and follow a more activist approach?
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence held a conference in 2004, “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex” that was published as a book by the same name. The authors, members of anti-violence non-profits, described how funding squelched their militancy and activism. They questioned the effects of foundation funding on social justice movements (“Do you think the system is really going to fund you to dismantle it?”) and how these movements can use other models for organizing and supporting themselves. They concluded that non-profits develop to offer services formerly provided by the government, restrict the scope and militancy of the NGOs, and ensure that capitalism survives.
The editors wrote:
“We then soon discovered that the revolution would not be funded when the Ford Foundation, who had promised us a $100,000 grant and told us we could commit the funds to various projects, suddenly retracted the grant because of our solidarity statement in support of Palestine. We found ourselves in a major financial crisis because the funds had already been committed and we had about six weeks to raise $60,000 for our next national conference. And yet we managed to do this. So, we learned on one hand that foundations can indeed control your organizing, and on the other hand, there are other ways to resource movements when we think outside the foundation universe.”
What Alternative Funding Sources Do We Have?
There are no easy answers, but there are some options. Workers need organizations that can provide money and support. Unions have strike funds that help support people on strike, money raised through member dues. Members of revolutionary parties contribute as much as they can from personal income and through fundraisers, relying on political friends to fund activities. Ordinary people fund movements and services. Millions have sent thousands of dollars to bail out protesters and people jailed because they lack the money for bail. Liberals donated large amounts of money to the Biden and Sanders political campaigns. Just as we need to rely on one another for safety and well-being, we need to rely on ourselves to provide the resources to build an anti-capitalist, anti-racist movement.
Funders committed to preserving and reforming capitalism will never allow us to eliminate imperialism, capitalism, or its practices of racism or abusive policing. As Walker quoting Langston Hughes wrote, “Without hope, American dreams deferred or denied will continue to explode.” It is our responsibility to revolt and offer alternative visions for a system free of exploitation and inequities.
Incite! The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. Conference audio at https://soundcloud.com/incite-audio and book from South End Press, 2009 at https://libcom.org/files/incite-the-revolution-will-not-be-funded-beyond-the-nonprofit-industrial-complex-2.pdf.
Petras J. The Ford Foundation and the CIA: a documented case of philanthropic collaboration with the Secret Police. 2001. https://ratical.org/ratville/CAH/FordFandCIA.html
Rhodes C. and Bloom P. The Trouble With Charitable Billionaires. The Guardian, 5-24-18. https://www.guardian.com/may/24/the-trouble-with-charitable-billionaires-philanthrocapitalism
Walker D. Are You Willing to Give Up Your White Privilege? NYT, 7-25-2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/25/opinion/sunday/black-lives-matter-ccorporations.html