Thinking about Philanthropy - and Politics

The phrase “above politics” sounds good, but is it possible?

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately as Dodge has been crafting new guidelines, not to substantially change what we do but to better articulate how the various efforts Dodge supports fit together.

We want to champion and help foster a more creative and sustainable New Jersey.  As a broad vision, that feels above politics to me.  But as soon as we or any of the non-profit organizations we support make a specific move, or advocate any change, large or small, I realize it isn’t.

I am interested in how people think about this question, and how they handle it.  I had a visitor early this week, a young man seeking support for a book he is writing on the new ways his generation approaches the problem of climate change.  He talked about “thought and action to bring about societal change.”  I asked him, “societal change towards what end?” and he paused as if surprised by the question.  I could imagine him thinking, “Isn’t it obvious?”

My sympathies were entirely with him, but meanwhile I was thinking someone might use the same language to suggest that what really needs changing is all this impertinent questioning of the status quo and the American way.

The next day I sat down with the leader of a national environmental organization who told me about forging bipartisan support around a question regarding the use of public lands.  I said, “How did you do that?” thinking maybe somehow he had crafted an overarching vision that united people “above politics.”

He said, “We sat down with everybody personally, one by one, over the course of a year.  In each case we sent someone who was like them in background, and we convinced them it was in their own best interests to support this.”

So it was political to the core.  Again, I wonder how the civic sector in general and foundations in particular best function in advocating for change when the goal is to unite people around a vision for the future and balance individual interests with communitarian values.  How do you go about it?

I heard Bill Moyers speak last night at a gathering in New York City, and he gave me a phrase that I appreciate.  Having acknowledged the sobering data about a world in peril on multiple fronts, and having told a story about a vicious attack on him for simply having a particular guest on his show, he said we have to counter “the pessimism of the intellect with the optimism of the will.”

“The optimism of the will.”  Maybe the answer is not to waste too much time trying to be “above politics,” but rather know what you believe in and just keep going, acknowledging politics, sometimes using politics, more often persisting in spite of politics.

I’d love some help with this.  What do YOU do?