From the time of the Gilded Age—when many political and journalistic careers were built by taking shots at robber barons—wealthy donors and large foundations tended to be skittish about taking up controversial political causes. It wasn’t until the 1960s that public-policy philanthropy became popular, and the individual who did the most to light that fire was Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy. Having moved into his post directly from the Johnson White House, it was a short step for Bundy to plunge his new employer into racial issues, ethnic politics, environmental lawsuits, poverty policy, and feminist litigation.
The foundation didn’t lobby directly, but formulated ideas and promoted strategies that would lead to legislation, regulations, and court cases advancing liberal policies like affirmative action, disarmament, and welfare transfers. Litigation by new “public-interest” legal groups was a special focus. (For some details, see the five Ford-related entries on this list between 1967 and 1972.)
The Council for Public Interest Law—which was created by the Ford Foundation specifically to help coordinate legal activism on the left—surveyed 86 groups pushing “public-interest law” in 1975. It found that 70 percent of them had popped up from1969-1974, when Ford was seeding this oyster bed. These groups reported receiving $61 million from donors during that five-year period, with more than half of that total coming from Ford itself. Fully 589 salaried attorneys were then employed by these 86 groups, which have since grown into even more potent policy-shapers like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Law and Social Policy.
Bundy viewed this effort as an extension of earlier policy-related maneuvering by Ford. In the 1950s and ’60s, Ford funding powered much of the urban renewal movement—which demolished slums, built new government-run subsidized housing, and launched an array of social programs for residents. Ford programs were picked up directly by Lyndon Johnson as germs of his “Great Society” expansion of welfare spending and social activism.
But the aggressiveness with which Bundy moved into advocacy philanthropy (including paying for enormous amounts of litigation) produced lots of friction and political backlash. Ford’s 1968 funding for radical community school boards in New York City, for instance, was a spectacular failure that inflamed race relations in that metro area for an entire generation. Resentment over what was viewed as the
Ford Foundation’s over-aggressive involvement in political questions spurred heavier regulation of foundations in the 1970s, and new controversy about whether charitable donations should even be tax deductible.
- Philanthropy magazine essay, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/foundations_and_public_policy