Foundations Hold Money For The 1%. How Can We Stand With The 99%?

November 17, 2011

Our brilliant colleagues at Resource Generation have teamed up with Wealth for the Common Good (now Patriotic Millionaires) to amplify the voices of wealthy people calling for tax justice. The personal stories and photos posted on “We are the 1%. We stand with the 99%” support the Occupy movement and bring to mind a coming-out party of sorts, where people acknowledge they have more money than they need and more power than is their share. The bottom line is simple: each person says bluntly, “Tax me.”

What do foundations have in common with the 1%? We’re organizations, not individuals, it’s true; but our raison d’être is using untaxed wealth to carry out the wishes of its “former owners.” As long as we stick to a few regulations, only the founders or their heirs and appointees can have a say in what we do. If this tax break can pay for itself by channeling riches into the public good, why is there no equivalent deduction for ordinary folks who make nonprofit gifts, unless they have sufficient income or assets to itemize? Why are foundations allowed to hold $672 billion in assets—often invested in companies that help create the problems our programs try to solve—while spending as little as 5% per year no matter how well our portfolios have performed?

However well intended, foundations are extensions of the outsized wealth and power enjoyed by our country’s “1%.” So what, besides going beyond 5%, can we do to stand with the 99%? Here are some ideas:

  • Demonstrate at an Occupy site. Post our stories. If you’re wealthy, identify yourself as such. Say why you support a fair tax system even if it costs you more money.
  • Support organizations that help the Occupy movement. The National Lawyers Guild links demonstrators with free emergency legal help. Ruckus Society provides training. The Funders Committee for Civic Participation can connect grantmakers with nonprofits helping in many ways, including sustained action on issues like corporate political power; and Resource Generation works with both individuals and foundations to generate social change.
  • Support those who make the movement visible when big media looks the other way. Mother Jones covers Occupy demonstrations and gives practical information for engaging through events like Bank Transfer Day. Resources like the Center for Media Justice and MAG-NET ensure we can hear stories not covered by corporate news. Media Democracy Fund contributes money, strategy, and connection for the work these groups do.
  • Align our investments with our missions. Renewal is exceptionally smart about activating whole portfolios for social benefit, and PRI Makers Network fills in the how-tos.
  • Look into whether our giving practices truly promote equity over the long term. Perspectives from the Center for Social Inclusion and Kirwan Institute help explain how well-meaning actions can unintentionally reinforce structural racism and systemic poverty.
  • Confront our organizations’ wealth, age and income gaps. To collaborate honestly we need to acknowledge that some workplace issues have deep roots in unequal wealth and power.
  • Redistribute influence. We can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with grassroots activists and organizations, and use our positions to open doors for them.
  • Speak simply. If you’re talking specifically about money, replace philanthropy’s euphemisms like “high net worth individuals” and “people living in poverty” with “rich” and “poor.” Our country’s blunt reality is hiding behind those extra syllables. If we want to fix it, we should be willing to say its name.
  • Spend our entire endowments. Put our organizations’ existence on the table when planning change strategy. If it’s possible to prevent long-term problems by spending everything now, why stay in business to solve them in the future?

For our part, Quixote Foundation will spend up between now and 2017. In the meantime, we need to get better at standing with the 99%, personally and as part of the foundation sector. We’re grateful to the Occupy movement for raising frank questions that have uncomfortable answers. Have we been taxed enough? Are we accountable enough? Are we required to give enough? Are we willing to put the foundation system on the line to create the world we claim to want? How can we “Occupy Philanthropy”?

Send your thoughts and ideas to don -at- or message QuixoteTilts on Twitter.

—written by Keneta Anderson for Quixote Foundation