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Johnson Center report on philanthropy fails to challenge the dominant narrative about wealth

August 1, 2017

The Johnson Center at GVSU, recently came out with a report on philanthropic giving in two communities. The report, Understanding Philanthropic Character of Communities, looks at philanthropic giving in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.

The report is rather academic and vague. More importantly, the report reflects the dominant narrative about foundations and philanthropy, which is to say they celebrate philanthropic giving without any critical analysis of what foundations represent.

My take on the role and functions of philanthropy are informed in part by several books which challenge the dominant narrative: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, by INCITE; Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, by Joan Roelofs; and Under the Mask of Philanthropy, by Michael Barker. In addition, my own experience working within the non-profit industrial complex has informed me on how foundation funding impacts whats happens and what doesn’t happen in this community.

Philanthropy in GR: What Does Happen

According to the report by the Johnson Center, the bulk of the philanthropy in Kent County (for 2012) came from private foundations, not community foundations, as in seen in the graphic below.

The private foundations cited in the report are listed here on the right.

Most of these foundations, dominated by the DeVos family, are also part of the West MI Power structure. These families, besides having foundations, have tremendous economic and political power in the area and are known to influence local and state policy through their political contributions. Their political contributions are not factored into the Johnson Center report, which makes the report incomplete, since you cannot ignore the political contributions.

First, in the case of the DeVos family, their political contributions are much larger than the philanthropic dollars they give out on an annual basis

Second, a great deal of money contributed by the DeVos family, and to a lesser degree other foundations on the list, provide significant amounts of funding to groups that promote policy that dismantles various forms of social welfare, such as public funding for schools, pensions and services which the state previously provided. Therefore, when foundations give money to non-profits, this money then seeks to fill a gap that they created through their influence in the policy arena. For instance, since public education spending has been reduced in Michigan for more than two decades or diverted to charter schools, the DeVos family can contribute significantly to private education programs like Potter’s House or Believe 2 Become, which is a way to introduce faith-based/entrepreneurial education into the Grand Rapids Public Schools. The result is that foundations, like the various DeVos foundations are often seen as very generous with the money, when in fact they use their wealth to create a social crisis and then fill the void with funding that they can control the outcomes with.

At the end of the Johnson Center report there are three areas of investigation on philanthropic giving: art, downtown development and education. We have already addressed the educational component to some degree, so lets look at arts and downtown development.

In regards to Kent County, the only philanthropy discussed in the Johnson Center Report is ArtPrize. The report states:

For all the controversy ArtPrize has engendered — whether over the quality of art selected through public voting, the “popularity contest” aspect of the public awards, the political activities of the DeVos family, or the rejection of specific works of art — ArtPrize is an undeniable success.

Calling it a success is not a very objective term, since the report never provides any clarity on how ArtPrize as been an undeniable success. Do they mean for the public, for the downtown businesses or the artists?

The other area the report looks at is on downtown development. You can see from this graphic here, how much foundation money and how much public money was put into various projects. It is important to note that these are projects initiated by Grand Action, which was created by Dick DeVos and other members of the local power structure, as a means to generate more revenue for their downtown assets – hotels, bars, restaurants and private parking lots.


Challenging the dominant narrative about foundations and philanthropic contributions

As was mentioned earlier, a critical view of foundations and philanthropic contributions is important, especially if we want to challenge the dominant narratives of class privilege.

There are five major critiques to this dominant narrative:

  1. Foundations are a way of creating tax havens for those with high levels of wealth and only a small percentage of the money in foundations actually is spent.
  2. Foundations are great PR for the capitalist class. Foundation giving distracts the public by getting us to praise those with wealth for their generosity, instead of critically examining how those who have foundations “made” their wealth.
  3. Foundations also engage in forms of population management. Charitable contributions are often a way to put the attention on those who are experiencing poverty, instead of those who created poverty and social inequality. Plus there is the added benefit of making people feel ashamed of being the recipient of charity, instead of realizing their collective potential to organize as a social movement.
  4. Foundations have directly influenced the culture of non-profits in three important ways. First, there are always conditions, limitations and pre-determined outcomes for foundation giving. Second, foundation giving almost always makes it so that you cannot participate in work that seeks to transform society or to get at the root of systemic problems. Third, non-profits most often follow a corporate model that is both hierarchical  and with boards of directors, which are often times made up of people who are in positions of power.
  5. Lastly, foundation giving limits our ability to be imaginative about how to collectively work for change.
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