A Billion For The Jobless, But Not From The Foundations

by Rob Warmowski on October 3, 2012

Nonprofit Quarterly has an article by Kathleen Hughes about a stunning end-around in the usual philanthropic funding pattern.  A billion-dollar grant decision has begun to fund service organizations directly from the donor, for the purpose of providing education and helping the poor in Washington, DC qualify for already existing jobs by working through existing community infrastructure.

“[Carlyle Group co-founder and philanthropist Bill] Conway disclosed the initial rounds of grants, which total $55 million, “including $30 million for scholarships and tuition assistance for nursing students attending the [Latin American Youth Center]LAYC Career Academy or one of five universities in the region: Trinity Washington, Marymount, Catholic, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown. Conway also donated $10 million to both Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of Washington in support of services for at-need populations and for tuition assistance for students attending Catholic schools, and $5 million to the Center for Employment Trainingat SOME (So Others Might Eat) in support of its job training program.”

Conway’s grants are making news in the nonprofit world, as gifts of this size are not normally made to direct service organizations. Says Nonprofit Roundtable of Great Washington President Chuck Bean, “I’ve got goosebumps…I’ve only seen big, seven-figure grants go to large cultural institutions, not to on-the-ground direct service organizations like these.”

Apart from the size of the award and the politically and socially curious nature of its ultimate source, the Carlyle Group, the most unusual aspect of this news is what it appears to do to the standard paring of the large award to the large institution. The funding heads straight to on-the-ground service organizations. Nowhere in the donation is found the usual foundation names, nor their priorities nor institutional muscle. Concerning an award this large, this may be unprecedented. As Jacobin Magazine’s Curtis White wrote in an article earlier this year, the “Philanthropic Complex” isn’t used to encroachments upon “its” turf:

The uncertainty and opacity of [the reality of obtaining foundation funding] leave organizations frustrated and bewildered. No matter how many meetings are held, no matter how carefully the questions are posed, the fundamentals remain maddeningly elusive. It is as if grant seekers were Kafka’s K in The Trial searching absurdly for someone to tell him exactly what crime he has committed.

The foundation has money but it has no organic idea (no idea that is native to its being) what to do with it.  Perhaps the foundation really would like to help someone somewhere, but it can’t quite bring itself simply to trust the organizations it funds and set them free to do their work, in part because it fears that once freed this intelligence and competence might produce results not in keeping with the interests of the foundation.

Not wanting to acknowledge that brutal fact, all that the foundation is left with is the chilling satisfaction of its own undiminished and unaccountable authority. None of this, of course, can be said, least of all by the organizations that are still hoping for support.

Like the system of patronage that served the arts and charity from the Renaissance through the 18th century, private foundations have the rarest privilege of all: they do not have to explain themselves. They do not have to justify the origins of their wealth, or how they use that wealth, or what the real benefit of their largesse is.

Mr. Conway’s gift will be worth watching just as much for what it promises to accomplish for the poor as for what foundations might learn from its application.

(Full disclosure: NPQ author Kathleen Hughes and I are old pals.)

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