The revolution will not be funded, goes the refrain.
In “The Philanthropic Complex,” published in the spring 2012 issue of Jacobin, Curtis White takes a tour through the world of American environmental funding. For anyone who has read, say, Mark Dowie’s Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century and American Foundations: An Investigative History, it’s a familiar critique. But one worth a revisit.
In the fall of 2009 I was approached by Hal Clifford, executive editor of Orion Magazine, and asked to write an essay about American philanthropy, especially in relation to environmentalism. From the first I was dubious about the assignment. I said, “Not-for-profit organizations like you cannot afford to attack philanthropy because if you attack one foundation you may as well attack them all. You’ll be cutting your own throat.”
Hal assured me that while all this might be true someone had to take up the issue, and Orion was willing to do so. And I was the right person to write the essay precisely because I was not an insider but simply an honest intelligence. So, with many misgivings I said I’d try.
I interviewed about a dozen people on both sides of the field, both givers and getters, and some in the middle. The people I spoke to were eager to articulate their grievances even if they were just as eager to be anonymous. I also should acknowledge that the development of these grievances was no doubt colored by my own experiences as a board member and president of the board of two not-for-profit organizations in the arts.
After working for several months writing and revising the essay, Hal Clifford announced that he would be leaving Orion. My first thought was “uh-oh.” The editor-in-chief, Chip Blake, took over my essay and at that point things got dicey. Ultimately he explained that he hadn’t been fully aware of my assignment, that he hadn’t known the essay would be an attack on “the oligarchy,” that it didn’t seem to be fully a part of the magazine’s usual interests, and that–fatally–from the magazine’s point of view publishing the essay would be an exercise in “self-mutilation.”