Issue #27, Winter 2013

An Open Letter to Patriotic Philanthropists

To read the other essays in the “Everyone's Fight” symposium, click here.

Dear Fellow Citizen,

Shortly before the election last fall, The New York Times ran an editorial about the flood of independent money in the campaign. The editors noted, “The business interests behind those hundreds of millions are not going to give up the influence and the power that spending has given them. That’s the reason this unlimited money is so corrupting: win or lose, it binds lawmakers, corporations and special interests ever closer.”

If the Times’s readers could tolerate it, such editorials could run every day—and not just during elections.

Because others in this issue of Democracy are writing about the many dimensions of the problem, we won’t pile on. But we do want to point out that both of us have, for eight decades now, been witnesses to—and proud products of—the American experiment. And in that time we have never seen our democracy so utterly subjugated by the power of well-heeled special interests.

So, what can be done? A lot, is the answer. But here’s one simple idea: Help fund the groups that fight for political reform.

Both of us have been doing so for a long time—one as the president of a small family foundation whose benefactors were devoted to the renewal of democracy, one as an individual citizen concerned for his country. Over the years, we’ve collectively helped reform groups raise millions of dollars. But that’s only a thimble-sized sum compared to the need.

It’s been rewarding to see the many groups we’ve supported do so much with so few resources. But it’s also been painful to see them toil away in a long and losing battle, seriously outgunned on Capitol Hill by the lobbyists who profit from the current system, and outmaneuvered in the courts by the lawyers and justices who deem money the equal of speech.

How much do these reformers spend annually? An estimated $45 million. Only about .01 percent of total charitable giving in America (which was roughly $300 billion in 2011). It’s about one-fourth of what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spends annually (roughly $200 million in 2010), and roughly one-tenth of what Koch-related groups committed to spending in the 2012 elections to promote their agendas ($400 million, according to Politico).

The two of us could list most of the funders of reform on the back of a napkin. Like their grantees, they’re very capable and dedicated people who strive to accomplish much with few resources. Like us, many of them are frustrated that the pool of philanthropists has remained so consistently small over the years. And, also like us, many can’t keep investing in this cause much longer, not for lack of interest but for lack of resources.

Over the years, we’ve encountered various reasons why there is so little investment in reducing the power of Big Money over politics and policy-making: Good-government groups don’t do a good enough job of selling themselves and are too fractured along policy lines; money in politics is seen as a wonky issue that only liberals care about; philanthropy is increasingly focused on short-term “deliverables” and “quantifiable outcomes” and reform is too hard to measure in those terms; foundations are risk averse when it comes to supporting efforts that might be perceived as political. And the list goes on.

All of these are understandable concerns. But none of us can any longer afford to allow such arguments to stifle the flow of money into the struggle to save our democracy. Citizens United and super PACs have brought America to a historic juncture—one path leads toward oligarchy, the other toward representative government. Abraham Lincoln defined the latter as the American ideal. It was the cause of Thomas Paine, the Revolution, and the Constitutional Convention. Today it is the inspiration for good health care and a good education, for fair and competitive markets, for honest government, for a sustainable environment, and for a decent job and livelihood for everyone. For these promises to be kept, the deep pockets of the moneyed class must be countered, because to travel upstream of any major issue facing our country—from Too Big To Fail banks to climate change—is to encounter a small, extremely powerful group of well-connected and well-heeled interests controlling the flow of the stream.

That’s why it’s about time for others who are well connected and well heeled to provide a counterweight. When some people think about philanthropy, they think of building libraries and wings of hospitals, of endowing university chairs and curing diseases, of providing comfort to the afflicted, and preserving pristine lands. All noble goals. But beneath them lies a larger structural problem with the way our country functions, or doesn’t function. Helping solve that problem offers philanthropists a shot at a different kind of legacy—one that would make Jefferson and Lincoln proud.

Now is the time to invest in such a legacy. The tinder of public opinion is dry. In a recent Gallup poll, 87 percent of respondents said that ending government corruption should be a “very important” or an “extremely important” priority for the President. The only priority that ranked higher was job creation.

There are more than two dozen groups working mightily to ignite the popular movement necessary for rekindling the American Dream of justice for all. If patriotic philanthropists fail to meet the challenge, future editorials in The New York Times on money in politics will read less like urgent calls for change and more like obituaries.


Bill Moyers & Arnold Hiatt



Issue #27, Winter 2013
Post a Comment

Doug Campbell:

Unfortunately, many of the well-heeled, moneyed interests who have the capital to influence policy are students of the era of Freidman, who stated that the only duty of a corporation was to create profits for shareholders. It is precisely this mindset which controls the scope of the philanthropy. True philanthropy embues the values of the many, not the few.

Jan 8, 2013, 10:46 AM
Richard Willis:

It would be nice to see the back of that napkin with the list of funders of reform. It would be even nicer to see who and what they are funding.

Jan 8, 2013, 12:01 PM
John Gilmore:

This essay conflates "reform" in general with the particular "reform" that the authors are in favor of (which they never actually specify). This is unfortunately typical.

I have pointed out specific examples of real live government corruption to Lessig (e.g. graft: county sheriffs shaking down Indian casinos for donations against a ballot initiative that the sheriffs opposed -- to "help speed up the casinos' liquor license renewal"). I couldn't find anybody in this so-called "anti corruption" movement who cared. They all have their eyes on some long term target they can't even define and that even this essay backhandedly admits we are extremely unlikely to reach ("reform is too hard to measure in those terms", the terms being "deliverables" and "quantifiable outcomes".)

Drug policy reform (my area) is making actual deliverables and real outcomes. That's why it's attracting philanthropists. Don't whine that nobody supports your cause financially. Set your sights on something attainable, and prove that you're competent by attaining it. You'll be taken a lot more seriously.

Jan 13, 2013, 8:09 PM
Cynthia Faisst:

How about transparency. A campaign of exposure.

Jan 16, 2013, 1:20 AM
Eva O'Brien:

I would like to see the napkin list also.

Jan 16, 2013, 5:30 PM
Stephen Viederman:

Bill and Arnold. You call on philanthropy to "invest" in issues of money and politics. You could also add that it is important for philanthropy to use their investments, the $500 billion that makes possible the grants.

The Christopher Reynolds Foundation, where I serve as Finance Chair, is small--$24million AUM. Yet, believing in active shareownership we have engaged both Pfizer and Accenture on their memberships on the boards of the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, thereby supporting activities that run counter to their own companies' positions on many issues, such as climate change. We are in a continuing discussion with Pfizer on support for ALEC and Heartland, with some positive results. We have cosigned letters to more than 80 companies, with other institutional investors with total assets under management reaching well into the trillions of dollars, concerning ALEC and Heartland. The letters were instrumental in more than half of the companies withdrawing their support from these groups. We submitted an amicus brief in the Citizens United challenge in Montana. And we vote all of our proxies in support of the many resolutions on money and politics filed this year.

Foundations should invest in democracy, but they should also use their investments to contribute to change.

Feb 4, 2013, 11:44 AM
Erhardt Graeff:

Thank you for your inspiration Bill and Arnold! Sam Novey and I have written a response to this piece calling also for more grassroots funding of politics and civic activism in the form of "People PACs." Text here:

Feb 11, 2013, 10:41 AM
Old enough to know better:

Oh, forget it, already! Moyers sounds like pages from Lundberg's informative book, Cracks in the Constitution. The country was set up in 1787 for the benefit of plutocrats (property owners) and corporations. The Congress was meant to be ineffective and inefficient. As for a government of checks and balances, most of the checks are applied by the President on the Congress. By my reckoning, almost all of America's problems, indeed the world's, are due to overpopulation. And no one seems to care, at all. The rank and file, the ordinary people, are dumb as shit. Moyers and his posse are wasting their time attempting to reform a nation permanently militarized and falling apart from immoral and corrupt behavior, everywhere.

Feb 22, 2013, 7:16 PM
Linda Blackwell:

A growing lack of trust that our government can or will do what is in the best interests of all of us has made many people feel pretty helpless. Money seems to rule, and those in a position to guide issues do so on the basis of wealthy donors regardless of morality issues.

Mar 24, 2013, 6:39 PM
K Smith:


Stop a problem caused by Big Money by piling on Even Bigger Money?

This makes no sense.

An oligarchy is like fire. Its fuel is money. The more fuel you add, the more corrupt, entrenched, oppressive, and all-consuming it becomes.

In order to weaken the oligarchy you have to stop fueling it.

What is required is not philanthropy, but wisdom, leadership, and action.

"The best government is that which governs least."
- Henry David Thoreau

Make government smaller.

Repeal unjust law.

Eliminate oppressive regulations.

Repeal taxes.

Do not create new ones.

Don't feed the beast.

Jul 14, 2013, 11:31 PM

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