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It’s Institutions, Not Individuals

Instead of fixating on George Soros, watch out for the ecosystem that's trying to replace him. 

Organize Right is a regular column with not so much a beat as a meander on the subject of organizing: how the right does it, how the left does it, lessons from its history, and its implications for today.

One of the recurring aspects of right-wing culture—normal, fringe, and far alike—is the fascination with the idea of the Decisive Man. Blame our individualism, or our obsession with great men of history, or our adulation of business owners; hero-starved Righties are fixated on the idea of individuals changing their own lives or even history by deciding on a course of action and fearlessly carrying it out, trailing followers behind them. That is how we imagine our heroes—and our villains, too.

Case in point: George Soros. His organizations do a lot for Team Lefty, but he’s not the be-all and end-all of leftism, any more than the late Saul Alinsky was the be-all and end-all of organizing. But Soros and Alinsky are the names Righties know, so we get hung up on them, and picture them as the other team’s version of our own heroic Decisive Man—or, if you like, the puppeteer figures of Ben Garrison cartoons. That’s why you see people on the right swearing up and down that organizing is all about Alinsky, or that George Soros is paying every black bloc.

But to people who have actually worked with George Soros and people like him, he looks quite different. Just ask Gara LaMarche. You’ve never heard of him, but he spent 11 years working for Soros at the Open Society Institute (his resume also includes the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and stints as president of Atlantic Philanthropies and Democracy Alliance). Recently LaMarche was guest editor for a special philanthropy issue of the online leftist organizing magazine the Forge, and the entries offer a look not just at how radical leftists see people like George Soros, but where radical leftists want philanthropic organizations to go.

The Forge is a strategic journal and community space for organizers edited by Lindsay Zafir. Its launch was funded by the Bauman Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Needmor Fund, and the Rockefeller Family Fund, and its editorial advisory committee and publishing committee include representatives of groups from the Center for Popular Democracy, UNITE HERE, Sunrise Foundation, the AFL-CIO, and a host of other important groups you’ve probably never heard of. We are talking about a particular subset of well-connected organizers; the organizer-industrial complex, if you like.

LaMarche’s issue of the journal includes contributions from academics as well as past and present representatives of various organizations—some smaller, and some power players you have heard of (and some power players you haven’t). The contributors write about philanthropy’s role in organizing as they see it, and where they’d like it to go eventually. More on that shortly, but first: What does George Soros look like to a guy who worked with George Soros, and how did George Soros get started with this whole bottom-up organizing thing?

According to LaMarche’s own piece, George Soros came to appreciate bottom-up organizing slowly. The first step towards it was funding education projects of people who came from that world: veteran civil rights organizer Bob Moses (in his new project, a community education effort to help kids toward better futures by teaching them algebra), and Ernesto Cortes of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, founder of the church-based organizing group Communities Organized for Public Service as well as the Alliance Schools Strategies. As LaMarche puts it:

Moses and Cortez [sic] were national “brands,” but I remained largely ignorant of more localized grassroots efforts. Then one day, a board member of what was then called the Jewish Fund for Justice (now Bend the Arc) asked if she could come to see me with the Fund’s director, Marlene Provizer, to tell me about their work. I said I’d be happy to learn but that support was unlikely, as it didn’t seem to fit into any of our articulated program areas.

They came to my office one afternoon and walked me through the organization’s approach, which at the time involved wealthy, mostly Jewish donors, motivated by the social justice tradition of their faith, donating to a pooled fund that in turn made grants to mostly Black and brown groups around the country working on poverty, education, and justice system issues. I was dazzled by the array of groups and drawn to their redistributionist approach. When, at the end of our meeting, my friend asked for a million dollars, I said, “Nice try.” But after they left, I shared my enthusiasm with others at Open Society, and we ended up offering the Fund a multi-million, multi-year challenge grant.

From the point of view of LaMarche and his fellow contributors, George Soros and comparable people and organizations are not sovereigns you obey. They are cats you have to herd. Contributor Cecile Richards, whom you may recall from the headlines she made during her previous gig at Planned Parenthood, is of the opinion that living donors like Soros are more challenging to manage than institutions like her current post at the Ford Foundation. It’s not that the Ford Foundation isn’t a slow and ponderous beast to steer, but living individuals who actually control the pocketbook are less predictable, which means harder to influence.

And radical leftists do want to influence them. This concept will be hard for a lot of Righty readers, particularly in our grassroots, to wrap their brains around. But LaMarche and his fellow contributors—who are, from our view, absolutely dripping in resources and support—feel that the real problem with the resources and support they’re receiving is that radicals are not sufficiently in control of it. Contributors Megan Ming Francis and Erica Kohl-Arenas, both academics, argue that foundations all too often have a moderating influence on radicals, and need to change this:

As big foundations continue to call for change and promise to back it up with their dollars, we need to make sure they don’t respond to the moment by supporting reformist or palliative programs. Paul Ylvisaker, a central figure in Ford Foundation’s grantmaking in the 1960s, once advised foundation staff to “search for consensus in approach and resolution. Consensus is an institutional imperative in our times, simply to minimize the friction generated by institutions moving through a crowding social and political environment.” This was poor advice for philanthropy back then – and it remains poor advice today. Instead, foundation leaders need to allocate funds to the groups working on the ground to build new community-owned forms of safety, care, and self-determination – and they need to trust that those organizations know how to get the job done.

While several pieces have recommendations for reform of foundations, the main thrust of the argument is what it always is—to really change things, foundations and philanthropists must make particular structural changes to ensure more leftist outcomes and more leftist ways of doing business. Sometimes this just involves giving grassroots organizations more money and less oversight (be honest: Who among us wouldn’t want that in our own lives?). But it also involves structural changes in how decisions are made and money is given.

Here’s an example of a relatively value-neutral structural change argued for by Phil Radford, who was the executive director of Greenpeace in the U.S. and is now the CEO of Progressive Power Lab—essentially a venture capitalist equivalent for leftist nonprofits and companies. Radford argues that the best way philanthropists can help is:

not only to fund more organizing but to provide catalytic funding to achieve the 50/50 rule: to help organizing groups achieve fifty percent of their funding from philanthropy and fifty percent from their base and businesses. To get there, philanthropy should invest five-to-ten percent of its funding in the independent revenue generation programs of mission-aligned organizations and flip its funding priorities from policy formation to power building.

Most of the proposed changes, though, aren’t nearly so simple and operational. A lot of the contributors are keenly interested in using leftist organizing techniques to seize and redirect what are in our view thoroughly captured, but in theirs insufficiently leftist, institutions.  For example, here’s Farhad Ebrahimi whose Chorus Foundation is spending down its endowment to try to bring about a “just transition to a regenerative economy in the United States:

With an information deficit theory of change, board “organizing” is a fairly low bar. We send them some readings, there’s a compelling presentation, and we have a robust conversation. That’s all fine and good, but what about power mapping your board, developing the leadership of specific board members to challenge consolidated power, and investing not only in their education, but in their skills and their relationships? Aligned board members are good. Aligned board members who can speak powerfully when they’re needed are great. And aligned board members who can speak powerfully and organize their peers to do the same are fantastic.

…My own aspiration is to deploy family philanthropy as a tactic for reparations, with the rather large caveat that this involves explicitly challenging what words like “philanthropy” or “investment” usually mean. And I believe that the concept of reparations in its fullest sense will require rethinking aspects of our entire political economy — not just “paying off a debt” within the current system. There is no justice at scale within the confines of racial capitalism.

Philanthropy as it’s conventionally understood is the product of racial capitalism.

If you want to really see where leftist philanthropy—and, for that matter, leftist organizing—is heading in the future, that phrase “racial capitalism” is one you ought to learn, because it will probably go mainstream in the same way terms like “privilege” have. The concept comes from the work of the late U.C. Santa Barbara political theorist Cedric Robinson. He didn’t coin the term; per a 2017 profile by UCLA professor Robin D.G. Kelley in Boston Review, Robinson borrowed a phrase originally used to describe apartheid South Africa in particular and appropriated it to describe capitalism in general. The idea of racial capitalism pops up in several of the Forge essays, most notably that of Adriana Rocha and Manisha Vaze. Rocha runs the Neighborhood Funders Group; Vaze is strategy and programming director for Funders for a Just Economy. They lay out their view pretty starkly:

There are many limitations in philanthropy’s ability to dismantle racial capitalism. Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes philanthropy as twice-stolen wealth. The rich accumulate their wealth through forced extraction of the labor, land, and culture of Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities and then shelter their profits from taxation through philanthropic institutions, which generally make charitable investments into institutions that are built to serve them. Philanthropic institutions have long been used to promote settler colonialism, white cultural norms, and white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, and Christian ideology. They create a false sense of scarcity and an overreliance on their donations, and, through their decisions about whom to fund, develop narratives about who belongs and deserves care. Meanwhile, the corporations whose profits undergird philanthropic institutions shirk responsibility for the welfare of their employees in low-wage industries, cheat our tax system, hamstring the government’s ability to regulate them, and barely contribute to local public budgets.

Most foundation boards are represented by wealthy people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Boards are tasked with making investment decisions without an understanding of community needs or any community input. Because most nonprofits rely on foundation dollars to carry out their work, the wealthy are also able to use their philanthropic endeavors to silence and squash radical resistance efforts, movements, and grassroots power.

If you’re on the right and you’re reading this, your reaction is, “Philanthropic foundations as inherently right-wing? They’re kidding, right?”

No, they’re not kidding, and as the past few years have shown you can’t laugh off radical leftist ideas, because leftists have more ability to popularize their fringe ideas than you do your mainstream ones. One of the most important things they do, as Rocha and Vaze’s contribution does in particular, is provide detailed steps of actions to take and lists of people who can help you. Rocha and Vaze don’t just talk about the importance of educating yourself; they helpfully tell you where to go to get indoctrinated and who can give you checklists of tasks that will help you make your philanthropic institute a machine for dismantling racial capitalism (which, as you’ll have noted, simply means “capitalism”). Their piece talks about communities you can join, from colleagues to study groups, and encourages funders to both better fund organizers (who would like better salaries and bourgeois stuff like retirement benefits) and facilitate their larger work, including travel to network with like-minded groups around the world. Rocha and Vasa advise, “If philanthropy does not take action to dismantle racial capitalism, it will remain complicit in maintaining the status quo and be unable to meet the growing needs of the most impacted communities.” You don’t want to be complicit, do you?

Again, and I can’t stress this enough: Do not get hung up on any of these people I’ve mentioned, now that you know their names. Leftism is not a top-down hierarchy with neat tick-boxes. Righties, particularly naive grassroots Righties, like to imagine One Big Bad Guy ruling over everything on the other team. There isn’t one, and that decentralized approach seems to be doing a little better than our Decisive Man model.

Maybe if we want to oppose the left and its philanthropic power, we should understand how they actually see themselves. And maybe—just maybe—the famous hero model of change isn’t the way that making lasting change actually works.

David Hines has a professional background in international human rights work with a focus on recovery from forced disappearances and mass homicide. He lives in Los Angeles.