Philanthropy can’t replace government

By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

It has been over two weeks since the government shutdown. Finally, there seems to be serious talk about ending the impasse.

But even as the possibility gains growing momentum, we know that the financial impact has been deep, particularly in our region. Financial recovery will take some time.

Throughout this situation I have struggled with what WRAG should be doing. How should we be working with our members to support the nonprofit sector, the sector that is helping those who are furloughed or affected by the furlough?

I thought that WRAG could encourage our members to offer emergency funding. That seemed so basic. Of course, they were already doing this, as well as expediting requests that were in the pipeline. I thought that we could encourage the pooling of funds to offer bridge loans. Members reminded me that few foundations are positioned to do rapid due diligence or enter into loan arrangements. They also suggested that hundreds of thousands of dollars could be needed for just one large nonprofit that was laying off 40-70 people. The local philanthropic community simply can’t meet such large scale need.

I know that many have applauded Laura and John Arnold of the Arnold Foundation in Houston. They came forward and gave $10 million to the National Head Start Association. What a difference they made with this one generous donation that enabled 7,000 children to continue in this program. Then I read a message from the National Head Start Association noting that even a gift of this magnitude wouldn’t be enough if the shutdown continued past the end of the month. They predicted that on November 1st, almost 90,000 children in 41 states could be without this evidence-based, early childhood program. Fortunately, we may not see that occur, but the point is that $10 million still wasn’t enough.

Even Bill Gates recently reminded the readers of Education Week blog, “To put the numbers in context, the state of California’s annual budget for K-12 education (roughly $68 billion) is more than 100 times larger than the annual budget of all of our foundation’s work in the United States.” This statement definitely puts the government-philanthropy financial reality into perspective. Even the Gates resources don’t compare with what is needed to provide services at a government level.

Philanthropy was intended to seed ideas, to catalyze innovation, to test boundaries for change. When any crisis occurs, we look to philanthropy to be a part of the response. This time is no different and philanthropy is responding. Philanthropy cannot, however, replace government, even in a stopgap manner. We have been encouraging our country’s leaders to resolve this intolerable situation and do what is in the best interest of the country. Finally, it seems like they are getting close to doing so.

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