by Joan Roelofs

Investigations of for-profit corporations are proceeding well, but not-for-profit corporations, although part of the same problem, are mostly neglected. And these not only include foundations, but also charities, causes, non-governmental organisations and think-tanks.

Not all not-for-profit corporations are shoring up the system, but many are. And you wouldn’t know unless you looked - even progressive activists are reluctant to do this (see The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, 2007). Even such an obvious subject of interest as the foundation and corporate funding of the World Social Forum has been almost entirely ignored, despite the fact that the Funders Network on Trade and Globalization, created primarily for the WSF, includes the Ford, Rockefeller, Mott, Tides and Levi Strauss foundations (RUPE-India, 2007).

Earlier in United States history, all corporations, even charitable ones, were viewed with suspicion as they assumed powers over which government had little control (Hall, Inventing the non-profit sector, 1992). Yet the non-profit sector, which not only helps sustain capitalism and imperialism but also fend off, often in creative and benevolent ways, any threats to the power and wealth of elites, is given little attention.

One sign of these other corporations’ power is their great success in buying silence, so that journalists, scholars and even activists rarely investigate.[1] And that also includes most of the ‘alternative media’, which are themselves largely funded by such foundations.

By power I mean the ability to influence the actions of others, be they groups, individuals, institutions or nations. Thus, foundation funding has gradually changed the mission and methods of radicals and dissenters, and doomed many of those holding fast to defunding and extinction. Foundations are the soft cops, working alongside governments’ repression and violence.

One source of foundation power that amplifies the persuasion of funding is organisation. Although there are outliers, the non–profit world is networked with peak organisations such as the Independent Sector, Council on Foundations, Philanthropy Roundtable, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and many others. The Environmental Grantmakers Association has among its members the major liberal foundations (Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur, Mott etc.); conservative funders (Pew, Smith Richardson, Packard, Hewlett etc.); and corporate foundations (Ben and Jerry’s and Patagonia, as well as BankAmerica, Heinz, Merck, Philip Morris and so on). Grantees and those hoping for grants read the newsletters, attend the conferences and participate in training provided by these entities, where an understanding of ‘appropriate goals and methods’ is conveyed.

Furthermore, foundations and their funded (and sometimes created) non-governmental organisations work with governments at all levels, as well as with for-profit corporations. Connections are tight, for example, between the Rockefeller and Gates foundations, pharmaceutical and agricultural chemical companies, health and food advocacy organisations and UN agencies. Similarly, many organisations work with the Lockheed Martin Corporation Foundation in supporting the NAACP, the Urban League and the Children’s Defense Fund. Thus, business corporations are not only the source of foundations’ original assets and current investment income (hedge funds are now popular) but also their primary values.

The US National Endowment for Democracy, which does overtly what the CIA once did covertly, partners with many foundations and citizen organisations in attempting to influence elections and political movements throughout the world, including the support of overthrow movements. NED also has a foreign network of cognate organisations, including the Canadian Rights and Democracy and the British Westminster Foundation for Democracy. At the local level, great influence is exerted by such organisations as the International City Managers Association and the National Municipal League, which are funded by foundations.

Here are a few examples of the influence these other corporations could exert, and these are just the chip of the tip of the iceberg.

- In Eastern Europe, following the 1975 East-West European Security agreement, known as the “Helsinki Accords”, foundations created Helsinki Watch (now Human Rights Watch), an international NGO for monitoring the agreements. The Rockefeller, Ford and Soros foundations were prominent supporters. In the 1980s, the Ford Foundation also funded the London-based East European Cultural Foundation to promote Western-style pluralism in Eastern Europe. The EECF stated that it was “created in response to requests from Central and Eastern Europe for effective assistance in maintaining cultural, intellectual and civic life in these countries and to prevent their isolation from each other and from the West.”

- Many Soros Open Society Institutes operated throughout Eastern Europe (and now all over the world) to transform university curricula, subsidise ‘civil society organisations’ and create political parties, while their economies were left to rot and provide distressed assets for Western capitalists.

- The US civil rights struggles of the 1960s prompted much ‘channelling’ activity by foundations. The Ford Foundation greatly expanded ‘public interest law’, by means of which the poor and minorities could achieve gains through litigation. Its objective was to change public policy by means of court decisions, as mass movements were potentially dangerous and current legislatures were not moving with the times. Ford also created the National Urban Coalition (NUC) to fund moderate civil rights groups and to transform the slogan “black power” into “black capitalism”. The NUC is significant because it included corporate foundations, which in the past had concentrated on community projects, business think-tanks and product-related charities. Now corporations became part of the liberal foundation network and were directly funding activists and citizen organisations. In 1968, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for NonViolent Social Change was established in Atlanta by corporations and foundations. The result was that its programmes and presentations deradicalised King’s message.


[1] Among the few critical works: Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy (2003); Robert Arnove (ed.) Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism (1980, just reprinted by Indiana University Press); the works of James Petras; and David Horowitz’s series in Ramparts (1969). Earlier studies include a Congressional investigation in 1915 by the Commission on Industrial Relations (also known as the Walsh Commission), which is now available online (Google Books); and Horace Coon, Money to Burn (1938), which focuses on military contractors embedded in peace organisations.

* Joan Roelofs is Professor Emerita at Keene State College, New Hampshire, USA.

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