Uniting Around a Shared Vision: Philanthropy and Citizens United

By Becky Rafter, Director of Stakeholder Engagement, Funding Exchange

As Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance always says: “We’re in a fight for the soul of our country.” Such an epic struggle calls for big ideas. And participants and speakers served up several during Philanthropy New York’s recent panel on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

The issue that resonated most with participants was voter suppression efforts, what Tova Wang of the The Century Foundation called “the flip side of money in politics.” Citizens United gives corporations a bigger vote than a person; meanwhile, millions of individual voters will have difficulty voting this year, including 6 million voters who have committed a felony. One participant demanded, “How did we get to this point?”

According to Tova, voter suppression laws, which are emerging in places like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, have been in the pipeline for years. These include restrictive voter ID laws, cutbacks on early voting and restrictions on community voter registration drives. Yale University’s Maxim Thorne reminded us that the far right, which germinates these laws as part of its long-term vision of restricting participation in our democracy, owes its gratitude to philanthropy—a field under-utilized by progressives and their allies.

A startling statistic from Free Speech for People’s John Bonifaz reinforced Tova’s argument. He pointed out that, despite overwhelming bipartisan support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, only 22% of people have ever even heard of this landmark decision. People aren’t engaged! Entire communities are being systematically shut out of participating in the political process. We must “pursue policies that increase voter participation and engagement” at the same time, Tova urged; “the Right is not separating these issues, so let’s not separate them either.”

The panelists each contribute to this larger struggle for democracy in three distinct ways. Tova suggests implementing and maximizing election laws and procedures, such as expanding Election Day Registration (recently successful in North Carolina) and Motor Voter bills, as well as enhancing voter protection.

John is working tirelessly to limit corporate political “speech.” Free Speech for People is part of a constellation of national groups working to pass a 28th amendment to the Constitution—otherwise known as the People’s Rights Amendment—which states, more or less, that corporations aren’t people, and that money isn’t “speech.”

Maxim argues that rather than limiting political “speech,” we’d be better served to increase “speech” for everyone. He argues that we must do more to advance racial and economic justice, and that we can use the tools provided in Citizens United to build power. In addition, Maxim holds that a necessary component towards accountability is to increase household (read: “the 99%”) ownership of corporations and philanthropy. Maxim also warned that progressives are beginning to fall into the trap of “group think.”

Rather than silencing corporations—and foundations—Maxim suggests that we change them. He cited a recent article in Harvard Business Review, which states that companies’ success in the long term may be closely related to having goals beyond shareholder value, including goals aimed at employee and customer value. The Funding Exchange Network pioneered a similar philosophy of directly involving community members in funding decisions and leadership.

Taking cues from those communities who best understand their terrain and struggles is key. In order to make change, Maxim implores progressives to “stop ignoring corporations” and instead start convening them.

One participant, who recently commissioned a study to explore the impact of Citizens United on American businesses, asked, “What is Citizens United costing the nation in terms of GDP and other factors? Are there ‘angels in the business community’ who could lead such reform efforts?”

However, the discussion wasn’t all angels and agreement. In one participant’s view, transforming U.S. companies would be arduous, if not impossible, in today’s political climate. Others felt similarly about the amendment campaign. Given that the Supreme Court of the United States has become so conservative, and since “everything ends up in SCOTUS anyway,” another participant wondered, “is it worth going after a constitutional amendment when there are so many other issues?”

John reminded us that even if a constitutional amendment is not passed, its value is in “its ability to change the dialogue in the country.” Both he and Maxim agreed on two counts: that grassroots organizing is vital for success; and that a crucial next step is to disseminate information about Citizens United to a broader audience. Somehow this issue has yet to attract people from diverse race and class identities, as well as education levels and immigrant history.

The role of philanthropy is crucial in addressing the trajectory of our democracy. A top priority is to respond to the crisis around voter rights while at the same time funding construction on a broad-based, long-term plan that brings into alignment the strategies laid out during the panel—but also makes room for new voices, leadership and non-traditional tactics.

Targeted outreach to community giving circles, donor networks and funder affinity groups, such as Interfaith Funders, the Black Philanthropic Network and Funders for LGBTQ Issues, could help to develop new partnerships, advance current goals and find new solutions. Moving forward together around a shared vision, across differences of demographics, sector, ideology, geography and organizational culture, makes way for robust debate and increased participation. Soul of the country? Indeed.

2 Responses to “Uniting Around a Shared Vision: Philanthropy and Citizens United”

  1. 1 Becky Rafter October 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    John, thank you for commenting and for including the additional information and framing. I agree that this moment is an opportunity to educate and organize around Citizens United. The Hart research finding that there is strong public support for a constitutional amendment is compelling. Corporate greed is a great motivator of the masses. However, given what I understand about the CU decision and the direction SCOTUS is headed, I am more concerned with why so many people – 78% — haven’t yet heard about it.

    I believe that it’s crucial for decision-makers to seek out, share, listen, and partner with members of communities that are disproportionately impacted by the Citizens United ruling, likely the same people who are finding barriers to voting and further political participation. Not just as recipients of education about a set strategy, but as participants in the strategy-making process.

    About the “speech” frame, in an objective sense, it appears that corporate representatives don’t feel their voices are being heard by or reflected in the policies of the government. And Citizens United allows their voices to be amplified to be sure. But those voices are not inherently invalid just because we don’t agree with what they’re saying.

    The rub for me is that many people don’t feel their voices are being heard – not just business leaders but also middle class folk, the working poor, and people with zero or negative net-worth. It seems people across the economic and political spectrum don’t feel heard. The corporations which amplify the voices of people who are struggling are also impacted by Citizens United.

    What I’d love to see is this: funders supporting Free Speech for People or some other entity in commissioning an additional study, one that could shed light on the question of “speech” in relation to power. A study that could utilize a democratized research methodology, such as participatory action research, where many voices can be heard and have a hand in creating the research questions as well as the solutions. This would help build new voices into the process and get to more community-based solutions and input. Research Center for Leadership In Action and the Data Center are two leaders in this field.

    Possible overarching research questions for this study could be: How does “speech” relate to institutions and to power? How does the Citizens United ruling and SCOTUS’s trending [Maxim argues that soon distinctions between 501c3, 501c4 and PACs will be eroded as well], impact nonprofit organizations, religious organizations, and foundations? How will SCOTUS’s shift impact the political power of all people? How can people and institutions with limited means express their “voices”? What else, besides money, can be translated as “speech”? How can bridges be built between leaders of powerful corporations and the working and middle classes?

    These are just a few of my initial thoughts in response to your comment.

  2. 2 John Bonifaz October 4, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    Thanks, Becky, for this posting on our discussion. A couple of clarifying points:

    1. While I did highlight that statistic of 22% hearing of the Citizens United decision, I did it in the context of emphasizing the opportunity we have to unite people around the common vision of government of, for, and by the people. As you know, another slide I showed from that public opinion research study we commissioned (conducted by Peter Hart and Hart Research Associates), demonstrates that once people were told of the ruling, voters overwhelmingly opposed it across the political spectrum and overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling and to make clear that corporations are not people with constitutional rights. The results of the study can be accessed here:


    And, as Supreme Court rulings go, it is worth noting that 22% is actually a fairly high number for public awareness of such decisions. But, yes, we have further work to do to seize this opportunity before us.

    2. Free Speech For People and our allies in this constitutional amendment movement are actually not working to limit any speech. That phrasing accepts the premise that corporations (artificial entities, creatures of the State) “speak,” a premise we do not accept. Rather, we are working to restore the First Amendment and the Constitution to the people. As I noted in my remarks, the Framers never viewed corporations as people with constitutional rights and, for the first 200 years of our nation’s history, there was no such thing as “corporate speech.” This is a fabricated doctrine, invented by corporate America, and advanced in the courts starting in the 1970s (over the strong dissent by Justice William Rehnquist and others). In his dissent in Citizens United, Justice John Paul Stevens called the 5 justice majority opinion a “radical departure from what has been settled First Amendment law.” We agree. For further information on our campaign for a constitutional amendment, see this FAQ doc from our site:


    I very much enjoyed the discussion and look forward to continuing it as the movement keeps growing across the country to reclaim our democracy.

    John Bonifaz
    Co-Founder and Executive Director
    Free Speech For People

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