Emanuel and the foundations: What price access?

In fundraising there’s an old saw that if you want someone’s money, you ask for his advice.  Leave it to the ever-innovative Rahm Emanuel to turn this observation into an ultimatum, telling people equipped with useful advice that it won’t be heard unless it comes wrapped in money.

That, in effect, is the meaning of Mayor-elect Emanuel’s request to a group of Chicago foundations that they pay the costs of his transition, costs  traditionally covered by leftover campaign funds, of which Emanuel has plenty.   In a city whose political culture has long consisted of being punished for disagreeing with or disobeying the mayor, the foundations faced an unattractive choice: call the mayor-elect on his inappropriate pick-pocketing and look forward to 40 years in the desert, or pay the man the $2 (or $2 million, as the case may be) in order to be heard.

The Nonprofiteer doesn’t blame the foundations for ponying up, though she wishes they hadn’t: their job is to influence public policy and make change, and the mayor’s office is an important route (sometimes the only route) to doing so.  But the Emanuel administration-in-waiting should never have asked for this sort of tribute.  Whether intended or not, the request makes it appear that access to city government is restricted to those who tithe.  There’s nothing new about that—the title “City That Works” has always ended in a silent “For Pay”—but Chicagoans might be excused for having hoped for something new post-Daley.

Many in the nonprofit sector are dismayed at having to compete with city government for the foundations’ largesse, and that’s a legitimate concern, though a belated one: the Daley administration never hesitated to ask private and foundation donors to subsidize city expenses with money that would otherwise have gone to independent community groups.  (Can you say “Millennium Park”?  “Olympic bid”?)  But the Nonprofiteer is more concerned about a new mayor’s implying, and establishing a precedent for the idea, that even being heard on the 5th floor requires big bucks.

Some wag once said that New York was about culture and Washington about power, but Chicago was all about money.  Plus ca change . . .

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7 Responses to “Emanuel and the foundations: What price access?”

  1. Emanuel and the foundations: What price access? | Philanthropy Says:

    […] Planning (and the tactical kind, too). You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  2. Lori Says:

    Kelly –

    Thanks for this disturbing little piece. I had not thought of it in these terms. Frustration all around. 😦

  3. Jill Baldwin Says:

    Hi Kelly. Thanks for this post. Without defending Emanuel’s request, we still must ask, where should he go to raise money for transition-related costs (which, according to the article I read are not simply about pageantry, but also for staff, admin needs and early policy formulation)? Would the corporate sector be more palatable, albeit even less neutral about its wants and needs from the new administration?

    I’m not sure what the answer is, since this is not a project that has grassroots appeal and Emanuel is a wealthy man. It is tempting to think he should foot the bill himself, but elected officials generally feel that public service is already a financial sacrifice. That mismatch in perception creates a money gap that the special interests are only too happy fill, thus perpetuating the system we deplore.

    In terms of logistics, the new Emanuel administration, and the groups that see opportunities after the long Daley regime, cannot wait until the swearing in to get to work. So there’s a time gap as well, and a case to be made for using the weeks between election and swearing in to convene, collaborate and get to work on a better Chicago.

    Foundations probably see that kind of time-limited, Big Thinking moment as right up their alley. If they do, I hope they use whatever influence they have to make sure that as many community stakeholders are at the table as possible.

    Best regards, Jill

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Jill, I don’t disagree that the transition is a substantive activity, and certainly we wouldn’t want the new mayor to have to go begging to the corporate sector for these essential funds. But let me reiterate that in most other cities and states and circumstances, this work is paid for from campaign funds, of which Emanuel has enough to be dropping thousands into aldermanic races.

      In the transition to the Presidency, the outgoing pres. allocates funds from the White House budget, that is, public funds, to the incoming pres. An elegant system, and one that avoids even the appearance of impropriety or influence-buying. But until it’s adopted at the local level, candidates with a surplus of campaign funds embarrass themselves and dis-serve the city by asking charitable foundations to pick up the transition tab.

  4. A ‘pay to play’ transition - Newstips by Curtis Black Says:

    […] The Nonprofiteer looks at foundation funding for Rahm Emanuel’s transition – costs traditionally covered by a candidate’s campaign fund. […]

  5. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Shocking news that didn’t reach me (out of town). Thanks for the intel and analysis, Nonprofiteer. I am not quite following Jill Baldwin’s semi-defense. What does “for staff, admin needs and early policy formulation” mean? The mayor’s staff should be on the City of Chicago payroll. Same with “admin needs,” although I am less certain of what they are. As for early policy formulation, if Rahm Emanuel didn’t have it then why did he run, and how did he get elected?

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      I agree (obviously) that this is inappropriate, but I take Jill’s point that the mayor-elect needs to prep in various ways to take office in May, and that til he takes office the people with whom he’s prepping aren’t on the city payroll. Your policy formulation point, by contrast, is completely unanswerable–of course he should know what he’s planning to do. He didn’t have any difficulty announcing that he’d fire the most successful crime-reducing police chief in memory, or consider charging nonprofits for water they’ve traditionally received for free, so obviously he’s got something in mind!

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