Foundation Watch

The Marguerite Casey Foundation: Thoughts and Questions

Big Philanthropy’s Most Radical Foundation?

The Marguerite Casey Foundation: Big Philanthropy’s Most Radical Foundation? (full series)
“Social Justice Philanthropy” | A Focus on Group Identity
Left-Wing Grantmaking | Thoughts and Questions

Thoughts and Questions

The bottom line is that the Marguerite Casey Foundation is among the most radical and thoroughly politicized major grantmaking foundations in the United States—and that is saying something.

Even its contractors are completely enmeshed in politics. From 2021 to 2022 it paid $880,000 to a business called Dancing Hearts Consulting, which is run by career left-wing activist and Democratic Party campaign veteran Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett. It describes itself as a “political consulting firm” that works to “build real political power” and that partners with philanthropies that “want to change the political game” to “build short and long-term wins.” The firm boasts of how its work amplifies “the impact of the political response of front-line activists in the Trump Era—and the funders who support them.” Why would an ostensibly “charitable” 501(c)(3) private foundation require extensive consulting services from such a firm?

Certainly, Rojas has been open about her desire “to dismantle the norms of philanthropy” for the purpose of “transforming our society.” But the real question is this: Do the American people and their elected representatives wish to see those norms dismantled and their society transformed? Grantmakers should doubtless be given wide operational latitude, but the tax code incentivizes institutional philanthropy as a public policy choice. This means that ordinary Americans’ conceptions of philanthropic norms matter just as much—if not more—than those of a handful of left-wing foundation executives shepherding vast ancestral fortunes. It seems doubtful that Americans would consider the Marguerite Casey Foundation’s grantmaking to be “charitable” based on their own understanding of that word.

Indeed, what is truly gut-wrenching about much of what the Marguerite Casey Foundation funds is how wasteful it is. For all the leftist activist groups it bankrolls, all the divisive political fights it wades into, and all the millions it has lavished upon academia’s ivory tower radicals, how many genuinely worthy causes has it forgone? How many groups doing real concrete work to improve the lives of others could benefit from some of the tens of millions the foundation distributes every year? There is a real opportunity cost involved—one that is tragically common in the world of contemporary Big Philanthropy.

Even worse, the core ideology underlying so much of what the Marguerite Casey Foundation does—identifying and stoking divisions among the American people—is one that is actively harmful to society. For those who care deeply about the future of this country, there is grave danger in the identity-obsessed worldview that the foundation applies to virtually everything it does. What positive outcomes could possibly be realized through categorizing and dividing Americans by things like race or ethnicity? Is history not bursting with warnings against doing so? Even to take the foundation on its own terms, how is focusing on such superficial differences a prescription for bringing about a “fully realized democracy?” It is precisely the opposite of what any well-intentioned civic-minded donor would aim to do.

In 2021—a year after taking over as head of the Marguerite Casey Foundation—Rojas was asked what she believed philanthropy should look like in 45 years. She responded by hoping that the sector will have sufficiently honed its role in the “fight against white supremacy and economic inequality” to where it can anticipate “the types of actions that advocates will need to take in order to contest for power.” Such a “wholly transformed” approach to social justice philanthropy, according to Rojas, would result in a sector that “know[s] what it means to fund to win.” For a sector that is supposed to fund charities, none of this sounds even the least bit charitable.

The Marguerite Casey Foundation believes it knows best how American society should function and what our politicians should prioritize, and it has decided to devote its substantial 501(c)(3) philanthropic resources to bringing its particularly far-left vision for the country to fruition. The reality is that this is not what the American people want from their government or from their supposedly “charitable” philanthropic institutions. Confronting the latter of these two incongruences while maintaining respect for donor intent and the equally-important deference to grantmaking discretion is no simple task—it is one of the great challenges presented by contemporary philanthropy. It is easy to say that the Marguerite Casey Foundation uses charitable dollars to fund left-wing political agitation. It is much harder to say exactly what should be done about that.

Robert Stilson

Robert runs several of CRC’s specialized projects. Originally from Indiana, he has a B.A. from Hanover College and a J.D. from University of Richmond School of Law, where he graduated…
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