Greenlining Series: Targeting private foundations


This is the sixth part of a series produced by CalWatchdog and the Examiner regarding the Berkeley-based Greenlining Institute, a low-income housing advocacy group that critics say intimidates banks and helped cause the housing meltdown.

APRIL 21, 2010


When 10 of California’s largest private foundations announced their agreement in 2008 to put $30 million in new grant money into minority communities, Greenlining Institute executive director Orson Aguilar wasn’t all that impressed.

“That’s a start,” said Aguilar, who led a campaign for AB624, a bill in the state Legislature to force the Golden State’s private foundations with assets of $250 million or more to make public extensive data about the demographics of their officers, managers and grant recipients.

The bill was withdrawn when the foundations caved in to demands by Aguilar and other left-wing activists that they give more grants to organizations in minority communities.

Leaders of the foundations knew what would happen if they kept fighting the bill because for many years they had seen Aguilar’s Greenlining Institute in action against banks: He and his allies would put demonstrators on the foundations’ doors shouting charges of racism, demanding “change” and “justice,” and disrupting work in every way possible.

It had worked for years against the banks and now it was working again; only this time against California’s private foundations.

But more recently Aguilar has taken the tactics that worked so well in California on the road. He and other Greenlining leaders are now working with powerful allies in a growing national campaign to gain access to immense resources held by private foundations, many of them family philanthropies devoted to causes that were dear to their founders.

Once Aguilar and his allies get access to those billions of dollars in resources, they will be used to fund more campaigns for even more money, including tapping into government programs and tax-funded budgets.

Greenlining’s tactics are simple. The organization targets a state – so far they’ve gone after foundations in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey – and sends a letter to selected foundations “inviting” them to participate in a survey on the racial makeup of their officers and grant recipients.

The results are then used to duplicate the California AB624 campaign in which the targeted foundations cave voluntarily to Greenlining’s demands. The mere threat of such a campaign is often enough to panic foundation leaders in the targeted states to surrender without firing a shot.

Greenlining “has always had a presence in Washington,” according to the group’s web site, but a permanent Washington, D.C. office was opened last year to facilitate the national campaign and joint efforts with groups like the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

Last march, NCRP held a Washington, D.C. news conference to unveil its suggested criteria for judging private foundations: To satisfy the criteria, the foundations had to direct at least half of their funding to minority communities and another quarter to “advocacy, organizing and civic engagement to promote equity, opportunity and justice.”

The foundations also had to add minority representatives on their governing boards, and make their grants for “general operating support” for multiple year terms, thus avoiding accountability issues and assuring long-term revenues.

Just in case any of the targeted foundations thought about rejecting NCRP’s criteria, Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., was there, thanking NCRP and its allies for “giving us in Congress something to work with.” Becerra said a federal tax exemption represented “revenue foregone” by the government and he said Congress “has an obligation to make sure such tax dollars are well-invested.”

In other words, accept NRCP’s criteria or face the prospect of losing your federal tax exemption, which would seriously damage or kill most private foundations.

Aguilar and NCRP’s executive director, Aaron Dorfman shared speaking duties last November at a forum entitled “Racial-Ethnic Diversity and Foundations in New York City: The Lessons from the California Experience.”

The forum was hosted by the New York City Collaborative for Fairness and Equity in Philanthropy. It resulted from briefings of the collaborative’s leaders by Greenlining operatives on how the New Yorkers could duplicate Greenlining’s successes.

Among Aguilar’s remarks was this statement: “Now that the electorate is increasingly speaking for greater regulation and scrutiny, the responsibility for overseeing foundations can be transferred from community organizers to Congress itself.

It was the perfect hand-off to Dorfman.

So far, no federal legislation similar to AB624 has been advanced in Congress, but, as the New York forum illustrates, the campaign to duplicate Greenlining’s California success on a nationwide basis continues.

Mark Tapscott is editorial page editor of The Washington Examiner and proprietor of Tapscott’s Copy Desk blog on

Photo: Aguilar testifying in the California Legislature

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