Cross-posted at the Health & Environmental Funders Network blog, Giving InSight, on June 24, 2013

There is a question that’s been nagging at me for the last few years: will we ever be able to pass laws that truly protect humans from harmful chemicals when so many legislators depend on corporate contributions to run their election campaigns?

Chemical companies deploy enormous resources to counter scientific research about the potential consequences of living with multiple parts per million of so many toxic substances in products today. Industry money funds public relations firms to create “public interest” organizations with pseudo-grassroots constituencies to question the science. Chemical companies buy ads to convince us that there is a perfect spray to keep the world insect free, another one to kill bad smells, and others to make our environment clean at an attractive cost. The Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission solidified the chemical companies’ legislative advantage in the tug-of-war over the protection of the health of 300 million Americans.

It is remarkable that, despite industry investments to position chemicals favorably, the environmental health movement has aligned hundreds of groups representing many people who care about this issue into an extraordinarily powerful force. The groups influenced the late Senator Frank Lautenberg and other allies into making the issue a high priority in the Senate. But at every step of the way towards comprehensive chemicals policy reform, deeply funded industry lobbyists have been outspending advocates pressing for effective protection of health.

The environmental health movement believes in fairness. Large amounts of money from a handful of wealthy people or corporations should not be the key factor in deciding elections or protections from harmful chemicals. But at this moment, the cards are stacked in favor of those who can finance politicians and their campaigns. The cards in that deck affect not only environmental health, but also legislation to control gun violence and other policies that would provide reasonable protections to citizens from harm. For me, the time has come to address the forces that have created this situation: the influence of money in politics.

The Piper Fund, a donor collaborative with strong professional leadership, was created to ignite a movement against the influence of money in politics. In 2010 many excellent groups were working to improve government, but in light of Citizens United there was no unified voice to counter the influence of money in the political arena.

Piper’s grantmaking strategy focuses on four areas of leverage. First, build a broad and robust “money-in-politics” movement. Second, increase public communication about the issue. Third, build state infrastructures and win in the states. Fourth, work on judicial independence. At its outset Piper chose a cohort of NGOs, giving them planning grants to study and integrate “money-in-politics” into their DNA. The NGOs supported by Piper have neither curtailed nor changed their missions. Rather, they’ve gained new strength to connect the dots and to consistently remind the public that positive movement is blocked by big money politics. None of these strategies would be possible were it not for a growing number of funders committed to significantly diminishing the role and impact of money in our civic life. With increasing dollars, Piper has created new capacity to change the way citizens think about the issue and put different solutions up to scrutiny.

The opportunity to act on one of Piper’s core strategies presented itself this year, when momentum built around publicly financed campaigns as one way to sweep the undue influence of money out of New York politics. Though not well publicized, New York City’s elections are publicly financed, as are state-wide elections in Connecticut, Arizona, Maine and a few other pockets in the US. Despite solid backing from a majority of New Yorkers, a strange mixture of recalcitrant Republicans and self-serving Democrats blocked the legislation this legislative session. Many thousands of New Yorkers are already mobilized and committed to winning reform either later this year or in 2014. Polls tell us that the public is hungry for change.

A critical component of Piper’s strategy is to generate media attention to the problem of money in politics. Piper has taken the bold step to create and finance a Communications Collaborative Initiative (CCI), a group of media and data experts that helps to exponentially increase the communications capacity of its grantees. CCI mines a wealth of data across the media landscape, synthesizes it, and applies it to the communications needs of small and medium size NGOs that generally lack resources for sophisticated media activity. For example, CCI helps NGOs predict news spikes about relevant events, and instantly respond and influence public dialogue within hours of the event. The Collaborative measures and aggregates attitudes across the journalism landscape before and after their ‘interventions’ and helps NGOs learn from each interaction to hone their media relations skills. CCI keeps track of and synthesizes polling data, creates and tests messages, coordinates among groups, and helps grantees get the most traction out of reports and newsworthy happenings. The Collaborative is a powerful tool for the “money-in-politics” movement and a model for centralizing capacity building without compromising the autonomy of those who are enabled by it.

My investment in the Piper Fund has been a learning journey. In the most recent grantmaking meeting, Marc Caplan, the Program Officer of the Piper Fund, readily admitted that there are no magic bullets that alone can crack the vice around our government’s neck. But a set of reform ideas, when woven together, can make a major positive difference in how elections are run, how policies are decided and how our democracy performs. They are committed to moving ahead with the most promising ideas because the country needs our politicians to represent people who are affected by chemical overload, gun violence, etc. While I might not have an immediate answer to my original question, joining the Piper effort, with its significant foundation support, has given me some hope for a future which protects us from the thousands of toxic chemicals currently polluting the earth and its inhabitants.

Carolyn Fine Friedman is Chair of the Fine Fund, based in Newton, MA. Carolyn is a member of Rachel’s Network and serves on the boards of Coming Clean, the Northeast Wilderness Trust, the Institute for Health and the Global Environment.

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