Does philanthropy take part (discretely) in politics?

Par Sylvain A. Lefèvre , Director of the Eastern Regional Center
04 March 2019


The relationship between charity and politics seems to be mutually exclusive when looking back at the history of philanthropy, especially the relationship between foundations and the State. As Olivier Zunz mentions in his history of foundations in the United States, there is a “surprising obsession, which covers the entire century up until now: that of legislators, public servants and philanthropists themselves in maintaining an impossible airtight barrier between philanthropy and politics [1]” (Zunz, 2012, p. 90). However, what do we mean here by politics? Conventionally, political science distinguishes three terms to discuss the topic. First, the term politics refers to what relates to the political arena: what is happening at the head of State, in parliament, elections, etc. Second, the term policy refers to the problem-solving products of public powers. Finally, the term polities designates how we organize ourselves collectively, our ways of settling conflicts, to question everyday life (man-woman relationships, energy supply, how to dress oneself, etc.), overall to “politicize” segments of our lives.

However, at first glance, it appears that philanthropy is something to be depoliticized. First of all, in many countries, namely the United States and Canada, a strict separation has been maintained between what pertains to philanthropy and what pertains to politics, as much by the courts, the State and even the taxation bureau. Subtle games to distinguish the two have progressively erected borders between the charitable sector (education, poverty alleviation, religion) and the political arena. These distinguishing games are not only minor semantic quarrels. They are the fruit of a compromise with the State to award charitable organizations space for autonomy while not stepping into the prerogatives of public powers (podcast of February 26th, 2019, PhiLab). By definition, foundations do not exist to produce public policies, but to be complementary, be it to cover emerging problems or forgotten communities.

However, these charity/politics distinctions are also a fiscal and financial issue. Defining the perimeter of foundations’ actions is also delineating what is and what is not covered by the tax privilege. In this framework, being qualified as “political”, traditionally, means losing the symbolic recognition and financial resources associated with the philanthropic affiliation. As David Grant-Poitras and Diane Alalouf-Hall aptly explain in their article, the current discussion around the questioning of the “political” perimeter of charitable organizations is likely to radically transform the rules of the game.

Philanthropy sometimes intervenes in the institutional political arena. However, when this happens, it takes on a consensual form, which seems to momentarily interrupt the usual political jousting among parties and ideological divides. Thus, laws related to philanthropic initiatives are some of the rare occasions where we are witness to unanimous votes within parliaments, symbols of national unity that transcend partisan divides. Another initiative that connects philanthropy and politics: initiatives of First Ladies who develop theme-oriented foundations with consensual and inclusive actions (PhiLab research project directed by Lynda Rey), or the pooled commitments of past presidents or Prime Ministers who join forces for a higher cause, despite their ideological or political differences.

Finally, what leads to placing philanthropy in opposition to the political realm is related to the strategic importance of fundraising and the mobilization of volunteers for the sector. Yet, many papers have analyzed the predominance of frameworks built around the concept of an “opposition-less cause” (Juhem, 2001). On the contrary, politicization, understood as being the marking of differences and harsh oppositions, does not seem to characterize professional fundraisers; they instead seek out consensual approaches (for example, focused on children), in order to enroll as much support as possible. The growing use of cause-related marketing since 1990 to raise funds, mobilize volunteers and build a frame for the cause is a good example of this process (Lefèvre, 2011; Nickel et Eikenberry, 2009).

Léa Pool’s excellent documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. (National Film Board of Canada, 2011), illustrates the sector’s strong depoliticization well. Today, the fight against breast cancer gives place to particularly impressive philanthropic mobilizations, both in the importance of media coverage and of private partners involved. During breast cancer awareness month, every October, we see bike races, walks, different contests, building illuminations and a plethora of products sold with the pink ribbon logo, an unavoidable symbol of the cause and trademark [2]. All of which are designated by the generic term “pink ribbon culture”. This latter showcases an advanced standardization, commodification and professionalization of the demonstrations. In parallel, the fight against the disease can be summarized in two messages: self-care (personal development, resilience) and the confidence in medical research for a cure. In every country in the world, it is often the First Ladies who launch Pink Ribbon campaigns, or female mayors of large cities, whatever their political orientations may be.

Is it possible to imagine a less political philanthropic mobilization? A more in-depth examination of the Pink Ribbon gives a more nuanced image. First of all, as demonstrated by Peter Elson and Sarah Hall (2016), foundations can influence public policy in many ways. Hence, the Pink Ribbon drives the implementation of public policies that favour detection. In 1993, President Clinton declares that the 3rd Friday of October is National Mammography Day (doctors, clinics and radiologists are encouraged to offer rebates on mammographies on this day) and extends Medicare coverage to mammographies. How does this relate to the political realm? In the case of the Pink Ribbon, Susan Komen, the figurehead of the foundation in her name, is a longtime supporter of Republicans, from Ronald Reagan to the Bush family. However, in 2012, it is the presumed political agenda of Komen’s founder and the foundation, which has become the largest private donor for breast cancer research in the United States, which leads to a scandal (Baralt et al., 2012). Komen announced the termination of her financing of Planned Parenthood, despite this representing over twenty centers that offer mammographies and other healthcare services for breast cancer. Officially, this decision is motivated by Komen’s wish to no longer support organizations under investigation by a local or federal authority. Yet, the organization is under an investigation by a pro-life Republican elected official. Behind this inquiry, we find the strong mobilization of pro-life movements against Planned-Parenthood, who also offer contraceptives and voluntary termination of pregnancy.

Furthermore, a Texan pro-life group “Texas Right for Life” developed a campaign called “The Pink Ribbon Scandal”, which included a petition to pressure Komen to cease her partnership with Planned Parenthood. It was in Texas that Komen organized the first race in 1983 and it is still where the largest race took place, hence a significant potential financial loss and media scandal. Finally, in 2011, a new VP is elected at Komen, Karen Handel. She is an ex-candidate for governor of the State of Georgia, supported by Sarah Palin and avid opponent of abortion. In the face of these elements, a strong media controversy took place, following Komen’s announcement. Following the public outcry, the foundation changed direction, maintaining their funding of Planned Parenthood and announcing the resignation of the VP. However, the damage was already done, the director of the grants program resigned in protest, partners signed declarations of opposition and an online petition was put into circulation for the resignation of N. Brinker and of the Board. The following year, there was a 20% decrease in sign-ups for Komen’s race. The media even brought up the concept of a “Pink Fatigue”, after the multiple attacks against the pink ribbon. Within the philanthropic mobilization arena against breast cancer, other voices began taking more place in the discussion.

This is due to the fact that the philanthropic space dedicated to breast cancer is not united. Maren Klawiter (2008) identified three “cultures of action”. The first, that of the Pink Ribbon, is the culture of early detection and mammographies. More mainstream, it works alongside both business and biomedical elites in order to raise funds for research and make women responsible so that they be active regarding detection. The second is the culture of patient empowerment and feminist medical activism. They attack the first culture on the primacy given to mammographies and keeps a wary eye on pinkwashing. Modelled around the activism against AIDS (Act-up), they bring up the fact of “living with cancer” instead of being a “survivor” and create a space for the suffering endured by the victims, which is ignored by biomedical treatment. Finally, the third is the culture around cancer prevention and environmental activism. It is a feminist and anti-business discourse, similar to environmental justice, which points to the environmental causes of cancer (pollution, endocrine disruptors).

The women involved in these two last movements, including associations and foundations, critique the partnerships between Komen and industrial partners that adorn their products with pink ribbons, but who make cancerogenic products. In their walks against breast cancer, some refuse the “she-ro” code, that of the elegant and resilient survivor, and walk without a wig or breast prosthesis, to give a full account of the suffering and stigma of the disease. Their “alternative marches” draw a new perimeter around breast cancer responsibility: they begin in front of Chevron, with a banner saying “Stop Cancer where it starts! Stop Corporate Pollution!”, and, the theme of the march “Make the Link”, brings them to connect different points, which are all links in the Cancer chain: polluting industries, conservative senators, public relations firms, and even the American Cancer Society headquarters!

As the Pink Ribbon example demonstrates, as do the current debates on charity laws in Canada, the frontier between politics and philanthropy is thin, shifting, and its delimitation is a power issue, as much symbolic as financial. It thus consists less in defining its nature, finding “what is” charity (or politics), but paying attention, as much as a researcher as an involved actor, on these frontier games. As, in any case, they concern us all!

Translation by Katherine Mac Donald



Baralt, Lori et Weitz, Tracy, « The Komen-Planned Parenthood Controversy : Bringing the Politics of Breast Cancer Advocacy to the Forefront », Women’s Health Issues, vol. 22 n°6, 2012, p. 509-512.


Elson, P. R. & Hall, S. (2016). System change agents: A profile of public policy-focused grantmaking foundations. Working Paper #9. Montréal: PhiLab.


Grant-Poitras, David et Diane Alalouf-Hall (2019). Activités politiques des OBE, en route vers une révision du système juridique de régulation. Montréal, PhiLab.


Juhem, Philippe, « La légitimation de la cause humanitaire : un discours sans adversaires », Mots, n° 65, 2001, p. 9-27.


Klawiter, Maren, The Biopolitics of Breast Cancer: Changing Cultures of Disease and Activism. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008.


Lefèvre, Sylvain, ONG & Cie: mobiliser les gens, mobiliser l’argent, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, coll. « Partage du savoir », 2011.


Nickel, Patricia et Eikenberry, Angela, « A Critique of the Discourse of Marketized Philanthropy », American Behavioral Scientist, vol.52, n°7, 2009, p. 974-989.


PhiLab, Politique & philanthropie par Jean-Marc Fontan, codirecteur du PhiLab [Podcast]. PhiLab Est, 26 février 2019, 17 minutes. Disponible sur :


Sulik, Gayle A., Pink Ribbon Blues. How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health, Oxford University Press, 2011.


Zunz, Olivier, La philanthropie en Amérique. Argent privé, affaires d’État, Paris, Fayard, 2012.

Notes de bas de page

[1] Our translation.

[2] Today, the Susan G Komen Foundation for the Cure is one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world: they mobilize 1.5 million participants in their “Races for the Cure” in over 100 cities in the United States (and over ten internationally), with over 100 000 volunteers involved, an income of several hundred millions of dollars each year, hundreds of partnerships with companies and an investment in research that surpasses a billion dollars (Sulik, 2011, p. 50).