The horrific bloodbath at Sandy Hook Elementary School has triggered a response that feels fundamentally different from the dozens of mass shootings the nation has endured in recent decades.
The outrage shown on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere can no longer be dismissed or ignored by a political culture of conventional wisdom that says it is impossible to enact sensible regulations of guns and ammunition. In less than a week, more than 200,000 people have signed an online petition—by far the largest of its kind—on the White House Web site, demanding fast action to curtail access to guns.
Just about every aspect of American life has been represented in our collective grief: media, politics, entertainment, and sports have all found a way to call attention to the tragedy. But American philanthropy has been largely absent and strangely silent.
Coverage by the news media was massive and instantaneous. And so far it has not let up.
Within two days, President Obama arrived on the scene to convey the sorrow of a nation, coupled with a steely determination, after so many previous attacks, to take action this time.
And in that time, many National Football League teams had devised ways to memorialize the Newtown crisis, some stopping for a moment of silence and others emblazoning school initials—S.H.E.S.—on players’ helmets. Even Hollywood has begun to question its love affair with gunplay. But few foundations have made any notable calls for action.
That is in part because it’s holiday season, which starts earlier in philanthropy than in government or corporate America and typically lasts until New Year’s. But it’s also because foundations have no rapid-response mechanism, even in reaction to an event that has the potential to reshape American life and culture for generations to come.
Only a few foundations have taken on the issue of gun violence. The Joyce Foundation has long focused on supporting advocacy and education on the topic of gun violence and policy. More recently, the Eli and Edythe L. Broad and David Bohnett Foundations have also committed resources to the cause. And Michael Bloomberg, as mayor of New York and as a philanthropist, has led a major project—Mayors Against Illegal Guns—to challenge the gun industry and demand legislation to curb easy access to guns.
But it’s a relatively lonely field for grant makers.
Nonprofit advocacy organizations have taken a leading role in shaping the public debate, in some cases with the support of foundation grants.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, founded by Sarah and Jim Brady after he was gravely wounded in the assassination attempt on President Reagan, has long led the call for common-sense rules. And many academic centers focus on the health and social costs of gun violence.
Likewise, nonprofit media have had a significant impact by providing information and inspiration to change the way America thinks about gun violence.
For example, The Interrupters is a powerful documentary that depicts the courageous work of street activists working to calm the explosive force of violence in Chicago. Paid for by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur and Richard H. Driehaus foundations, The Interrupters shows the price we pay for urban violence, which is all too often carried out with guns.
Independent nonprofit media outlets have reported on gun violence and stuck with it even when mass shooting events are long over. Mother Jones recently developed a special reporting project to provide continuing attention and deeper data on mass shootings, including an interactive map showing where, when, and how shootings occurred over the past three decades. That reporting reveals a sharp rise in the death toll from mass killings in 2012.
Given all of the opportunities to engage in support of effective media and advocacy efforts to restrain gun violence, why aren’t more foundations involved? It’s probably a combination of fear and complacency.
The most obvious explanation is that foundations have a tendency to avoid controversy for fear of alienating board members who may not all share the same views.
Grant makers may also wish to avoid touching what they believe to be the political third rail—gun control. Foundations may be afraid of antagonizing a fierce and well-financed gun-rights lobby that has carried the air of invincibility for decades.
But foundation inaction on guns may be less a matter of being paralyzed by fear and more simply a matter of complacency, in believing that this problem will be taken on by someone else.
Psychologists know that people are more likely to act selflessly and heroically when they alone are faced with the stark obligation to help someone.
But when there’s a crowd, people are more likely to stand by and watch, assuming that someone else will respond. On a crowded subway, commuters will watch helplessly when someone falls to the tracks, each person believing that someone else will leap to the rescue.
In philanthropy, which is full of people who are sympathetic to the cause of stopping gun violence, many foundation staff members may assume that another grant maker will step forward.
Foundations are also increasingly committed to pursuing their grant-making strategies with greater focus. And they have become more disciplined in setting aside demands for support that fall outside their priorities.
But more foundations need to pay attention to the high cost of gun violence to our nation, because the impact falls on a broad array of issues that foundations do care about. Gun violence is a chronic public-health disaster.
Setting aside the death toll of 28 people in Newtown, on average 86 people are murdered or commit suicide with guns every day in America.
Gun violence is in part a mental-health problem: Many perpetrators of mass shootings have suffered from mental illness and every day more gun deaths result from suicide than from homicide. Gun violence also takes a huge social and economic toll on urban America, presenting challenges to economic and community development.
Foundations need to ask themselves whether they can achieve their missions without dealing with America’s crisis in gun violence.
Strategic discipline may be ill-considered in the face of a tragedy as great as Newtown, which presents an opportunity to use the heat of anger and depth of sorrow Americans feel to forge a new consensus on guns. That opportunity is fleeting, as grim defenders of the status quo have always been able to quash new regulations when public attention quickly subsides.
Foundations need to develop a capacity to respond more quickly and aggressively to the great challenges of our day.
Average citizens are now able to assemble immediately in massive numbers on social networks to demand action and to make financial contributions to secure those actions.
If foundations don’t create a mechanism to respond to major threats and opportunities in a more timely fashion, they run the risk of becoming irrelevant.
Vincent Stehle is executive director of Media Impact Funders, an organization of grant makers that was formerly called Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media.