A Supreme Month

No matter where you find yourself along the political spectrum, I think we can all agree that June 2015 will be remembered as a pretty big month for the United States Supreme Court.  For a moment in history, we have become a nation of legal scholars consumed with deep-readings of majority and dissenting opinions written by the country’s most powerful judges.

Of course, I’m referring to Horne v. Department of Agriculture. In an 8-1 decision, the nation’s highest court ruled with (perhaps the most famous raisin farmers in the world) Marvin and Laura Horne who refused to hand over 47% of their 2002 raisin crop to the Raisin Reserve, a strange relic of the Truman Administration that forced raisin farmers to give a percentage of their crop annually to a government program (for little to no compensation) in an effort to control price and supply in the raisin market.

This may sound odd, but since 1937, the federal government has been controlling the price of raisins. Why? Legal scholars and economists point to a handful of explanations, mostly related to the Great Depression and the fact that WWII-era soldiers really, really loved raisins.

65 years later, however, raisin farmers were forced to live with a complicated bureaucracy that no longer served their needs or the raisin-loving consumers of America. In a bold move, Mr. and Mrs. Horne looked for and found a loop-hole in the law related to boxing and distribution of the raisins on their farm.  Being as determined to win as a grape facing the dehydrating power of the sun, they fought a $500,000 fine and numerous lower courts for 13 years.

Occasionally, similar relics can be found in philanthropy.  A charity set up to eradicate polio has to shift gears when polio is actually eradicated.  Similarly, communities have to be realistic about the most pressing challenges of today – not yesterday – in order to improve. Fighting poverty looks different in 2015 than it did in 1937.

Our goal at the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and the Finger Lakes is to manage successful grantmaking systems without creating cumbersome bureaucracies that ultimately limit the creativity and impact of the programs we fund.  Thanks to generous donors in the past setting up grantmaking funds with a lot of flexibility, we are never forced to say, “No more art this year; we’ve had enough.” Or, “Kids might be hungry in the summer, but we only provide free lunch during the school year.”

From time-to-time, we experience bumper crops in philanthropy, and we as a community get to enjoy the fruit. Now thanks to the Supreme Court, when raisin farmers have a great year, we can bake some extra oatmeal raisin cookies too.