Impact and power: politics in philanthropy
When Reynold Levy served as our first Stead Lecturer last fall he talked about the amount of “civic energy” that was focused on the nonprofit sector, energy that in a previous, less polarized political era would have attached itself to our public institutions. He saw leaders from all walks of life finding that they could make more of a difference and make things happen through civil society. The move to the third sector from the formal, public realm was following the now familiar search for “impact.”
In a divisive time, impact sounds quite unobjectionable. We can measure progress toward social impact, and the language can be quite dispassionate and technical as we move along with the business of addressing important social issues. Better to leave behind the mess and frustration of politics and focus on interventions that will make the most difference. But can we leave politics behind, or are the politics of philanthropy something we will have to manage, and manage with some skill and wisdom to avoid the polarization that has seized so many of our formal public institutions?
Consider two recent articles that reflect the politics of philanthropy at different levels: the internal politics with which we wrestle in our sector, and the societal politics that affect and are affected by philanthropy.
In the first instance, our former C. S. Mott Chair and CEO and President of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Emmett Carson, wrote an open letter to the Council on Foundations and Independent Sector encouraging them to consider a merger (The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Dec. 4, 2015). The polite no-thank-yous and lack of engagement on the topic from both institutions reflect the power of the territorial impulse among organizations and the depth of institutional inertia that characterize the way we organize our work in the nonprofit sector. A merger, not unlike the one Emmett Carson proposes, actually created Independent Sector so the notion is sound and certainly merits discussion.
Changes like the one Emmett proposes will require not only bold leadership but significant political rethinking of how the sector is organized, legally as well as operationally. Some of this we can see taking place through the emergence of benefit corporations, the impatience of younger generations with the boundaries between sectors, and the combination of for-profit with nonprofit vehicles in some newly established philanthropic endeavors like the Omidyar Network.
The second article points to the kind of politics we face as we approach broader social issues. Michael Massing's article in The New York Review of Books (Jan. 14, 2016), “How to Cover the One Percent,” focused on philanthropy as one way the “one percent” extend their disproportionate influence and power in society. He promoted the need for a new website that would in the great tradition of muckraking journalism systematically describe how “… much of today’s philanthropy is aimed at ‘intellectual capture’—at winning the public over to a particular ideology or viewpoint.”
His enthusiasm to uncover the power plays that pass for generosity lead him to overlook important resources, including our website, which would have shown him that there is ongoing, rigorous tracking of philanthropy: the research we do with the comprehensive annual report on national philanthropy, Giving USA in collaboration with Giving USA Foundation, our Philanthropy Panel Study, and our compilation of the Million Dollar List, for instance. In part because he overlooks well-established research on philanthropy conducted here and elsewhere (he cites only a few news outlets), all his examples depict the outsized influence of the very wealthy on public life in contemporary American society.
Despite its neglect of meaningful context the article raises a theme that is increasing in salience in the societal discussion of philanthropy. It shows us an important lens through which people will be seeing and discovering philanthropy, especially as the lifestyles of the “one percent” become a regular feature of our media landscape. Furthermore, the reality of increasing inequality in our society makes it all the more important to discuss the philanthropy from the very wealthy and their role in society. Massing depicts the Chan-Zuckerberg announcement not simply as a declaration of generous intent to improve the world, but as an effort to maintain control and accumulate influence, which reveals itself to be the ultimate motive behind the series of “philanthropic” acts he depicts.
This is a very different view of impact as one of self-interest. This view sees philanthropy joining its nominal mission to improve the world to the underlying desire for power and influence. Students of philanthropy will see echoes of controversies that accompanied the formalization of the Rockefeller and Carnegie philanthropies a century ago as they were formed from tremendous fortunes that themselves inspired heated controversy. It is a valid if limited perspective on philanthropy and influence, but one that is too easily overlooked when one assumes that “impact” is a straightforward goal that need not be questioned.
Whether it is politics about the process through which we do philanthropic work or the purpose of the giving we do, politics in philanthropy is unavoidable. The question is whether the politics of philanthropy will follow the model of our public national institutions or whether we will be able to channel our formidable civic energy toward a more constructive political dialogue.