It’s fascinating to watch the large foundations on the left struggle against the new wave of criticism coming from writers and groups even farther to the left. We recently took note, for instance, of Darren Walker’s effort to keep the Ford Foundation positioned at the forefront of progressivism, while fending off scrappy radical groups like Decolonize This Place. As if it weren’t bad enough to cope with scrappy conservative outfits like us!

Two dozen or so major, largely liberal foundations recently came together around a joint defense of their position in American society, entitled Social Compact in a Changing World. It was written by Melissa Berman, Renee Karibi-Whyte, and Olga Tarasov and published by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Berman, the organization’s chief executive, followed up with an op-ed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, entitled “As Distrust in Big Philanthropy Grows, Here’s How Leading Foundations are Demonstrating Their Value.”

Social Compact in a Changing World, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors

As Social Compact notes, “more people are questioning the power dynamic that enables wealthy private funders to impose their solutions to social and environmental problems without being required to involve the affected communities.” Particularly telling, the report argues, are the subtitles of Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All—“The Elite Charade of Changing the World”—and of Rob Reich’s Just Giving—“Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better.” 

As summarized in the Chronicle op-ed, this is how foundations should respond to these critiques: be clearer about the mission and operations of the foundation; communicate better; listen to the people the foundation is trying to help; show the public how its inputs are being used; regularly survey opinions about the foundation; assess effectiveness; and diversify governance and advisory boards.

Were Pablo Eisenberg still writing, he would point out—in his inimitably acerbic fashion—that there’s nothing here that wasn’t already powerfully recommended in the so-called Donee Report from 1975. (He had drafted that report, outlining nonprofit discontent with philanthropic elitism and arrogance, as part of the Filer Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs.) And he would be right. Foundations today are acting as if such recommendations, now fully 45 years old, are somehow new, insightful, and no doubt worth at least 15 minutes of discussion at the next board meeting.

Challenges for Nonprofits and Philanthropy: The Courage to Change—Three Decades of Reflections by Pablo Eilenberg, edited by Stacy Palmer, 2004

More to the point, nothing in the Social Compact’s list of recommendations gets anywhere close to addressing the fundamental challenge posed from the left to philanthropy today. Note carefully the verbs employed when describing how foundations are addressing challenges to their legitimacy. One foundation officer notes, “I also consider myself accountable to the people whose lives we are trying to help;” another foundation “sees itself as accountable to ‘society at large;’” many foundations are expanding the number of stakeholders “to whom they believe they should answer;” and so forth. 

As this merely aspirational language suggests, the appropriate response to today’s discontent is left entirely to the judgment of the foundations themselves. They may very well see or consider or believe they should be more transparent and accountable. Or they may not. It’s precisely the fact of this untrammeled discretion, outside of a skimpy framework of legal requirements, that generates discontent among progressive critics. 

This is a social contract in which one party pinky-swears to yield whatever power it feels like, under whatever conditions it wishes to accept, subject to revision whenever the mood strikes it. The other party is entitled to quiet resentment, relieved only by the occasional critic who dares speak up, albeit at the risk of immediately being denounced as mean-spirited and uncompassionate.

One useful outcome

One useful outcome from Social Compact, though, might be the unseating of “strategic philanthropy” as the primary technology for philanthropic grantmaking. “In recent decades,” the report observes, “foundations have been under pressure to move from simply writing checks to adopting more strategic approaches to tackle the root causes of problems. The shorthand for this has become ‘strategic grantmaking.’ To the extent it doesn’t include perspectives of communities being served, this approach is also being questioned.” Paul Brest, call your office.

Strategic philanthropy is indeed likely to overlook “perspectives of communities being served” because those communities typically can’t grasp the root causes of their own problems, according to the strategists. Those causes are by nature deeply buried, complex, and invisible to those suffering from them, requiring rather the penetrating insight of objective, detached social-science professionals to be uncovered. Local nonprofit petitioners for grants are typically concerned only with the superficial symptoms of the underlying problem. They ask for funding to build a center for at-risk youth, or to support a community garden, or to create a shelter for abused women. All of these are well-intentioned, but funding them is merely charity, “simply writing checks” to put band-aids on the problems.

Strategic philanthropy wants to seek the underlying dynamics generating these symptoms—say, structural racism or climate change or toxic masculinity—and do something about them instead. Insofar as foundations do “include perspectives of communities being served,” it’s just to defuse resistance and establish buy-in for the expert-designed and -managed programs that will soon be parachuted into their midst. It’s almost the very essence of strategic grantmaking—the cutting edge of American philanthropy—to regard democratic consent as nothing more than an unavoidable nuisance on the road to the delivery of professional services that will solve the problem, whether or not the community at the moment realizes that.

Curiously, the insulation of strategic philanthropy from democratic pressures is regarded by one of the critics cited in Social Compact—Reich, author of Just Giving—to be the characteristic of philanthropy that above all else justifies its existence in a democracy. Foundations don’t need to respond either to the marketplace or the democratic electorate, making them available for what Reich terms a “discovery” function. “Precisely because of their lack of ordinary democratic accountability and legal permission to exist for decades,” Reich writes in Just Giving, “foundations can fund experiments and innovation where the pay-off, if it comes, is over the long haul, benefitting future rather than present generations.” 

Others have pointed out that this seemingly novel argument is really just a restatement of the original argument for philanthropy’s superiority over mere charity, made by the Progressives well over a century ago. Far from solving the problem acknowledged by Social Compact—that foundations may overlook the perspectives of the community being served—Reich seizes upon that as their supreme virtue. If the flesh-and-blood human subjects of “experimentation” by foundation experts—after all, social-policy trials aren’t conducted among white mice in a sterile lab—kick up a fuss, well, thank heaven for that insulation from the foolish, short-term impulses of democracy. Foundation programs generating resistance today should be praised as courageously looking for the big pay-off tomorrow. 

One ideological camp   

This points to a final problem with Social Compact. While America’s large progressive foundations are busy fending off challenges from their own left, they seem to be peculiarly oblivious to challenges from their right. Almost all of the accommodations to public sentiment recommended in the report are designed to placate progressive critics. The op-ed, for instance, observes that “a growing number of foundations embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion as critical to fulfilling and building legitimacy and trust, particularly where philanthropic activities are seeking to transform the lives of marginalized and vulnerable people.” However desirable this may in fact be, it’s clearly designed to appeal to one ideological camp rather than the other.

But for critics on the right, there’s not much more than this one brief, dismissive acknowledgment: “Globally, the rise of populism, discontent, and illiberal tendencies have led to accusations that philanthropy is being used as a tool to further a political agenda or consolidate power.”

Although you wouldn’t know it from Social Compact, those of us accused of “illiberal tendencies” are actually fairly numerous. And we’re distributed geographically so as to still possess some political clout, as the enduring presence of populist foundation critic and Midwestern Sen. Chuck Grassley (R.–Iowa) reminds us. We illiberal types—let’s call us “deplorables”—know from experience that the social experimentation envisioned by Reich will focus particularly on ways to overcome or circumvent our manifestly benighted and retrograde political attitudes. Philanthropy’s “discovery” function might be more persuasive to us, were a conservative solution occasionally “discovered” to be superior to a progressive one. But don’t hold your breath.

Among deplorables, there is indeed a sense that philanthropy is being used to further a political agenda. It’s hardly a mere accusation, however. Every page of Social Compact in a Changing World attests that foundations are vigorously pursuing a political agenda; that it is distinctly progressive; and that the most-damning thing that can be said about it, apparently, is that it’s not progressive enough. To be sure, critiques from the left are likely to be far more visible, coming as they do from the neighboring, congenial worlds of high culture and the academy. But philanthropy would be well-advised to tend as well to the far less cleverly expressed, but more politically potent, discontent brewing on the other flank.

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