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For the past two years, under the shadow of COVID, it has become even more clear that neoliberalism isn’t working. To paraphrase Felicia Wong, president of the Roosevelt Institute, neoliberal policy hasn’t delivered on its basic promise that prosperous business would lead to a prosperous society for most, if not all, Americans.

Increasingly, activists and academics alike are questioning the dogma of free markets and free trade that held sway for the better part of the past 50 years. Challenges to neoliberalism multiplied in the wake of the 2008 recession, and continue to do so today. What’s less clear is what sort of economic systems, policies and norms should replace it.

That’s a question the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has taken on with a series of increasingly well-funded initiatives. It debuted its latest, the Economy and Society Initiative, in late 2020, following a $10 million exploratory effort called Beyond Neoliberalism.

As I explored in depth after Economy and Society launched, the initiative is very much in line with Hewlett’s typical brainy, meticulously considered approach to grantmaking. The goal is to foster an “intellectual paradigm” to succeed neoliberalism by backing “forward-thinking scholars, students and thought leaders who can break out of a patently failing neoliberal paradigm,” as Hewlett’s president Larry Kramer put it.

The foundation has characterized the work as intentionally transpartisan. It’s also well aware of—and taking some cues from—conservative philanthropy’s patient efforts decades ago to cultivate neoliberal ideas in academia and at think tanks, and to translate them into policy.

We got a big update on this work last month. Over $40 million in grants went out to five academic institutions to fund the “establishment of multidisciplinary academic centers dedicated to reimagining the relationships among markets, governments and people,” as the foundation put it.

The bulk of that money, $35 million, came from Hewlett, while the Omidyar Network joined in with $6.5 million for a single recipient, the Santa Fe Institute. Hewlett’s portion represents an expansion of Economy and Society to which it had originally allotted $50 million. Omidyar, meanwhile, is providing funding as part of its own campaign to “reimagine capitalism” (check out our latest take on Pierre Omidyar’s grantmaking here).

Later this year, the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations plan to join in with additional grants “at institutions in the Global South and around the world.”

A couple things stand out about this funding. The first is that unlike Ford and OSF, which are longtime bastions of progressive grantmaking, both Hewlett and Omidyar are relative newcomers to this kind of assertive economic justice work. They haven’t branded it as “progressive” or “anti-capitalist”—much the contrary—but the whole endeavor is closely aligned with the American left’s traditional critique of unbridled capitalism.

It’s striking seeing that sort of thing coming from two funders founded on Silicon Valley fortunes, grantmakers that often took a moderate or even libertarian approach to economic issues in the past. We’ve often observed how rare it is to see a billionaire like Pierre Omidyar support worker power or financial sector regulation—he’s one of the very few who do.

It’s notable how this funding aligns with surging progressive giving, while differing in important ways. Its unabashed focus on academic research stands in contrast to your typical economic justice funding, which favors on-the-ground movement work, close to impacted communities. Hewlett is one of the few big grantmakers backing this type of economic scholarship at any kind of scale.

I should note that many liberal funders do support policy work on the think tank circuit. But this is different. The focus is on research and ideas, not necessarily on advocating for specific policies. The same theme holds for Hewlett’s other Economy and Society funding, although that does include some general and project support for think tanks and policy shops.

There’s an argument that a rarified, academic approach risks straying too far from power-building to make much of an impact—that it’s another example of philanthropy pursuing lofty ideas, while trying keep its hands clean. With these grants, however, Hewlett is betting that what goes on in the ivory tower can impact policy and the body politic.

To Hewlett’s credit, it’s a bet that conservative and libertarian funders made and won in the latter decades of the 20th century. Kramer has written that “the funding of free market ideas in the 1950s to ’70s may constitute the single most successful example of effective philanthropy in history.”

Hewlett’s former Economy and Society head Jennifer Harris elaborated on that for our coverage in 2020: “[Those conservative funders] had a certain way of funding that feels instructive. It’s usually people that have ideas, not organizations… The piece that’s not intuitive for most of philanthropy today is backing individuals.”

Harris—who has since left Hewlett to join the Biden administration—is right to say this approach isn’t intuitive for most philanthropies. The question going forward is to what degree it can complement policy work, and movement work, as one part of a broader philanthropic effort to push past neoliberalism. Our sense is that this stuff does play a role, and should get some funding. But funders should also be wary of the fact that in the digital era, ideas gain public traction, or fail to do so, in very different ways than they did a generation ago.

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