Image Credit: Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

When the New York Times broke the story of an eye-popping $1.6 billion charitable gift to a new, right-wing nonprofit, it raised a host of issues about inequality and democracy, and how philanthropy is connected to both. Former Heritage Foundation head Leonard Leo was tapped to lead the new advocacy behemoth, the Marble Freedom Trust. Reporters Kenneth Vogel and Shane Goldmacher write:

This windfall will help cement Mr. Leo’s status as a kingmaker in conservative big money politics. It could also give conservatives an advantage in a type of difficult-to-trace spending that shapes elections and political fights.

Donations in the billions are rare, and this may be the largest single gift to an advocacy organization ever. Progressives and others are understandably left worrying about how this will change—or distort—the American political landscape.

The mega-organization this gift created also raises another, more practical worry. On the Left, we might reasonably ask whether giving on this scale will crowd us out of the political commons. How do we make progress on political agendas rooted in fairness, equality, and human rights when the Marble Freedom Trust has the power to dominate the airwaves, scoop up lobbyists, and stand in the way of progress on such a vast scale?

We have our own billionaires; can we build our own multibillion dollar institution as a counterweight?

The answer is twofold: we probably can’t—and we most definitely shouldn’t.

Ecosystems and Monocultures

The reason progressives should not mimic the Marble Freedom Trust model is that it is inimical, in the end, to the kind of social changes that progressives seek. We focus on persistent structural inequalities and injustices that advantage a few and disadvantage many. Creating a fair society involves a multiplicity of distinct, evolving, sometimes divergent goals, each accomplished through a variety of policy changes, awareness campaigns, and other means. There is no Grand Unified Theory of social change: some of these goals will complement one another, others will clash. Solutions that are not informed by those who are affected tend not to be solutions at all.

As a strategy for making change in a complex environment, the Marble approach is likely to fail. To see why, we need first to consider the correlation of size and influence in nonprofit advocacy spheres. Marble will no doubt enter the fray with big ideas for social and policy change. In a sense, what makes an idea a big idea is not truth but power: the power to outcompete alternate ideas, to take up oxygen, to be the voice that is heard over the din. A $1.6 billion organization is sure to crowd out competitors on the Right. The ideas that it pumps into the right-wing communications ecosystem will be backed by prestige and airwave dominance, and as the rallying cries heard loudest, they will attract other advocates to the cause. As they do, other ideas will slip into the shadows, even fall out of favor. The likely effect of an organization so mammoth will be to leave the Right intellectually poorer.

The Marble mega-gift reflects a broader trend, a way of thinking that exists throughout the philanthropic sphere. Social change advocacy groups—including the modern American Right, which is now more radical than conservative in the traditional sense—operate with “theories of change” that guide our actions. In the heyday of strategic philanthropy, funders and advocates sought the magic bullet, the strategy that promised to best effectuate the shifts we desired. The right theory of social change, rigorously tested, would point the way to solving social justice problems, if only we had the discipline and collective wisdom to follow the illuminated path.

While strategic philanthropists were demanding testing and assessment to show the impact of an organization’s theory of change, there was also talk of consolidation in the nonprofit sector, mergers of like-minded organizations to create economies of scale. Tacitly, this idea shares the assumption that social change requires only the right theory, or at least, that a more diverse landscape of theories of change is not preferable to a sparser one. Reducing the number of organizations in the fray reduces the number of theories of change, too.

But this level of faith in any theory of change, as I argue at greater length here, is hubris. Social change is complex and mysterious, caused by an array of often unpredictable factors, including the collective action of a wide range of advocacy groups with widely divergent motives. The theories of change that we bring to the project are fragile. They address complex social conditions but necessarily simplify them—social problems are subject to extensive empirical research, and often, there is no consensus about root causes. It is beyond the capacity of most nonprofits to review all the scholarly literature, resolve conflicts, and develop a plan for effectuating change that takes into account the many complexities that create the problems they seek to address.

Getting the diagnosis correct is hard, but acting on it is also fraught: social change is rarely achieved in the way that we expect. For any given issue, there are multiple perspectives, and advocates push for different outcomes from different political directions. No one group achieves meaningful change on its own, and the changes that occur rarely reflect exactly what advocates hope to achieve. Change, in practice, is every bit as complex as the problems that motivate it.

We are not just apt to be wrong when we devise these strategies—it is almost inevitable. Theories of change are useful for strategic planning, but as military planners say, a strategy never survives contact with the problem.

How is this relevant to the issue of mega-nonprofits in the advocacy space? If the effect of Marble Freedom Trust will be to crowd out other ideas—other theories of change—the result will be a greater reliance by the Right on a smaller number of strategies and goals; the fewer the theories in play, the greater likelihood of failure. Meanwhile, as these big ideas fail to deliver, there will be fewer conservative alternates to pivot to. And those conservatives who have invested heavily in losing strategies will be loath to let go—the scale of expenditure that is possible for a $1.6 billion operation will make the myth of sunk costs a powerful inertial force. At this point, course correction will be exceedingly difficult for the Right.

Such are the dangers of an intellectual monoculture.

What is at issue here is not really megadonors but megagifts, donations so large that they create outsized nonprofits that crowd out smaller organizations and the alternative strategies they might create. Progressive megadonors seem to understand this. Fundamentally committed to democracy and equality, most donors on the Left embrace an array of causes and give to a wide range of nonprofits. Mackenzie Scott has become the face of trust-based philanthropy, but she is far from alone. Progressive donors, in a phrase the Skoll Foundation popularized a decade ago, tend to support ecosystems, funding many different organizations and approaches working on the same problem.

It is an apt metaphor for a more promising approach: rather than risking a monoculture, we should cultivate an ecosystem. The way to cure the imperfections and injustices rampant in our society is not with one big idea, but many small ones. Any one theory of change is unlikely to offer the solution we need. But it provides a way forward for activists pursuing a particular social justice goal. Others will find different theories of change more compelling. This is healthy: many theories providing different routes to the same outcome are more likely to succeed where any one is likely to fail.

Here is where the larger point about theories of change can be made: the problem with a monoculture is not merely that your theory of change might be wrong—it’s that social change is not made by effectuating a correct theory. Change comes from a multiplicity of demands and advocacy by diverse activists and ordinary people. Theories of change help channel people into making those demands. What is important is less that the theories be true than that they be motivating. More theories motivate more people to enter the fray. In great enough numbers, people effectuate change.

Though it is sometimes taken as a sign of disunity, the intellectual diversity of the Left is its strength. Our fractious coalitions that share a passion for the cause and distrust one another’s strategies pump new ideas into our intellectual ecosystem, and as different groups follow divergent theories of change, we address social problems from many sides at once. The many demands activists make ensure that many people push in the same direction, knocking on doors and changing minds, laws, and institutions for the better. The result is multi-directional change that challenges entrenched power and tests alternatives, creates bigger coalitions at the intersections, and tailors solutions to the local needs and lived experiences of constituents and communities.

The way to counter the threat that Marble Freedom Trust presents to the Left is not to accept the arms race, pouring resources into mega-organizations to match theirs. We win, rather, by strengthening the many smaller organizations on our side. A thousand Davids is the best way to match their Goliath.

Philanthropy and Democracy in a Changed Landscape

We should not try to build our own mega-organizations to do battle with the Marble Freedom Trust (and its future ilk) because the likelihood of failure increases when the range of strategies in play shrinks. But there is a second reason: pursuing change by creating mega-organizations like Marble is fundamentally undemocratic.

In one sense, Marble is a reflection of the times. There is something troubling about what this one massive gift says about the nonprofit sector today. The landscape of philanthropy has changed over the last century, as inequality in the US has risen. In Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, Theda Skocpol details how middle-class American donors were a philanthropic powerhouse throughout most of the 20th century, contributing to civic organizations that looked out for the common good. But as NPQ authors have noted, giving by ordinary Americans is now on the decline, due in part to Trump-era changes in tax policy, but more broadly to wage stagnation and economic pressures on the American middle class.

Meanwhile, the 21st century emergence of the megadonor casts a long shadow on philanthropy today. Indeed, in a sign of the rising prominence of ultra-wealthy donors making huge gifts, Giving USA recently redefined what counts as a mega-gift: considered anything above $30 million in 2011, they raised it to $450 million in 2021.

Megadonors benefit from a tax system that favors their gifts over those of ordinary people, who under the 2018 tax law largely do not itemize charitable deductions anymore. And, as more and more nonprofits depend on fewer and fewer donors, the legitimacy of civil society is called into question: do nonprofits speak for the masses in a democratic society, or do they, like so many others, answer to an economic elite? As Chuck Collins and Helen Flannery note in Gilded Giving 2022: How Wealth Inequality Distorts Philanthropy and Imperils Democracy, “the nation’s charitable system is in danger of becoming a taxpayer-subsidized platform of private power for the ultra-wealthy.”

Similarly, when the gifts of a small number of very rich individuals dominate philanthropy, it is difficult to see how the field stays true to the goal of solving social problems, for many of these problems are exacerbated, if not caused, by rising income and wealth inequality. Books such as Anand Giridharadas’ Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World ask trenchant and urgent questions about the state of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector in this emerging Gilded Age.

This is not to say that many ultra-wealthy philanthropists do not support a robust and inclusive democracy or that they prefer monocultures to ecosystems. There has been excited talk of a new political donor on the scene, crypto-investor Sam Bankman-Fried, who is reportedly willing to commit up to one billion dollars in support of Democratic causes and candidates. His heart appears to be in the right place. As Politico’s Elena Schneider writes: “He’s more motivated by promoting new candidates in safe seats than the battleground combat that decides partisan control in Washington.… He’s guided by an arcane social philosophy that’s obsessed with doing the most good for humanity by tackling neglected problems, which led him to investing in certain types of endangered-species candidates.…”

There are some benefits to top-heavy philanthropy as it has developed. Large gifts have played an instrumental role in the growth and strengthening of the nonprofit sector in general, and the Left’s advocacy capacity along with it. And when the wealthy give with an ecosystems approach, they elevate the voices of the marginalized by supporting the many groups working on issues from community organizing to impact litigation, bringing these groups’ concerns into the national debate.

But in politics as in philanthropy, megadonors on the Left and Right have an outsized influence. It is not enough to promote a philanthropic ethos that has large donors spreading their largesse widely. To ensure a fair society, we must address the rapid decline in giving by the rest of us and the financial and policy factors behind it. The result will be good for the nonprofit sector and for democracy.

Marble, however, represents a more direct threat lurking in megagifts on the Right. We live in a time when American conservatives’ commitment to democracy is in decline, as evidenced by the warm welcome the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) recently gave to Hungarian Prime Minister and promoter of “illiberal democracy,” Viktor Orbán. Against this background, the Marble mega-donation is especially salient. Autocratic governance is the logical extreme of the Big Idea approach to social change. In this strange moment, the rise of American illiberalism and the Marble Freedom Trust may be two sides of the same coin.

The classic argument for democracy has always been that it generates more ideas, more innovations, and thus better outcomes than systems where change is instituted from the top. The argument for ecosystems philanthropy is the same. Progressive nonprofits and philanthropists stand on the right side of this divide. The answer to the threat posed by Marble Freedom Trust is to sow many seeds, supporting and strengthening as many progressive institutions as possible. This approach will not only outcompete Marble Freedom Trust—it is a model of how a pluralistic democracy ought to work.