Philanthropic Plutocrats Pushing the Levers and Pulling the Strings

Over the weekend, here and here,  this blog covered last week’s pieces by David Sirota, here and here, that exposed the $3.5 million grant the Public Broadcasting Service solicited from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to pay for a PBS series, The Pension Peril, that has been portraying the advocacy position of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation that opposes public pensions.  PBS agreed to return the grant and put the series on hiatus when the conflict of interest was exposed.

It used to be that nonprofits brought ideas to foundations when they submitted proposals for funding.  These days it is far more common for the foundation to set an agenda and then seek organizations who can be granted funds to implement the foundation’s priorities.   Joanne Barkan describes the shift in grant making: “The roles of grantor and grantee have… changed.  Once upon a time, the mega-foundations established a goal and sought experts to do independent research on how to achieve it.  Today many donors and program officers have preconceived notions about social problems and solutions.  They fund researchers who are likely to design studies that will support their ideas.  Instead of reviewing proposals from outside the foundation, they hire existing nonprofits or set up new ones to implement projects they’ve designed themselves.  The mode of operation is top-down; grantees serve their funders.  Mega-foundations also devote substantial resources to advocacy—selling their ideas to the media, to government at every level, and to the public.  They also directly fund journalism and media programming in their fields of interest.  All this marks a cultural transformation of big philanthropy.”

Over the weekend Connecticut blogger Jonathan Pelto explored another example connected to the Public Broadcasting Service and promotion of a foundation sponsor’s point of view in PBS programming.  Pelto points out that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted $20.2 million to the Teaching Channel during the past three years, with the foundation serving as its primary funder.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is also a well-known funder of development and promotion of the Common Core Standards.  According to Pelto, “The Teaching Channel is one of the most vocal proponents of the Common Core Standards,” which it has been promoting in hour-long segments on PBS, “Teaching Channel Presents.”  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has granted to PBS affiliate WNET  $370.091 as a sponsor of “Teaching Channel Presents.”

Here is how political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the new trend in philanthropy. His example, a little dated now from his 2007 book Consumed, relates directly to charitable giving in New Orleans after the 2005, Hurricane Katrina:  “First a privatizing ideology rationalizes restricting public goods and public assets of the kind that might allow the public as a whole to rescue from their distress their fellow citizens who are in jeopardy; then the same privatizing ideology celebrates the wealthy philanthropists made possible by the market’s inequalities who earnestly step in to spend some fragment of their market fortunes to do what the public can no longer do for itself. .. The private philanthropist does for others in the larger public what they have not been enabled to do for themselves, as a public; democracy on the other hand empowers the public to take care of itself.” (p. 131)

Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, agrees with Benjamin Barber:  “As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’  It’s what I would call ‘conscience laundering’—feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”

Examples from this past weekend illustrate that billionaire philanthropists have been spending not only on acts of charity but also on public policy projects, promoting their own “solutions” in many policy areas including public education.  But they do so without the accountability of democratic checks and balances.  They get to decide on their own whether their agenda will serve the public good.  While, of course, there is no absolute guarantee that democratic oversight of publicly owned institutions or democratically developed public policy will serve or protect the public good, at least as projects are undertaken on the part of the public, the pros and cons are publicly debated and public oversight ensures transparency.

In her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch defines the danger of the new philanthropy:  “…it is worth reflecting on the wisdom of allowing education policy to be directed, or one might say, captured by private foundations.  There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions.  These foundations, no matter how worthy and high-minded, are after all, not public agencies.  They are not subject to public oversight or review , as a public agency would be.  They have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state.  If voters don’t like the foundations’ reform agenda, they can’t vote them out of office.  The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one.  If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them.  They are bastions of unaccountable power.” (pp. 200-201)

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