Philanthropy Stifles Democracy

While many readers of this blog very likely read Diane Ravitch’s 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System all the way through, including the tenth chapter on “The Billionaire Boys’ Club,” I suspect most of us struggle to unlearn many of our beliefs about philanthropy.  We may work for organizations that ask us to write grant proposals to underwrite the projects our own organizations imagine would serve our communities or our particular constituents.  As supplicants we continue to believe that foundations are responsive to the needs identified independently by communities outside their own walls. We continue to imagine that if we define our agency’s needs clearly enough and describe our plans to address those needs, we’ll be able to secure funding that will enable our organization or agency to do good work.  The truth is that foundations increasingly fund projects they have identified and sometimes even projects they have themselves created to further their own predetermined goals.

There has been a tectonic shift in philanthropic giving, and, writes David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, “Look at nearly any sector of U.S. society, and you’ll find private funders wielding growing power.  Most dramatic has been the reshaping of public education by philanthropists like Gates and the Waltons, but the footprint of private money has also grown when it comes to healthcare, the environment, the economy, social policy, science, and the arts.  Whether you agree or disagree with the specific views pushed by private funders, you’ve got to be disturbed by the growing army of hands-on mega donors and foundations that seems to get more clever every year about converting all their money into societal influence. Love it or hate it, the Common Core is a great example: In effect, private funders are helping determine how tens of millions of kids will be educated for years to come.  And to think that we once saw public education as America’s most democratic institution! Inevitably, the upshot of all this is a weaker voice for ordinary folks over the direction of American life.”

Callahan directs us to Democracy and the Donor Class, published in the journal Democracy and written by Gara LaMarche, President of the Democracy Alliance, and an insider who has overseen giving by a number of progressive foundations.  He challenges: “I do wonder… about my progressive friends.  They believe in a strong government, in a fair tax system, in a robust social-welfare system, and in a vibrant democracy where all voices count equally.  Why are they not more concerned about the undemocratic and largely unaccountable nature of philanthropy? Why are we—since I too have failed for years to ask these big questions—hypersensitive to the dangers of big money in politics, and the way it perpetuates advantage and inequality, but blind, it seems, to the dangers of big philanthropy in the public sphere?”

LaMarche recounts the history of the Gates Foundation’s enormous influence to drive school districts all over the country to break up their high schools into “small schools” only to have Bill Gates, in his 2009 annual letter, acknowledge that, “Many of the small schools we invested in did not improve students’ achievement in any significant way.”  LaMarche admits his own bias: “You might suggest, after reading for the last few minutes, that I raise these issues because I am not a fan of the particular policies being espoused.  Indeed, in these cases, I’m not.  The dominant wave of education reform is much too top-down for me, generally heedless of the voices and perspectives of teachers, parents, and students and the communities in which they live.  But in fairness, I should say that the same big questions apply to large foundations interventions for policies I favor, like George Soros’s on drug-policy reform, or Atlantic Philanthropies’ on health care, to name two in which I had a personal role.”

LaMarche laments the decline in press coverage that might help citizens better understand the growing and, he believes, dangerous power of private philanthropy: “As it happens, the period of tremendous growth in the philanthropic sector—particularly the rise of a mega-foundation like Gates, which can by itself steer policy on education reform or global health—has coincided with a significant decline in the resources devoted to investigative journalism… As philanthropy’s power has grown, independent scrutiny of it has waned.”


2 thoughts on “Philanthropy Stifles Democracy

  1. Jan, as always you hit the mark. This is one of my personal issues. Give your money – tax free – and then decide the future. Power run amuk. Susie

  2. It’s a Catch-22. Do I stop giving to those organizations, like PBS, because the billionaires’ contributions are obviously influencing the program directions? But if I stop, then the organizations are even more beholding to their wealthy funders. What a dangerous juggernaut we’re all riding, and the Koch Brothers, the Board of Directors of the Walton Foundation, and others who are shaping philanthropy to meet their own goals are all back-slapping and snickering in the board rooms across America.

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