How Big Philanthropy Undermines Democracy
|October 25, 2013||Posted by Staff under Editorials|
This 2013 excerpt is from Dissent, October 22, by Joanne Barkan
Progressive presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt claimed that “no amount of charity in spending such fortunes [as Rockefeller’s] can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.”
When a foundation project fails – when, say, high-yield seeds end up forcing farmers off the land – the subjects of the experiment suffer, as does the general public. Yet the do-gooders can simply move on to their next project.
Less than 10 percent of all charity in the United States addresses basic human needs. The wealthiest donors devote an even tinier portion of their giving to these needs. Most major donations go to universities and colleges, hospitals, and cultural institutions, often for highly visible building projects carrying the donor’s name.
Right now, big philanthropy in the United States is booming. Major sources of growth have been the wealth generated by high-tech industries and the expanding global market. In September 2013 there were sixty-seven private grant-making foundations with assets over $1 billion. The Rockefeller Foundation, once the wealthiest, now ranks fifteenth; the Carnegie Corporation ranks twentieth.
The business-style philanthropy is often called “venture philanthropy” or “philanthocapitalism.”
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.
The power relationship between grantor and grantee has always been one-sided in favor of the grantor. Sycophancy is built into the structure of philanthropy: grantees shape their work to please their benefactors; they are perpetual supplicants for future funding. As a result, foundation executives and trustees almost never receive critical feedback. They are treated like royalty, which breeds hubris—the occupational disorder of philanthro-barons. By taking over the roles of project originator and designer, by exercising top-down control over implementation, today’s mega-foundations increasingly stifle creativity and autonomy in other organizations.
Some mega-foundations even mobilize to defeat grassroots opposition to their projects. When they do, their vast resources can easily overwhelm local groups. This, too, weakens civil society.
Private grant-making foundations in the United States numbered 73,764 in 2011. Most are small. In the last fiscal year, only 1,293 of them (1.8 percent) had assets of $50 million or more. Small foundations don’t have the resources to mount massive social experiments, dominate the national debate on issues, or suffocate citizen activity. If its program fails, the foundation should repair any damage. Mega-foundations could operate in this way, and some do fund small-scale independent projects. But the size and culture of big philanthropy now militate against this.
One reform would require private foundations to “spend down” their endowments over a designated number of years. They would no longer exist in perpetuity. This idea has some promise of success: the living donors of several mega-foundations, including Bill and Melinda Gates, have already decided to spend down and are recruiting others to do the same.
The mainstream media are, for the most part, failing miserably in their watchdog duties. They give big philanthropy excessive deference and little scrutiny. Public television and radio live on big philanthropy’s largess. Collaborative programming with mega-foundations has undermined the credibility of major for-profit news organizations as well as public media.