Lightbulb: Is mega-philanthropy the demise of democracy?

A New York Times article on “Policy-Making Billionaires” takes a look at the way different “mega-philanthropists” have gone about changing domestic and international policy on various issues (health, education, etc).

Some of these philanthropists circumvent government, creating parallel systems in the hope of changing the options for people more directly (i.e. charter schools). Others have undertaken long-term advocacy campaigns to influence the direction of government programs. Still others have undertaken a hybrid approach — putting up multi-million dollar matching grant challenges for local governments to administer if they can pony up their share of the cash (i.e. Zuckerburg’s $100 million seed funding challenge for the Newark, NJ school system).

Most folks appreciate a well-meaning philanthropist with a genuine desire to give something back and improve society.

The tricky bit has to do with where the money goes, how it gets there and what it all means about the health of a participatory society.

Is mega-philanthropy
the ultimate expression of democracy,
or democracy’s demise?

On the one hand you could argue that it’s the ideal expression of capitalist democracy for citizens to take society into their own hands and do their darned best to make changes as they see fit with whatever resources they have at their disposal. If that means circumventing government, so be it and all the better (but thanks for the tax breaks Uncle Sam).

On the other hand you could make the case that privately run mega-foundations with small, hand-picked boards and no coherent means of public input are some of the least democratic institutions in our system. (For critical perspectives along these lines, see the work of Rob Reich at Stanford and Pablo Eisenberg at Georgetown.)

You might think, “So what? Why waste time fretting over such a small number of philanthropists (Gates, Soros, Koch brothers, Bloomberg, etc)?”  They may be small in number, but is that both the point and the problem? Are they having outsized influence on national policies via their foundations, without being checked by democratic processes?  After all, such foundations often have living donors and more cash on hand than plenty of city governments, or even national governments.  If a Buffett decides to give all his money to a Gates is that operational efficiency of scale or does it create a philanthropic monopoly for an elephantine organization dwarfing the rest of the sector? Is it “ideal” or “democratic” if one person or family with particular leanings or social engineering ideas decides to go whole hog at an issue with wide-reaching consequences for folks with little or no say in the matter? Was this less of an issue before mega-philanthropy when relatively evenly-scaled foundations with various viewpoints had to collaborate or compete to see large-scale social change? Is the burbling discomfort about megaphilanthropy simply caused by the changing faces and approaches of the new philanthropic “power crew”?

Though these questions may seem to reflect the polarizing class-based narratives getting plenty of political traction these days, such quandaries have plagued careful observers of philanthropic sector trends for some time now.

Open question: is democracy and the philanthropic marketplace flourishing or foundering because of philanthro-billionaires?

But I also wonder: does it undermine clear analysis to frame the debate in these dualistic terms? Is it useless elitist omphaloskepsis to even care about the whole darn topic?

If you have any answers, I’m all ears.
(Or navels.)

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One response to “Lightbulb: Is mega-philanthropy the demise of democracy?

  1. Great post. We need to take the relationship between philanthropy and democracy seriously. If you haven’t seen it, check out my op-ed in the Washington Post, The Hidden Costs of Million Dollar Donations. Let’s keep the conversation going!

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