Opinion
March 07, 2017

Is the Philanthropic Elite a Scourge of Democracy or Its Guarantor?

Americans Are Sick of Foundations and Other Elite Institutions That ‘Know Best’

By William Schambra

American philanthropy is thoroughly, fundamentally elitist. In the Trump era, it will be tempted to pursue political activity that will only make that fact painfully apparent to the American people, thereby endangering the very grounds of its legitimacy.

For more than a century now, the largest American foundations have staked out a right to play a substantial role in our national life. Given their financial autonomy, they are able to resist fickle and dangerous political and economic trends.

But more important, they have been instrumental in the rise of the meritocracy, helping to elevate intellectual elites to a pre-eminent place in our nation’s leadership. Armed with scientific and management expertise, foundations and their grantees claim to be uniquely equipped to solve major public problems once and for all by getting to their root causes.

Mere charity, reflecting the benighted views of everyday people unable to ascend to this larger, detached, objective perspective, only puts Band-Aids on those problems. The unmistakable message from philanthropy: Thanks for your suggestions, but our professionals know what’s best for you.

In recent decades, the pursuit of root-cause solutions has carried the largest American foundations deeply into politics. Isolated problems, it seems, cannot be solved without attacking their underlying sources in society’s fundamental structures.

This requires a continuous questioning of established social and cultural arrangements. As a result, foundations have staked out cutting-edge positions on issues like immigration, the environment, gender justice, and the global economy. Those positions have also been adopted, often with foundation support, by the progressive movement and the Democratic Party.

Leaving aside the question of the ultimate worthiness of such undertakings, one of the lessons of the 2016 presidential election is that the American people — at least as reflected in the Electoral College — do not fully share those priorities or are not prepared to move as fast or as far as philanthropy on them.

Given its elitist "we know best" outlook, philanthropy will be tempted to dismiss this as small-minded parochialism, and to throw itself instead into the fast-growing resistance movement against the new administration’s perceived illiberality.

In the past year, however, one institution after another — beginning with the conservative intellectual establishment and continuing through the Democratic party, Hollywood, and mainstream media — has similarly committed itself to high-minded ideals in the face of what they regarded as ignorance and prejudice, only to find their own, unselfconsciously elitist sensibilities painfully and publicly unveiled and their democratic credentials questioned.

If politically adept institutions have so readily fallen prey to this dynamic, then notoriously insulated and doctrinaire foundations are even less likely to understand or avoid it. In this populist moment, when people are sick and tired of being told to defer to their betters, philanthropy may be on the verge of making its deep-seated elitism vividly apparent, and bringing into question its claims to play a unique role in our democracy.

William Schambra is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute.


Philanthropy May Be Elite, but What Matters Is That It’s Pluralistic

By Amir Pasic

Elites are prevalent in all aspects of life, including philanthropy. The obvious fact that they exist matters a good deal less than that there be pluralism among elites, that they act responsibly, and that they respond to public needs.

Far more dangerous than elitism is the myth of a populist ruler who enjoys an unmediated relationship with the ruled. This is a recipe for tyranny that will make the arrogance of some foundations pale in comparison.

One way populist authoritarians consolidate their power is by constraining the space available for philanthropy and weakening civil-society institutions that mediate the voices and interests of the people. They promote the fiction of intimate rapport with the entire citizenry. And they represent a burgeoning global trend: Think of North Korea and, increasingly, of Russia, Turkey, and Hungary.

Philanthropy, by contrast, creates and sustains a multiplicity of institutions and supports communities that help channel creativity. By generating and preserving pluralism, philanthropy makes the meaningful exercise of liberty more possible, not less.

Elites may play a disproportionate role (as they did in the founding of our country). But there is no evidence that a monolithic power elite rules philanthropy. We seem to have a plurality of competing elites, allowing philanthropy to generate — and occasionally mediate among — many views.

As tax-advantaged funds are used to affect public policy, we see more critiques of ideological agendas at foundations, or charges that the wealthy use philanthropy to wield outsize influence in the public sphere. These are key issues to address, and we should hold those in positions of power to account. But the potential abuse of power is neither unique to philanthropy nor its most significant feature.

Philanthropy is not better at allocating resources than government or business. There are arguments to be made about when and how each sector serves us best. What is clear is that philanthropy supports alternative ways of understanding and engaging with issues, allowing us to think anew and participate with each other in ways that we choose and we create. Often, these novel associations enhance possibilities for business and government.

Just as important as the possibilities philanthropy creates are the possibilities it prevents. The more kinds of spaces we have for public engagement, the less likely is the emergence of a dominant orthodoxy that seeks to erase alternatives to itself. It’s these alternatives that allow us to learn and discover, in our closest communities and in fellowship with humanity — to express our differences, our heritages, and our basic dignity.

Philanthropy, including elite-led philanthropy, helps generate the pluralism that enables freedom and progress. Remember, there was a time when literacy was an expertise not available to many. Today, virtually everybody participates in that once-elite activity. Similarly, we should be challenging philanthropy to be open and to engender new elites with new leaders, thus preserving our openness to discovery.

Amir Pasic is the Eugene R. Tempel Dean of Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.