No One Is Right in the Debate for and Against Philanthropic Pluralism
Alarmed by the faltering state of American democracy, the philanthropic world is divided between those focused on reducing polarization and those embracing adversarial advocacy. Unfortunately, neither approach will yield what’s needed: significant progress towards a more just American society rooted in strengthened democratic systems and norms.
One group, concerned about increasing polarization and the pressure to conform to ideologically pure camps, justifies bridging divides for the sake of civility and mutual respect
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Alarmed by the faltering state of American democracy, the philanthropic world is divided between those focused on reducing polarization and those embracing adversarial advocacy. Unfortunately, neither approach will yield what’s needed: significant progress toward a more just American society rooted in strengthened democratic systems and norms.
One group, concerned about increasing polarization and the pressure to conform to ideologically pure camps, justifies bridging divides for the sake of civility and mutual respect.
- Philanthropy Roundtable Objects to Characterization of Its Work in Recent Op-Ed
- We Still Have a Lot to Learn About What Pluralism Means in Philanthropy
- What Was the Philanthropic Pluralism Manifesto Really About?
- Op-ed on Philanthropic Pluralism Draws Praise and Calls to Aim Higher
- Debunking the Myth of Philanthropic Pluralism
This heightens the frustration of the second group: activists and donors who call for adversarial advocacy in the fight for social justice. For them, polarization is necessary to achieve greater inclusivity and equality, while depolarization smacks of “both sidesism” and risks sacrificing social justice on the altar of civility.
As the leader of an organization specializing in turning conflict into cooperation (Shamil) and a scholar on how to save faltering democracies (Rachel), we are deeply concerned with the track the United States is on and believe this debate, as currently framed, won’t meet the country’s needs.
The debate between civility and adversarial advocacy ignores the power of collaborative action to transform conflict, restore democracy, and promote peace. Such collaborative approaches yield a dual benefit: meaningful progress toward social justice and improved trust between otherwise opposing groups. Activists who facilitate collaborative action do not treat justice and peace as a tradeoff but integrate the principles of both in their activism.
We honor bridge builders for not viewing differences as existential fights between good and evil. And yet we are most supportive of those who use dialogue to turn adversaries into allies in the fight against political and social problems. Indeed, years of research and practice show that even when dialogue improves understanding or reduces stereotypes, it won’t result in actual change if those improved relationships aren’t paired with collaborative action. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue gets us nowhere.
Consider, for example, the passage of the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill that reduced sentencing laws and reformed the federal criminal-justice system. The legislation was signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018 during a time of deep and growing polarization in Congress and the nation. To make it happen, advocates facilitated months of dialogue between political adversaries, not just to improve their respect for one another but to also identify points for common ground and action. Sens. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, joined Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and the Koch brothers, among others, in supporting the bill.
We also honor social-justice advocates for amplifying the voices of those experiencing persistent injustice and insisting on change. At the same time, we know that in polarized societies, change only endures when championed by diverse coalitions, while adversarial advocacy yields victories that last just long enough for opponents to organize and generate backlash.
History shows the power of unlikely partners to create lasting change. One notable example is the especially unlikely collaboration between rock star Bono and the late far-right Senator Jesse Helms. Bono’s careful relationship building with Helms is considered an important factor in the 2003 launch of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or Pepfar, credited with saving the lives of more than 20 million people with HIV/AIDS.
As the philanthropic world continues to debate how or whether to bring ideologically diverse groups together, we urge activists and grant makers alike to take the following steps toward improving American democracy.
Hold yourselves accountable for advancing both justice and peace. For those funding and fighting for social justice, consider not only how your approach will advance a cause but how it will build trust across the divisions formed around that cause. This is not a request for civility but a challenge to build better systems that won’t be undone by the inevitable fallout triggered by adversarial approaches.
Even the best-intentioned interventions can cause devastating conflict. The humanitarian world learned this lesson following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when perpetrators used refugee camps to organize further violence. In response, the entire field updated its “do no harm” practices to include conflict sensitivity analyses, ensuring humanitarian action would not exacerbate conflict. Similarly, the development and democracy promotion fields must consider how their interventions may exacerbate or create conflicts that might erase other gains and further victimize vulnerable people.
For those funding or advancing pluralism programs, articulate how your efforts will not only improve relationships but also yield real progress toward remaking systems that perpetuate injustice and harm democracy. The fastest path to undercutting pluralism is to overpromise what dialogue alone, absent collaborative action, can achieve.
Assess program effectiveness through tools that measure justice and peace. Over the past three years, hundreds of activists, scholars, policymakers, and community members in the United States and other countries have contributed to the development of a Peace Impact Framework that lays out the vital signs for a healthy society. These include trust in people and governing institutions, citizens’ sense of agency, low levels of physical violence, and commitment to sustained peace.
These crucial variables measure both the health and resilience of a society — whether it is more likely to rally in the face of crises or decline into further polarization and violence. The framework is now being adopted by United Nations agencies, governments, and international and local peace-building organizations to inform decision making about how to allocate resources and would provide a helpful guidepost for grant makers.
Activists and philanthropists should assess their interventions based on the impact on these variables — supporting those that yield positive change and steering clear of those that fuel further deterioration in any of these areas.
Draw inspiration from historical advocates for justice and peace. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. either began from or eventually reached a realization that unjust systems trap and limit all of us. This is not to say that injustice oppresses all equally but that the most powerful and sustainable change comes from advocacy and activism that seeks a better, more dignified future for all and aligns its tactics accordingly.
Adversarial approaches lead people to see each other as the problem rather than bringing together unlikely allies with diverse constituencies to solve shared problems. Similarly, bridge-building efforts that convene the most willing participants for polite conversations fail to fix unjust systems. We know from history that there is a better way: strategies that use dialogue to spark collaborative actions that advance justice and peace together.
America does not have much time to get this right. Having spent our careers working in faltering democracies and countries facing widespread violence, we are deeply concerned about the nation’s trajectory.
But the situation is far from hopeless. The country’s many assets include a tradition of civic activism and generous philanthropic support for that activism. Debating which approaches will yield the best results is natural. But those debates will serve the nation best if we learn the lessons of the past and embrace the value of justice and pluralism equally.