American Vertigo: Philanthropy & Democracy in Uncertain Times


Mae Hong, from Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers (whom she calls the “poor cousins of the Rockefeller Foundation”) was in Australia for a second tour with Australian Executor Trustees (who brought her out last year).

She gave talks in Melbourne and Sydney on how philanthropy is adapting to the
new regime in the US – hence the title of her talk and this post – American Vertigo: Philanthropy & Democracy in Uncertain Times.

Mae feels that the biggest surprise of the US election was that so many people were so surprised, even though Lewis Lapham predicted that the US was moving towards populism and its simmering malcontent thirty years ago. The idea that since the end of the Cold War, greed and hedonism have taken such hold as to secure favourable tax benefits, policies and concessions for the wealthy few is still not widely held. Yet, in Mae’s view, the country has become a plutocracy where the poor have no power or influence, the government has been weakened fiscally and has no legitimacy, and the system works against the people.

There is chronic under-investment in the public good and inequality is the new global threat. (The eight richest people in the world have the same wealth as the bottom half
that is $3,600,000,000 people).

So where does that leave philanthropy and civil society? Mae says that civil society and the voluntary sector are now the new guardians of the public good while the very wealthy are exercising their own agendas. Big philanthropists like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation set their own policy priorities (but who voted them in?).

Mae sees philanthropy’s role as a counterbalance and talked about the democratisation of philanthropy and new ways to give (yes giving circles), crowdfunding and ordinary citizens exercising their voice. There has been a seismic shift in the relationship between money and power – and also an inverted meaning of public and private. Remember when public was inherently good – the public service & public hospitals? But in the 80s this was inverted and private became the new beautiful (private planes, private personal trainers, private schools).

So what does this mean for democracy? This talk took me back to the recent presentation by Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich on Philanthropy and Democratic Societies and last year’s presentation by the Reichstein Foundation on the Imperialism of Economics with Dr Edward Nik-Khah. There seems to be a bit of a theme developing. Is protest the new brunch?

Responses to changes in the political climate have invoked new terms like “rage giving” – where people voice to their disapproval by supporting causes which have been downgraded or derided by the government, such as Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) who raised $100s of millions of dollars after the US election – (think of the recent boost to Dress Like a Girl after the comments from Cory Bernardi). Foundations have redirected $700 million to respond to Trump’s policies creating rapid response funds and critical response funds. They want to be nimble, and some companies(Paypal and Apple Pay) are blocking funds to hate groups. No platforms are neutral anymore. “If you aren’t against something you are for it – and silence is consent”.

The military developed a term – VUCA – which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – and Mae says this is the new normal. Everything is connected – in unpredictable ways – the 2006 “Tortilla Riots” apparently sparked by corn being produced for ethanol rather than food following 3000 oil wells being taken out of commission by Hurricane Katrina (and making the price of corn in Mexico jump 400%), Walmart selling cashmere sweaters for $20 leading to more goat farming in China leading to sandstorms.

So we need to build better shock absorbers, better resilience and maintain who we are when conditions are radically changed. Mae suggests we replace VUCA with VUCA – vision, understanding, clarity and adaptation (resilient design).

Mae concluded with a quote from Maya Angelou’s essay The Sweetness of Charity, in which she says that charity “liberates the soul of the giver” and that with each gift, we strengthen the pillars of the world.

What do you think?  Does philanthropy need to be more accountable?  How can we best deal with the new disruptions in society and the economy?  I look forward to your thoughts.

About ozphilanthropy

#Philanthropy. #arts Posts by Sharon Nathani, PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne focussing on philanthropic funders of the arts. Sharon's study is supported through an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.
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