Philanthropy

Foundations’ Role in Tackling America’s Problems

August 25, 2016  • Jane Wales

Key Points

  • Some problems cannot be left to markets or governments to solve.
  • The message of foundation leaders is straightforward: Americans value our capacity to collaborate and innovate in the face of complex challenges.
(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

Imagine a first meeting between the president-elect and leaders of some of the country’s largest foundations. The new chief executive faces a country divided and a backlog of pressing problems, which the administration will be unable to solve on its own. The incoming president has called the meeting to learn how foundations are working to tackle some of the most daunting challenges.

But the president-elect hopes for more.

S/he hopes that by modeling collaborative problem solving across sectors, disciplines, and even ideologies, philanthropies can help to restore citizen faith in our unique brand of self-government in which the public, private, and citizen sectors join in the management of problems we share.

While other democracies rely on government-funded institutes to provide policy-relevant research, the US has assigned that role to privately funded think tanks and universities.

At a time of political dysfunction, the president-elect knows that by seeking out and supporting innovators and knowledge-creators, and hewing to America’s core values, foundations can help to “get stuff done.”

The role of foundations is a catalytic one, pursued by supporting grantees that foster innovation, generate knowledge, invent and test novel solutions, and contribute to a robust civil society that can mediate society’s competing goals. It does so in the context of values it holds dear, of equity, community, and commitment to learning.

Spurring Innovation

In this imaginary meeting with the president-elect, Sue Desmond-Hellmann of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation might speak to the role foundations play in furthering science and its application. The foundation she leads taps the talents of the private, public, and citizen sectors to finance, develop, and distribute vaccines, drugs, and diagnostics to conquer the diseases of the poor. And it has set aside a $2 billion agricultural technology investment fund to enhance the productivity of smallholder farmers.

The Gates Foundation joins the Rockefeller Foundation in funding the creation of novel financing mechanisms for health and nutrition, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDs, TB and Malaria; GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations; and GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. These public-private partnerships have enjoyed bipartisan support from Congress and successive administrations, as have policy initiatives such as PEPFAR and Feed the Future. The opportunity for the new president to build on these achievements is large.

The question for the next president is whether to embrace the policy interventions on which early agreement can be found, or to put a stake in the ground and seize this issue as one on which to lead.

Generating Knowledge

While other democracies rely on government-funded institutes to provide policy-relevant research, the U.S. has assigned that role to privately funded think tanks and universities. These multidisciplinary teams explore issues ranging from cyber security to inequality, and offer policy prescriptions. Since the early 1990s, social scientists in both liberal and conservative think tanks have analyzed the impacts of technology-driven globalization. They predicted that it would create great wealth and lift many from poverty. But many also argued that, in the absence of smart policy, whole segments of our population would be left behind, creating searing inequities and political divides. All segments of our population would experience change. And in such times of tumult latent issues of race, immigration, and “the other” might come to the fore. While many agreed on the nature of the problem, they differed on the solution. In the absence of a consensus view, policies have often been driven by ideology rather than evidence and a sense of the whole.

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The question for the next president is whether to embrace the policy interventions on which early agreement can be found, or to put a stake in the ground and seize this issue as one on which to lead.

Long committed to advancing social, racial, and economic justice, the Ford Foundation under Darren Walker’s leadership would weigh in for the latter approach. It is among those philanthropies that have doubled down on the issue of inequality, seeking to unbundle, understand and reveal its roots — and to test practical solutions.

Practical Experimentation

Ford is not alone in this quest. Having revealed that one’s ZIP code is a key determinant of health outcomes, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has pursued a strategy for building a “culture of health” that reaches all. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has focused on the plight of children and youth, while the Kauffman Foundation has worked to educate and empower would-be entrepreneurs.

But among the most shocking aspects of inequality is unequal access to justice. In a stark example of “unconscious bias,” young men of color are more likely than their white contemporaries to be picked up, locked up, and prosecuted for suspected criminal offenses. Once released from prison, they can be denied housing, a job, credit, and the exercise of their right to vote.

Philanthropies across the political spectrum have joined Ford in taking up the cause of criminal justice reform, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation. The opportunity for bi-partisan support remains.

Many of those same foundations are seized by the growing gap between the earning capacity of those with access to a college education and those without. Carrie Walton Penner of the Walton Family Foundation is among them. In the meeting with the president-elect she might describe the foundation’s “big bet” on educational equity. It has invested $1 billion in K-12 education since its founding in the late 1980s, and has recently worked to help create and demonstrate the charter school model, with an eye to assuring that students are college-ready. By investing in charter schools in cities with large, low-income minority populations, the foundation seeks to bridge the educational divide.

Other foundations — like the Carnegie Corporation — focus on tertiary education, and seek to strengthen community colleges and prepare students for the jobs that await. As the president-elect considers ways to meet the jobs challenge, s/he will find that many corporations, foundations, and civic organizations share a sense of urgency and a willingness to help. Carnegie’s President Vartan Gregorian might remind the incoming president that Andrew Carnegie saw education as key to strengthening America’s bonds.

Expanding the Civic Space

Carnegie also understood that social cohesion requires robust civil society organizations able to build trust, solve problems, and provide the societal glue required for communities to cohere and thrive. Seeding and supporting nonprofit organizations and networks has been a core commitment of American philanthropy.

Modern-day Carnegies understand that some problems cannot be left to markets or governments to solve. There is a need for an independent view and voice. Civil rights and human rights organizations are among those that serve a watchdog role, protecting the most vulnerable from angry mobs, rapacious businesses, or overreaching governments — including the one the president-elect will soon lead.

The message of foundation leaders is straightforward: Americans value our capacity to collaborate and innovate in the face of complex challenges. And when we achieve breakthroughs together — whether in conquering a disease, solving the jobs challenge, or bridging the racial divide — faith in our system, and in one another, will rise.