A Matter of Trust

Brad Smith hits it out of the park again with “The Brave New World of Good,” a very useful synthesis, reflection on, and pertinent critique of major trends in philanthropy and nonprofits such as open data, transparency, innovation, and markets. One phrase in particular stood out for me:

“Collection of data by government has a business model; it’s called tax dollars.”

It’s ironic that this timely piece came out during the latest government shutdown, because I would say that the business model is actually tax dollars and legitimacy – and the latter is in short supply these days.

Sadly, foundations have had a fair amount to do with the creation of the partisan echo chamber in which we find ourselves. It’s well-documented how a number of conservative private foundations funded the intellectual infrastructure of think tanks and policy experts that over time have moved the center of political discourse ever rightward. We’re at the point that a model of healthcare reform championed by the Heritage Foundation and implemented by a Republican governor is excoriated as a progressive overreach.

A further irony is that progressive funders are practically envious of the success that conservative foundations have had in shaping the policy discourse, not least because the tactics used are ones that progressive critics of foundation practices have championed for years: long-term, general-operating support of organizations explicitly working on policy and advocacy issues.

The success of one side has prompted a kind of intellectual arms race, with mirrored (but asymmetrical) infrastructures touting conservative and progressive ideas through relatively closed systems of think tanks, policy shops, and in the case of the conservative movement, talk radio and TV news.

Can funders instead support the emergence of a vibrant, active center that draws energy and attention away from the partisan battle consuming Washington and threatening the national and global economy? As Phil Buchanan helpfully points out, the National Purpose Initiative seeks to do just that. I applaud this effort and particularly its spirit.

One friendly suggestion: take a page from the success of progressive movements like LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights and embrace cultural-change strategies. Putting a human face on a cause, and making the “other” relatable on a personal level, is more important than ever. Our intellectual infrastructures – which again, I’m not pretending are anywhere near evenly matched – move us toward ever more bloodless forms of analysis and abstraction. And the filter bubbles in which most of us are enclosed, providing only information that shares views we already hold, reinforce this exclusion from each other. As Sally Kohn helpfully described at a recent TedNYC talk, “Absent unquestioned evidence to do otherwise, I would like to start to see a country where we all assume that we want what’s best for each other.” And this starts to happen through honest, authentic engagement with those who share views unlike our own.

This can happen usefully at a local level. An overwhelming number of foundations are local entities. Here is an opportunity to leverage the strengths of the sector in service of a less polarized political discourse. Remember that business model of collection of data by government: taxes and legitimacy. Where foundations can help build up the store of legitimacy of our political system by fostering an alternative civic culture, they should consider doing so.

How have you seen foundations play this role? What are models worth sharing?

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