• simonejoyaux

    Ah yes. All the money people. All the cries for “run the NGO sector more like a business and everything would be fine.” What inappropriate words I could use!!! I think that all donors and fundraisers and NGO leaders should read Michael Edwards’ book SMALL CHANGE: WHY BUSINESS WON’T SAVE THE WORLD. And listen to Mike’s YouTube presentations. And read his articles in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

  • David Callahan, IP Editor

    This is an important article, which shows the growing sophistication with which wealthy donors are combining philanthropic and political giving to shape public life. It’s worth noting, though, that education reform is hardly the only area where this two-track strategy is being used. That same strategy has been key to marijuana reform efforts over the past two decades — spearheaded by funders like George Soros and the late Peter Lewis who made millions in both political and philanthropic donations to change laws. It’s also been key to LGBT equality efforts, where donors like Tim Gill and Jon Stryker have adroitly targeted political and philanthropic funds — most notably in New York State, where the two-track strategy helped achieve marriage equality. As well, this approach is central right now to advocacy on climate change (Tom Steyer) and gun control (Michael Bloomberg.)

    Joanne Barken is right that these tactics pose challenges to democracy as the wealthy increasingly choreograph public life — as the rest of us watch from the sidelines. It’s important, though, to realize that the actual policy outcomes cut in different ways.

    • sbb14

      It’s true that there have been some good results that have risen from this style of philanthropy. However, the question becomes, at what cost? Democracy, at its core, is about coming as close as possible to equalizing the level of power that each individual citizen possesses. The mega-philanthropist model directly contradicts democracy by enabling the wealthy class to have more power than any group of citizens should. If this trend continues, it will render the lower classes to the billionaires voiceless, and the average citizen will be powerless against their agenda. Overall, while the elite class may not have bad intentions, it is dangerous for democracy not to be weary of the moves they are making now, as they will only attempt to continuously consolidate power over time.

      • David Callahan, IP Editor

        I agree, and obviously this trend is happening in parallel with the growing infusion of money in our electoral system, which has increased since Citizens United. As well, we’re seeing fewer large companies have more dominance over key industries amid an era of corporate consolidations. That’s the troubling larger context of the new activist philanthropy. All that said, there’s no question that democratic pluralism also can produce problematic outcomes — namely, that well-organized interest groups can successfully defend policies that work against the interests of the broad public. As well, elected leaders tend to avoid risk-taking and long-term thinking. So there is a useful role that philanthropic elites can play in advancing the public interest.

  • Jorli

    A well written article with citations to back it up. Everyone should read this!

  • Melissa Westbrook

    I live in Washington state and write/moderate a public education blog. This is a great article and, looking at the numbers, shows the huge amount of power Gates has versus those of us who fight his “initiatives.”

    A couple of items to note:
    – there were two “No on 1240” campaigns against charter schools in 2012. My group started one because we wanted to show it was NOT just the teachers union that opposed this initiatives. Our group was made up of parents, teachers, and community members. The initiative passed with less than 2% difference in the vote.
    – Public disclosure documents show that the Gates-funded Washington State Charter Schools Association is so large and in-charge that they were trying to direct our state office of education on learning plans for charter school students. E-mails show discomfort on the part of state officials on these efforts.
    – As for the part about “one person in charge,” it appears our mayor, Ed Murray, is trying to steer efforts to take over the Seattle School district. He says he has a “moral obligation” because of the opportunity gap and seems blind to the fact that the district is already moving even more quickly in that direction. It’s a fight that that Murray will not win – Seattlites value public education and are very process-driven and it’s unlikely the Mayor could gain the upper-hand (even with Gates helping, albeit out of sight.)
    – the newest charter law, which our spineless governor allowed to pass into law without his signature, is likely to be found unconstitutional as well. Washington State’s constitution has some very specific passages about public education and one is the role of the state superintendent of public instruction who is to oversee “all public schools.” This law does not address that issue.

    As I like to say about Mr. Gates, he was not hired, appointed or elected to tell American parents what public education should look like especially since none of his children have ever set foot in a public school.

  • The author should really re-title this article to match the not-even veiled invective of charter schools. I actually worked for one of the pro-charter nonprofits mentioned in the article, and while I personally am neither pro- nor anti-charter school (I prefer to weigh the benefits individually instead of condemning the entire concept), it’s disingenuous of the author to suggest that Gates is making radical decisions about shaping education in America without consulting actual experts. So if you want to discuss the merits of charter schools, write an article about that and don’t try to disguise it as a broader article about philanthropy.

    The idea of an philanthropic oligarchy is by no means new; they used to be called patrons back when DaVinci was courting them. The Gates and Allen Foundations have also promoted many other important changes across the world that would otherwise never would have materialized, left to the quagmire of modern politics. That’s not to say I don’t think there should be restrictions on the amount of power they wield, but the reality is that most nonprofits struggle to find adequate funding for even basic operations. When does a fundraiser say “no thanks, that’s outside our mission scope” when a funder is offering to donate half of their fiscal operating budget?

    • Mel Westbrook

      Gates does consult “experts” but generally, ones who agree with him. There’s no good to listening if you live in an echo chamber.

  • JKoz

    The writer bemoans the chartable tax deduction saying that it allows big philanthropies to employ a “top-down modus operandi” upon education. But without the charitable deduction that money just goes into the federal coffers. Is there anything more top-down than the US Department of Education?
    As David Callahan noted in another comment, philanthropy often challenges the status quo; be it LGBT, education or criminal justice sentencing reform (btw: the Koch Brothers have been banging on about that one for 3+ decades). Charles Stewart Mott was pouring big money into progressive education reform long before Gates and others were even born…and yet Mott is hailed as a hero while Gates is lambasted as some kind of behind the curtain evil wizard

  • InSeattle

    I live in Seattle and this article very accurately portrays our unfortunate journey with charter school advocates and the glaring impact of big money on important issues like education.

  • Walter Pewen

    Very well written. It’s very disturbing to me how little Americans know about these topics, specifically what these people like Gates are up to. Nobody elected or chose him to remake our schools. What he is doing is reflective of a social immaturity in part–he has no training or unique knowledge related to education, it’s a case of “I’ve got this money and I WANT to make an imprint. On our kids, no less. He’s meddlesome and tyrannical. As a businessman frankly he was a sleaze, marketing means more to him over quality. It’s a sign of how sick civic life has become in the years since Reagan.

  • Colin Fabig

    Yeah, i’m not sure about applying democracy – a political concept – in organisations that need to achieve concrete outcomes. Government is in the business of supplying public goods to citizens and it should be meritocratic. Imagine if we had democracy in business, every time the business decided to do something people join into factions to support their own agenda – mostly that would be to maximise their salaries and thereby stunt the growth and opportunity of the business and service to the customer. Public goods would be supplied at the lowest cost-to-benefit ratio if we have the best people in that sector managing them and they were being very well rewarded for it. On top of that the most successful organisations have strong leaders with vision and we need to allow them to lead, not to be beholden to the less talented majority who in real terms are made up of factions with vested interests like unions. In the case of government, the customer is the citizen and the focus should be on the best public service provision – not the maintenance of the bureaucracy i.e. the unions, public servants etc. Billionaires generally are proven to be in the top 0.0001% of visionary managers, who have built and managed massive corporations and their input into the provision of public goods should be supported and encouraged and that is what the current American philanthropic system allows for. And for nothing more than kudos to the philanthropist. Don’t kill the goose…

    • apeman40

      If they were truly meritorious leaders, they might understand that autonomy is tied to motivation, and micromanagement kills motivation.

  • Glenn Tecker

    Plato and Aristotle had the same argument. Plato believed there was wisdom in the many and Aristotle believed wisdom was possessed by a few.

    Puritans and other sects believed simplicity was a reflection of subservience to God’s will and that a lifestyle less than simple was a rejection of the divinely intended order… Calvinists and other sects argued that material goods and money were a signal of God’s approval, so the wealthy must have a higher power endorsing their views. The USA’s founders believed that American representative democracy would work best if intellectual adversaries each made their case to an educated populace serving as judge. They never anticipated the involvement of under-educated masses in binding votes on policy, or the expenditure of big money to buy slick promotions to sway their opinion.

    The media battle has spawned its own industry, adding the financial self-interests of professional marketers and lobbyists to the battle as a third influential stakeholder group. Like the military industrial complex Eisenhower warned of in the 50’s, this industry has more interest in keeping the battle going than it has concern about its outcome. They on the other hand, argue they are playing a critical role in the debate based decision dynamic designed by the founders themselves.

    This suggests that the public debate itself is how the system was intended to work. The problem comes when the general populace is insufficiently educated to be able to distinguish fact from opinion, truth from fiction, or the rational from the irrational. When one portion of a diverse society is left undereducated it leaves them most vulnerable to disingenuous persuasion by the educated portion. When education is tied to income and income is tied to power, the under education of others becomes a strategy of the powerful to maintain their position.

    When the effects are disproportional gaps in the quality of life and diminishing hope for improvement, movements organize to reassert the rights of the many as equally important to the privileges of the few. By definition, the votes of the many exceed the votes of the few. Where decisions are made by a vote this matters which is why the few use their assets to influence the many. Consequently, the many may organize to counter the arguments of the few.

    Plato believed there was wisdom in the many and Aristotle believed wisdom was possessed by a few. Apparently an adaptation of Heraclitus wins the argument. Heraclitus believed “the only constant is change itself”. Somebody else later observed that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.

    It’s the dialogue that stays the same. In the United States, while there have been very notable exceptions, the continuing confrontation of dueling ideals is expected to be fought with words and votes rather than with weapons. That’s why the freedoms of speech, religion, and association in the first amendment of the Constitution are primary. They keep the dialogue going.

  • Pingback: Gates Foundation’s Mega Philanthropy Keeps on Colliding with Democracy | janresseger()