Risk is back in philanthropy. As populist rage and technological omnipotence sweep the globe, seven American foundations have stepped up in a way that only private philanthropy can.
Early this week, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in partnership with the Alfred P. Sloan, Charles Koch, John S. and James L. Knight, and Laura and John Arnold foundations; the Democracy Fund; and Omidyar Network, announced the launch of a research initiative aimed at increasing public understanding of Facebook's role in elections and democracy. The funder consortium will pay for an "independent and diverse" committee of scholars that invites researchers to conduct research using proprietary Facebook data that "meets the company's new, heightened focus on user privacy." To ensure an added layer of objectivity, the venerable Social Science Research Council (founded in 1923) will oversee the selection of research proposals and the peer-review process.
Slowing the game down
This is a perfect of example of how private foundations can contribute to the public good. In a volatile, contentious, and partisan time where dialogue (or lack thereof) can be measured in bots, posts, tweets, links, and likes, these foundations are using their resources and independence to declare a collective "time out." Foundations are not political parties, business, or lobbyists. Guided by mission, values, and donor intent, they have the distance and time horizon to be able to take a careful, deliberate look at what is really going on when it comes to media, elections, and democracy. Social science research, with its strict procedures for requesting proposals and conducting peer review of research, is built for methodological rigor, not for speed. In basketball, they teach you that the best way to deal with a running offense is to slow the game down. These seven foundations are doing just that.
Strength in numbers
Were any one foundation to try to do this alone, it would most likely be criticized for some kind of political or partisan bias. But the seven that have banded together on this initiative are a pretty interesting cross-section of the field. Collectively, they hold over $20 billion in assets originating in fortunes derived from technology (Hewlett, Omidyar, and the Democracy Fund), journalism (Knight), energy/finance (Arnold), the automotive industry (Sloan), and oil and manufacturing (Koch). They represent family foundations, independent foundations, and living donor foundations. They all have solid track records of grantmaking focused on improving the functioning of American democracy. But they do that in different ways. See for yourself in the network map below. Click the link and you’ll go straight to an interactive page on the Foundation Funding for American Democracy site where you can explore each and every grant made by these foundations. All these foundations are proud of their work and, unlike Cambridge Analytica, have nothing to hide.
Man the Battle Stations
Risk is dangerous, which is precisely why it is relatively rare in our field. It is particularly dangerous in the current environment in which even a reasonably broad-based coalition of foundations could be labeled as "partisan," "politically-motivated," "globalist," "deep state," or anything else in the growing lexicon of epithets used to discredit purveyors of information. As venerable as it is, the Social Science Research Council might also come under attack for its very commitment to social science, which some see as being dominated by a "leftist" agenda. Earlier in my career, I worked as a "social science analyst" for a government-sponsored foundation and had to survive an ideologically-motivated attempt to re-classify our positions as "small-business specialist" because social science was presumed to be dangerous. To the extent it reveals truth that people do not want to hear, maybe it is. Nevertheless, SSRC will need to be careful that none of the research funded under the initiative is obviously influenced by the political concerns or bias of the researchers.
The Icarus effect
Working on such an innovative initiative with one of the most successful technology companies on the planet has got to be heady stuff for these foundations. However, in flying close to the sun, they need to be careful not to get their wings burned. Individually, these foundations are all recognized as leaders in our sector, and collectively they constitute an impressive coalition. But their combined resources pale in significance to Facebook's, with its $484 billion market cap and 2.2 billion monthly users. Eventually, this very asymmetry could lead to the charge that the foundations are being used by Facebook as part of a multi-faceted PR campaign to polish its image as it goes through the gauntlet of congressional scrutiny, press attacks, and the regulation likely to follow.
Different concepts of time
Facebook and its fellow tech giants live in a very different world than the one inhabited by foundations and social science researchers. Exposed by the minute to competition and disruption, they are constantly evolving — adding new features, adjusting algorithms, and trying to solve the mysteries of user behavior on their platforms. They voraciously acquire patents that often provide the only reliable clue to where they are headed in the future and lock them away under layers of intellectual property protection. There is a real risk that the research supported by this initiative will turn out to be largely historical, lending deep understanding to what happened, after the fact, at a particular moment in American political history. By the time the research is approved, carried out, peer-reviewed, and published — all of them essential steps in guaranteeing fairness and objectivity — Facebook and the tech world will have mutated several times over. In other words, the challenges that this research is intended to address will have long since been superseded by challenges we can't even imagine today. Perhaps the best of the research can transcend the temporal nature of technological change and explore the underlying issues of privacy, algorithmical bias, and the hacking of public opinion that are at stake here.
Undoubtedly, the seven foundations spearheading this effort thought of all of the above — and more — as they carefully weighed the pros and cons of taking on this important work. This is philanthropy at its best — exercising independence, applying flexible resources, collaborating across sectors, and striving to shed light on a crucial societal issue where, at the moment, there is only heat. Is it just a courageous one-off initiative by seven foundations? Or is it a sign that risk is back in philanthropy? Only time will tell.
Bradford K. Smith is president of Foundation Center.