As she was nearing the end of her fourth five-year term heading up the World Affairs Councils, Jane Wales decided it was time to let someone else run the show — an effort that includes organizing the annual Global Philanthropy Forum, which she co-founded in 2001 and which has evolved into a platform where philanthropic practitioners can share their knowledge and learnings with social investors, donors, and funders in other sectors.
PND caught up with Wales, who continues to serve as vice president and executive director of the Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation at the Aspen Institute, during the recently concluded Global Philanthropy Forum conference and spoke with her about the challenges confronting liberal democracy in an era of rising populism, the alarming decline in public trust in institutions, and her hopes for the philanthropic sector going forward.
Philanthropy News Digest: You and your colleagues chose to organize this year's Global Philanthropy Forum conference around the theme "Reclaiming Democracy." Why?
Jane Wales: We're seeing a concerning trend of liberal democracies around the world shifting to illiberalism. These are places in which the vote remains sacrosanct — where citizens have the right to vote — but the protection of individual civil liberties is not. We see this is happening in the Philippines, in Turkey, in Poland and Hungary, South Africa, Venezuela, Brazil, and the United States. And you can't say it's all due to a cultural shift or particular event. Clearly, there are underlying trends affecting us all. The question then becomes: How do you push back on those trends? What is the role of philanthropy in building social capital and citizen agency? And what are the most important ingredients of a successful democracy? The theme of the conference is about identifying a big problem, but it’s a problem for which civil society has solutions.
PND: What are those solutions?
JW: The underlying trends being discussed here have to do with the confluence of the information revolution and globalization, as well as the major demographic changes we're seeing in many countries. Conference attendees are looking at each of these powerful trends and trying to figure out what are the upsides, what are the downsides, and how can we mitigate the danger they pose?
When it comes to the information revolution, we're looking at the role of digital media and social media in sowing division. When it comes to globalization, the upside is that it has lifted millions of people out of poverty and created great wealth — and a considerable amount of that wealth has been directed to the public good. But globalization has also created a situation in which the standard of living for the middle class in many countries is declining, and that has contributed to divisions — not just along political and economic lines, but also along educational lines, because the opportunities and outcomes for college graduates and high school graduates are significantly different. Inequity results.
In terms of demographic change, the most powerful concerns are mass migration in the face of deadly conflict or natural disasters on the one hand and normal immigration flows on the other. That begs the question not only of what needs to be done to prevent crises but also what is needed to forge a comprehensive immigration policy that the majority of Americans and other publics will support. We also need to think through what can and should be done to help newly arrived people integrate into the society that will be their new home. Nonprofits are already doing exceptional work in this area.
PND: Do you feel that the early champions of globalization — people like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair — could have, or should have, foreseen some of its negative consequences?
JW: The irony is that they both did, and they advanced programs and policies designed to address those consequences. But in the United States, at any rate, those efforts were always zeroed out of the budget as it made its way through Congress. The most painful thing is that so much of this was predictable — and predicted. And we did not do nearly enough to mobilize political support to address the downside of globalization while capturing the upside for all.
PND: When PND last interviewed you — ten years ago — we discussed the emergence of information technology and its consequences — and that was before Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms came to dominate so much of the discourse in this country, and even globally. Given the inexorable nature of technology and technology-driven disruption, do you think our institutions — public, private, multilateral — will ever reclaim the level of trust they experienced in the decades after the Second World War?
JW: There is no more worthy goal in my view than to rebuild that trust and build it on a firm basis — not through public relations, but through real action. Several years ago, there was a poll which found that the level of trust among millennials was at an all-time low — not only trust in institutions, but trust in each other. Because they ask similar questions year after year, Gallup and other pollsters can compare and contrast the attitudes of baby boomers and millennials. Boomers, of course, were known in their youth for not trusting anyone over the age of thirty; we were in a continuous state of outrage and protest, or so it seemed at the time. But as I recall, polls from the 1960s and '70s found far greater levels of trust among younger Americans than they do today. That matters because trust is the societal glue on which democracy depends. And democracy cannot withstand the precipitous erosion of trust. It's hard for societies to cohere when trust is in short supply; it's hard for liberal democracy to work in the face of such distrust. We've got a big job ahead of us.
One of the speakers this morning was David Brooks, of the New York Times and the PBS NewsHour, and he spoke about the importance of community builders, or as some people call them, "social entrepreneurs." In his words, they are the ones who are re-weaving the fabric, so to speak, of our society. There's a lot of truth to that: at the local level, we're a lot better at working together than members of Congress seem to be.
I just interviewed Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist, and I was struck by the fact that there are things he wants to accomplish, issues on which he is willing to partner with people who don’t otherwise share his political views. He joined forces with foundations across the political spectrum, including the Ford Foundation, on criminal justice reform, and together they succeeded in advancing that cause among the public and on Capitol Hill. Now he wants to work on immigration reform, which as you can imagine will require coming together across party and ideological lines. Ironically, one of the things standing in his way is the Tea Party, which the Koch network is credited with propelling into power.
You know, I think we all have a lot of soul searching to do. Are we, as citizens in a democracy, contributing to the polarization we see all around us? Are we doing anything to address or mitigate it? When does it make sense for us to stake out a firm position and stand our ground? And when does it make sense to compromise and cooperate? I don't know the answers, but those are questions we should be asking ourselves.
PND: After nearly twenty years, you've decided to step down from your role at the Global Philanthropy Forum and move to the Aspen Institute. What have you learned about global philanthropy and its ability to drive change in the two decades you've led GPF, and what advice would you give to your successor?
JW: My advice to my successor is to recognize that the way people learn is by doing. There are a lot of folks out there who want to learn while giving. So focus on creating opportunities for new philanthropists that enable them to be part of a community of peers from whom they can learn continuously, and with whom they can collaborate.
When we started, the focus of the GPF was about learning. Most of the people we were reaching out to were either fairly new to philanthropy or hadn't yet engaged in philanthropy. Most of them were entrepreneurs, and they were comfortable with the idea that they could effect change. But they didn't know whether philanthropy was a good vehicle for change making. I think if you show an entrepreneur something that works, and if you tell them they can pursue their philanthropic interests with others who share those interests, they're much more likely to engage and stay with it. And when they are confronted with something that flops, as inevitably they will be, they're much less likely to pull up stakes and say, "Gee, that didn't work. I want to take a pause."
There was a study done by Harder and Company with funding from the Hewlett Foundation that looked at the knowledge needs of program officers. The report had three primary findings. One, that program officers consume knowledge but they need to receive it in a curated form because there's just too much information pouring in. Second, the people they are most likely to consult and learn from are their peers and grantees. And the third was that the knowledge needs to be part of a larger engagement in order for it to stick and be acted on. I would posit the same could be said about individual philanthropists — they use curated knowledge, they trust their peers and grantees, and they put that knowledge to use as part of a larger, longer, and deeper engagement. Suppliers of knowledge to philanthropists need to think in terms of a broader engagement than just presenting data.
When we founded GPF, it was pretty close to the only game in town with that kind of particular focus on individual philanthropists and wealth creators. Now there are lots of philanthropy networks, and they're all thriving. How is that possible? Because the demand is so large.
We've seen some innovations in philanthropy recently that are designed to unlock the giving of ultra-high-net-worth individuals, the kinds of people who have joined the Giving Pledge. You see this in Blue Meridian, which is a fund that pools resources from multiple sources; in Co-Impact, which is a global collaborative that identifies and supports systems-change opportunities; and in Lever for Change, the follow-on to MacArthur's 100&Change initiative. All three were preceded by the ClimateWorks Foundation, which works globally to strengthen philanthropy's response to climate change. They all provide opportunities not only for foundations, but also for ultra-high-net-worth individuals who don't have a big staff to develop the strategy, source and vet grantees, and do evaluation. And what they allow those individuals to do is to buy expertise. The donors are deeply involved in the decision making, and they are learning while giving, and that's their greatest value.
Of course, there are efforts under way at a lower level of buy-in for individuals looking for smart strategies and an opportunity to pool their resources with like-minded philanthropists. They include the Global Fund for Children, the Global Fund for Women, the Global Greengrants Fund, and Give2Asia. It's a successful concept and interesting to watch.
So, yes, I'm stepping down from my role as CEO of the World Affairs Council and the GPF. I'll be going to the Aspen Institute, where I will pursue very similar work. But I'll stay a part of GPF, because I love it.
— Matt Sinclair