Why Philanthropists Should Become Heretics

Article by Mark Malloch-Brown: “…There is a legitimate role for philanthropy in troubled times, but one that has to reflect them. No longer is it enough for established figures to use foundations and other philanthropies to prop up an existing order. The world of Hoffman or Bundy no longer exists, let alone that of Carnegie and Rockefeller. Today, the sector will find legitimacy only in its ability to help confront the manifold crises in ways others cannot.

In his 2018 book Just Giving, the political scientist Rob Reich brought a skeptical eye to the question of whether foundations have any valid purpose in liberal democracies but concluded that they can indeed be beneficial by fulfilling roles that only they can take on, through their distinctive constitutions. Reich identified two in particular: pluralism (foundations can challenge orthodoxies by pursuing idiosyncratic goals without clear electoral or market rationales) and discovery (foundations can serve as the “risk capital” for democratic societies, experimenting and investing for the long term). Precisely because entities in the philanthropic sector do not answer to voters or shareholders, they can be both radically urgent and radically patient: moving faster than other actors in response to a crisis or opportunity but also possessing far greater staying power, thus the ability to back projects whose success is judged in decades rather than months.

This approach demands that those who were once secular priests—the leaders of the philanthropic sector—abandon their cassocks and accept the mantle of the heretic. Only by challenging the system and agitating on its fringes can they realize their full potential in today’s crisis-bound world…(More)”