Social Justice Advocacy, Bridge-Building and Philanthropy: How Do These Intersect?

Hyperpolarization Graphic

Newsletter 126 - Thursday June 22, 2023



From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

In this newsletter and in a companion, upcoming newsletter, we are going to explore an ongoing debate within the philanthropic community over how best to strengthen democracy and help it live up to its ideals.  It is a discussion that parallels and, in many ways, contributes to the discussion that we have been having with respect to hyper-polarization. 

Perhaps the best place to start is by looking at a blog post that Daniel Stid published in April, 2023, entitled "Philanthropy and the Testing of Democracy in America." This was the first in a series of posts Stid said he was planning to write on the interplay between philanthropy and the health of democracy in America. This post brought forth an active discussion among some of our colleagues. It also throws light on the debate Guy and I had with Bernie Mayer and Jackie Font-Guzman early on in our hyper-polarization discussion, and led to a very insightful and important article by Shamil Idriss and Rachel Kleinfeld which was recently published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Before we discuss Shamil and Rachel's article (which we will do in a coming blog post), we want to set the stage by describing the Stid article to which Shamil and Rachel were referring. Before we do that, though, we first want to explain who Stid is, and describe a related article he wrote which addresses the issues raised in our hyper-polarization discussion even more directly.

Daniel Stid and the Hewlett Foundation's U.S. Democracy Grant Program

Stid was the founding director of the U.S. Democracy grant making program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation from 2013-2022.1  At the conclusion of his term, he wrote a reflection on what he and the Foundation had learned about challenges to democracy.

Before we discuss his article on Philanthropy, we want to summarize a few of the key ideas from his earlier reflection because they are, we think, particularly insightful. We especially liked a comment he made at the very beginning: 

The democratic system we want to change is more accurately described as a system of systems (and subsystems) on a national scale. These interconnect in ways no one fully understands, partly because the systems and subsystems are themselves dynamic. This, in turn, requires what has come to be known as an emergent strategy — meaning a strategy that is itself dynamic and meant to be reevaluated and adapted as the work proceeds.2

This corresponds entirely to our assertion that democratic systems are "complex dynamic systems" which need to be addressed with "complex dynamic responses," such as massively parallel peacebuilding.3

In his reflection, Stid explained how Hewlett developed an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the challenges to democracy that we face in the United States, and how they are similar to and different from the challenges to democracy being faced elsewhere. 

For example, Stid noted that they began their program began by focusing on polarization, which, they "presumed…was primarily driven by sharply drawn policy differences arising from greater ideological coherence among each party’s elites and divergence between the parties. Polarization was accelerating and, in turn, being exacerbated by breakdowns in our political institutions." They soon figured out, however, that

partisan antipathy among governing elites has clearly filtered down to and riled up broad swaths of the public. Much more than reasonable differences over policy, a deep-seated and visceral dislike of those in the opposing party drives our polarized politics. Increasingly, Americans have come to see those belonging to the other party as not simply wrong, but a threat to the republic and their way of life. And the U.S. is not the only democracy dealing with these corrosive patterns of “severe polarization.” Parallel problems have come to plague many of our sister democracies in Europe and elsewhere in the world.4

This is a pretty good description of where we started with our initial article on hyper-polarization which was published in the Conflict Resolution Quarterly in July of 2022.

This realization, Stid continued, caused them to become increasingly skeptical of "standalone technocratic reforms." They began to focus more on leadership (or lack thereof), the complex interplay between leaders and followers, and how these issues were playing out in democracies around the world. After the 2016 U.S. presidential election they broadened their focus once again. While their original goal was to "help create conditions in which Congress and its members can deliberate, negotiate, and compromise in ways that more Americans support," they expanded their focus to the 

need for self-restraint on the part of the party controlling political institutions at any point in time (grounded in recognition that it will not always be in the majority); the legitimacy of political opposition and acceptance of democratic opponents as members of equal standing in the same political community; a willingness to abide by election results and support the peaceful transfer of power in the wake of elections; holding free and fair elections and the right to vote as sacrosanct.5

In 2018 they added an investigation into the "dystopian social media environment that was accelerating polarization by spreading incendiary propaganda, fake news, and conspiracy theories." The 2020 election and aftermath brought about yet another area of focus:

Over the long run, we will continue to travel toward the North Star of alleviating polarization and enabling the American experiment in democracy to persist in the face of our myriad differences. In the short term, however, we have felt obliged to zero in and help shore up two essential but beleaguered preconditions for democracy in America.

The first precondition is free and fair elections in which all candidates, parties, and voters — including, especially, those on the losing side — trust in and agree to abide by the results. …The second precondition is governing institutions that make and carry out policies in ways that are responsive to citizens’ preferences and needs.6

They spelled out how they plan to pursue those preconditions in their trustworthy elections strategy and their national governing institutions strategy.

While Hewlett has more of a focus on the governing institutions and leaders than we do—we are more focused on the grassroots and what D.G. Mawn refers to as "grasstops" leaders—we very much agree that our problems are being created and manifested in interlocking complex dynamic systems and subsystems. The grassroots and grasstops influence and are influenced by the President and Congressional leadership and both of those influence and are influenced by social media and our system of biased news sources that tends to specialize in telling audiences what they want to hear (that they are right and the other side is wrong). We need to understand, as best we can, how each of these systems and subsystems operate, how they influence one another, and the myriad changes that need to be made in all institutions and at all levels in order to strengthen and improve democracy in the United States and abroad. The Hewlett Foundation, we believe, based on this article, is making a substantial contribution to that effort, although they are still (necessarily and understandably) only focused on part of the problem, particularly leadership, followership, voting, and more recently, policy making.  

Stid's article "Philanthropy and the Testing of Democracy in America"

Turning now to Stid's second article, he says that four considerations prompted his current efforts. One was his newfound freedom, given that he no longer was working at Hewlett. Second was that the polarization, declining trust, and political upheavals we are now witnessing are more serious than any seen in the U.S. since the Civil War, and they "are not going away anytime soon." Third, he expects renewed calls for funders to "get off the sidelines and do more to shore up U.S. democracy." Fourth, he says, populists on both the left and the right "have thrown a harsh spotlight on the elite influence it [philanthropy] embodies in a democratic society. 

Stid then sets out his "hypotheses" from which he is working now, saying

Philanthropists consistently overestimate their ability to improve democracy in America in the short term, within the political confines of an electoral cycle, Congress, or administration. Conversely, funders underestimate their ability to do so over longer time horizons in the fertile expanse of our civic culture. And they overlook the extent to which politicized philanthropy serves–inadvertently but nonetheless inexorably–to accelerate the hyper-partisan tribalism that is the source of so many of our problems.6

This reminded us of our debate with Bernie Mayer and Jackie Font-Guzman, as we asserted that their focus on "justice" over "neutral" process would serve, albeit inadvertently, to accelerate the hyper-partisan tribalism that is the source of so many of our problems. As our discussions have progressed, we would change some of our wording now to make clear that hyperpolarization is both a cause and effect of the weakening of democracy, and that there are many other causes and effects, lack of justice being among them. So we, too, have complexified our understanding of hyper-polarization, and we certainly agree with those who assert that just getting people to "be nice" or "talk nicely" or even "listen to" each other is not nearly enough. But it is an important element nevertheless, which, when absent, leads to increasing problems in multiple domains.

Stid goes on to argue that focusing on short term politics and policy at the expense of the long term has an "unacknowledged opportunity cost" — the lack of investment in ideas, leaders, organizations, and civic infrastructure that "is needed to sustain a pluralistic democracy. Philanthropy is uniquely positioned to underwrite these investments. If it does not, who will?"7

That call really resonated with us, because it is very similar to the basic assertion of our initial CRQ article on polarization in which we said that conflict resolution professionals were uniquely positioned to help America, and citizens of other countries, to resolve their conflicts in constructive ways.

Philanthropic Pluralism

During our earlier discussions about the Stid article (in private emails), Julia Roig called our attention to a related article published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy entitled "We Disagree on Many Things, but We Speak With One Voice in Support of Philanthropic Pluralism" and a counter article: Philanthropy’s equivalent of “All Lives Matter.”9 In the first article, six philanthropy CEOs and presidents, including Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, and Kathleen Enright, President and CEO of the Council of Foundations argued that 

Historically, the role of philanthropy in civil society has been premised on the notion that truly independent financial capital dedicated to the public good is critical to national progress. Philanthropy can focus on issues that sometimes fall off the public agenda. Philanthropy can take risks on ideas that may be overlooked. And philanthropy can support multiple — and even conflicting — ideas and solutions intended to respond to fraught, thorny, and sometimes controversial issues. 

Lately, though, American politics has denigrated the value of such pluralistic approaches.  … foundations and philanthropists are often expected to pledge allegiance to one or another narrow set of prescribed [political] views.9

They go on to argue that 

Philanthropy plays an essential role in shaping the marketplace of ideas. …During these turbulent times, diversity in philanthropic giving can help shape and inform discussions about the most important issues of the day. It is through this diversity that philanthropy can proffer, study, and test a multiplicity of ideas and approaches to confront society’s greatest challenges.

At a time when the nation’s commitment to pluralism is strained, the six of us are renewing our commitment to philanthropic pluralism and encouraging our peers to do the same by embracing a truly healthy independent philanthropic sector that:

  • Demonstrates a wide range of views and perspectives on the most important issues confronting democracy and society.
  • Benefits from the open and authentic contributions of its constituents.
  • Encourages consensus on common values, such as respect and open inquiry, as well as disagreement on contested issues of societal significance.10

The counter article, a blog post by Vu Le, however, asserted, as the title said, that this statement was the "philanthropic equivalent of “all lives matter.” 11 Not all philanthropy is good, he asserts, as some fund hate groups of various sorts, some work to ban abortion, and otherwise work toward goals of which he disapproves:

These donors and foundations cannot and should never be equally respected as donors and funders who are working to advance trans people’s rights and humanity, protect voting rights and access, fight white supremacy, and restore the rights to abortions.

To insist that all philanthropic values, missions, and activities are equally valid is at best naïve and at worst harmful to people and communities. 12

Le goes on to voice criticisms of the philanthropic community that are very similar to those that the philanthropic pluralism article recognized and tried to address. He argues, for example, that "Philanthropy’s roots are stained with inequity and injustice." … "It is a history of wealthy people refusing to pay their fair [share] of taxes and instead squirreling that money away into family foundations (and now also Donor-Advised Funds) to spend on their pet projects at their whims and leisure." … "Philanthropy has always been the realm of wealthy white people."9

In addressing the authors of the Chronicle article he goes on to say that: 

Your complete lack of acknowledgment of racial dynamics, white privilege and white supremacy, the problematic history of wealthy disparity that led to the growth of philanthropy, and philanthropy’s negative impact on a functioning democracy is a serious oversight in your statement.10

And he concludes by saying:

In an article rife with disappointing statements, this concluding sentence is no exception. The “unprecedented stress on our institutions” has often been directly caused by donors and foundations who use their accumulated wealth to undermine these institutions. They have been unaccountable to anyone as they wreak havoc, and we nonprofits have been struggling for decades to contain the damage. To be told to not question philanthropy, no matter what horrible things it does, no matter whom it hurts, to let it remain “unfettered,” is disheartening. . . .

I hope the leaders who wrote this piece will take some time to hear the critiques, reflect, and do better. We do not need philanthropy to be “alive, vital, and relevant.” We want the world to be just, and philanthropy to be unnecessary.11

Yes, we agree, it would be nice if everyone had exactly what they wanted and needed, that no one got more than they deserved, that our institutions worked perfectly, that we all were able to live happily together without disagreements. In such a utopian world, perhaps philanthropy would be unnecessary.  But until then, philanthropy, like conflict resolution, can make an important and, perhaps, critical contribution to efforts to build a democracy that truly lives up to its ideals.

But "strengthening democracy" does not mean upholding just one side's political values.  It means creating an atmosphere in which a diversity of ideas and values are considered and balanced and a way forward is chosen that best meets the needs and interests of the society as a whole, while working to protect and help those who are still being left behind. Democracy must work to create a society in which all its citizens would want to live, not just half of them. We cannot do that without valuing the diversity of ideas as well as the diversity of identities. Our government institutions must do this, and so, too, must civil society.  Opening ourselves up to competing views also allows us to learn from one another. It helps us see errors in our own thinking and enables us to find better ways of advancing both the narrow interests of our group and the broader interests of society as a whole. So we applaud the philanthropic pluralism pledge, and will continue this discussion in a future newsletter when we share Shamil Idriss (CEO of Search for Common Ground) and Rachel Kleinfeld's (Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) take on this issue. 


[1] From 1984 through 2004, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation had a Conflict Resolution Grant Making Program, which in some ways, was a precursor to this Democracy program. We at the Conflict Information Consortium received multiple grants from Hewlett from 1988 - 2004, which enabled CIC''s formation and much of our work, including the development of BI. We want to acknowledge that relationship but make clear that there is no longer a relationship between BI and Hewlett.

[2] Daniel Stid "Reflections on the first eight years of our U.S. democracy grantmaking" William and Flora Hewlett Foundation March 23, 2022. 

[3] Other writings on complexity and massively parallel peacebuilding that might be of interest include: Massively Parallel Peacebuilding/Problem Solving, and Essential Elements of Successful Democracies - Part 2.

[4-6] Daniel Stid "Reflections on the first eight years of our U.S. democracy grantmaking" William and Flora Hewlett Foundation March 23, 2022. 

[7] Daniel Stid "Philanthropy and the Testing of Democracy in America" in The Art of Association. April 20, 2023.

[8] In that initial CRQ article, we focused particularly on the United States because American peacebuilders have long traveled the world, "helping" other people resolve their conflicts. But we have not, until recently, turned our attention to the United States, somehow thinking that peacebuilding wasn't needed here. The main point of the CRQ article was that it is, and peacebuilders, both from the U.S. and elsewhere, are uniquely positioned to provide such assistance. 

[9-10] Heather Templeton DillKathleen EnrightSam GillBrian HooksDarren Walker, and Elise Westhoff. "We Disagree on Many Things, but We Speak With One Voice in Support of Philanthropic Pluralism. The Chronicle of Philanthropy. April 13, 2023

[11] The controversial phrase "All Lives Matter" has been  favored by people (primarily on the right) as a less divisive alternative to the much more popular (and more left-leaning) slogan "Black Lives Matter."  Its supporters argue that it is better to focus on all victims of unjustified police violence and not just Blacks. (Sometimes it also implies an additional focus on all lives lost to criminal violence.)  Those on the left, however, see "all lives matter" as an extremely hateful statement meant to divert attention from the terrible violence and systemic racism perpetrated against Blacks by White-dominated society. 

[12-13] Philanthropy’s equivalent of “All Lives Matter” Vu Le.


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Once a week or so, we, the BI Directors, share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources.  We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week. We are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several shorter newsletters. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here or on our BI Newsletter page, which also provides access to all the past newsletters, going back to 2017. NOTE! If you signed up for this Newsletter and don't see it in your inbox, it might be going to one of your other emails folder (such as promotions, social, or spam).  Check there or search for and if you still can't find it, first go to our Substack help page, and if that doesn't help, please contact us

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