Philanthropy and Democracy / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Q&A with Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer

Editors’ Note: The following is a conversation between Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer and HistPhil co-founder Maribel Morey. It was conducted via email in February and early March, and inspired by Kramer’s 2015 Roberts Lecture at Penn Law “‘To Adjust These Clashing Interests’: Negotiation and Compromise as Core Constitutional Values.” A constitutional scholar and historian who is now a foundation president, Larry Kramer discusses the role of philanthropy in a democracy and the place of history in contemporary philanthropic practice. [Worth noting: Kramer and Morey’s dialogue on philanthropy, democracy, and history commenced in the comments section of SSIR last summerafter Morey published a critique of the foundation’s then newly-launched Madison Initiative. In this Q&A, their discussion of these topics continues.]. 

MM: At the moment in the United States, there are over 70 foundations with assets of over $1 billion. Scholars such as Stanley N. Katz and Joanne Barkan have argued that this concentration of wealth threatens American democracy. In this lecture, however, you suggest that top-70 foundations such as the Hewlett Foundation can play a democratizing role in the United States. Could you elaborate on this point: What is the ideal role of big philanthropy in American democratic life?

Kramer: I’m not sure there is an “ideal” role for philanthropy. But I am generally skeptical of ideal theories, since we are never in an ideal world. In an ideal world, government or markets or some combination thereof would always make optimal allocations of resources. But that’s not our world; it never has been, and it never will be. Foundations evolved as one partial solution to this imperfection: a way to decentralize (some) spending for the social good. And from that perspective, I think foundations have performed admirably. I am familiar with the critique that foundations constitute a kind of plutocracy and that it is difficult to justify supporting large aggregations of wealth using their resources to move public policy. Of course, this criticism isn’t limited to foundations and applies equally to any source of great wealth, but it is particularly acute as applied to foundations, given the tax benefits they receive, not to mention the option to exist in perpetuity.

I might share these worries were it not for two things. First, the intellectual, political, and ideological diversity of the foundation world—and it is quite diverse—ensures a kind of pluralism in what the independent sector does that weakens the critique. Second, I think foundations have capably served the role of “risk capital” in their willingness to experiment, to try new things, and to fill gaps that would not otherwise be filled either by the market, government, or individual giving. This isn’t true for all foundations, of course, nor is it true for any foundation all the time. But, on balance, I think the record well justifies creating and sustaining foundations to serve and help preserve the kind of civil society Tocqueville celebrated in the mid-19th century as central to the democratic experiment. Civil society has, of course, evolved since Tocqueville’s time. He described a world of largely voluntary associations, created by citizens coming together in their community to address particular, often short-term matters. Civil society today is instead populated largely by professional or full-time employees whose organizations need substantial, ongoing philanthropic support to carry out their missions—missions that tend to require long-term investments and are just as often global, regional, or national in scope as they are local. What remains unchanged, however, is the extraordinary variability of today’s civil society when it comes to objectives, approaches, ideologies, and willingness to experiment.

If there is an “ideal” role for foundations, it is found in this last paragraph: foundations should identify problems that are not being otherwise addressed by government or markets or individual givers and experiment with and explore ways to address them. Addressing breakdowns in the democratic process—breakdowns like the problem of polarization that underlies our Madison Initiative—is a paradigmatic instance. The Madison Initiative is, indeed, a perfect illustration inasmuch as it is (a) truly non-partisan; (b) ought to be of equal interest and concern to liberals, conservatives, and centrists; yet (c) is the kind of problem that other institutions are unlikely to tackle.

MM: Wealth and power inequalities exist among individual citizens in American society and between individual citizens and interest groups, lobbyists, and super PACs. In light of these inequalities, how can foundations such as the Hewlett Foundation hope to foster meaningful negotiations and compromise in the political realm?

Kramer: Inequalities in wealth and power have always existed, and presumably always will. Even so, willingness to negotiate and compromise has subsisted, and often flourished. It is not the existence of inequalities that stands in the way now, but rather other changes—some structural and institutional, some cultural—that interfere. Changes in the composition of and competition between the political parties are the chief culprit, everything from ideological sorting (all Democrats are now liberal, all Republicans conservative) to candidate-centered campaign finance, the polarizing effects of party primaries and caucuses, the degradation of personal relationships within Congress, and so on. Changes such as these have, in turn, been accelerated and bolstered by the growing influence of organized interests that act as intense policy demanders and attach themselves to one or the other party, and by the growth of partisan media and the so-called outrage industry. All of this, in turn, has helped generate changes in social and cultural understandings that have begun to take on a life of their own and that threaten our ability to work together. Addressing cultural change is difficult, to be sure, but not impossible. It’s an uphill struggle and progress will probably be slow and uneven, and happen only if others join the effort—not just other funders, but other institutions and the public itself. Still, someone needs to try, because the stakes are too high to do nothing. It can be done, in any event, despite wealth and power inequalities. And succeeding will make it all the more possible to have a debate and adopt broadly accepted actions to address such inequalities.

MM: In the lecture, you subscribe to a particular definition of American democracy that establishes as its core values negotiation and compromise among individuals and groups in the political realm. However, this is just one among many ways of defining American democracy. For example, political theorists and philosophers such as Rob Reich and Danielle Allen have argued that American democracy requires equal standing for all members of the polity and that schools are central sites for pursuing and sustaining this democratic egalitarianism. Others such as Ian Shapiro have said that democracy is better understood as a means of managing power relations so as to minimize domination. How should foundations interested in strengthening American democracy go about deciding among competing theories of democracy such as these?

Kramer: They don’t need to do so. I don’t define negotiation and compromise as “the” core values of American democracy. I describe them as necessary and essential conditions for democracy, because our democracy (like that of any complex, modern society) requires achieving agreement among large numbers of people who have different, and often conflicting, beliefs, passions, and interests. What the best definition and goals of our democracy should be and how to achieve them are, in fact, precisely the sorts of things we will and should fight about in politics. At the end of the day, however, we need to act, and that means negotiating and compromising. The fights don’t end, nor should they. One of the remarkable things about a functioning democracy is its unceasing ability to reinvent itself and change. There are, to be sure, some things that are too important to negotiate or compromise away. But our general attitude needs to be one of openness to disagreement and willingness to work with and accommodate those with different views.

MM: In the lecture, you make use of colonial and early American history to make sense of core values in the United States (and subsequently, the core needs of contemporary American society). Can you elaborate a little more on the elements of American (or global) history that you find most useful in conceptualizing the responsibilities of contemporary American philanthropy?

Kramer: I began my career as an academic lawyer, but over time migrated toward history. For me, history provides a useful way to think about any problem. By examining the origins and evolution of whatever practices or institutions are the focus of inquiry, one gains a deeper understanding of the overall picture. History helps us understand limits and constraints on change. It helps us see what gave rise to our current situation, what has been tried, what has or has not already worked, and so what avenues for change are most likely to take or make sense. Hence my answer to your first question begins not with some idealized conception of philanthropy and democracy, but in the circumstances and conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that gave rise to big philanthropy in the first place: Why did it make sense at that point in time? What problems of society did it address, and why was it accepted? How did the practice evolve after that? Looking at the history as a whole, one sees the justification for our current philanthropic practices (which, as I noted above, grew out of a robust voluntary sector that is as old as the Republic) and can have a better idea of foundations’ roles.

Something similar explains why I relied on history to explain the intellectual underpinnings of the Madison Initiative. The best way to understand the core values embedded in our Constitution is to begin with its origin, ask why it took the particular shape it did, and examine whether and why those ideas persisted or changed. In this sense, history supplies a comparative perspective, except instead of looking at a different culture today, we look at the same culture at an earlier time. Both approaches are ways to see our own culture—including its benefits and difficulties—more clearly.

MM: Thinking beyond the Hewlett Foundation and across the philanthropic sector on the global stage, do you think that foundations should calibrate each society’s needs by looking into their national histories? If so, should foundations do this for each distinct country where they fund projects? How should foundations then work globally? Would a historical lens help them work better on a global stage?

Kramer: I would not go that far. On the one hand, one cannot do philanthropy well anywhere without a real and deep appreciation for the social, economic, and cultural context in which one works. The biggest part of that is to work with people whose lives and experience are grounded in the particular country or community, but those of us in foundations also need to work hard to acquire our own knowledge and understanding. On the other hand, there are many ways in which to gain such an appreciation, of which history is but one and certainly not the only one. I personally prefer history because I find it to be particularly informative, but I respect those who approach problems comparatively or who use other kinds of fact-based and empirical approaches. I would say this, however: the knowledge one needs is always and unavoidably empirical. One cannot and should not develop philanthropic strategies solely or even mostly on the basis of abstract theories, whether as a matter of economics, sociology, or political philosophy. That’s a standard we hold for ourselves and for our grantees, some of whom are likewise working in countries and cultures different than their own.

MM: Beyond national histories, what other types of historical research might help shed light on contemporary philanthropic issues and practice? Have you thought about the history of the Hewlett Foundation itself in terms of defining the organization’s values, or about other past efforts in the philanthropic realm to address threats to democracy? Have these been helpful to you in any way?

Kramer: It won’t surprise you by now to hear that I think the best way to understand and think about the Hewlett Foundation’s values and practice is in light of its history. Our endowment comes from the personal fortune of William and Flora Hewlett. The Foundation began as an expression of their philanthropic values, and while they left their successors broad discretion about problems to work on, we believe the work we do today needs to be continuous with and reflective of their values. That applies both to how we work and to what we work on. When I interviewed for the job of president, I explained to the Board that I would think about these issues in much the same way as I think about constitutional law. I am not an originalist, and we should not mindlessly continue to do exactly what Bill and Flora did, for the world is continually changing, and standing still means falling behind. But neither should we feel free to do whatever seems most interesting or important to me or to the current Board or staff. We are, rather, engaged in an ongoing conversation with our past—looking at the problems Bill and Flora cared about and the reasons they cared about them, and reshaping our work to remain continuous with those values and concerns in changing circumstances. It is a process that is usually, and beneficially, evolutionary in nature.

For instance, the Foundation has done work in the population field since its very beginning, reflecting our founders’ concerns with the stresses of population growth and with women’s ability to control their lives and bodies. For a long time, this work focused on family planning and safe abortion, and we continue to support efforts in those fields. But a great deal of social science makes clear that economic development is also essential to realize such goals for women, so we recently inaugurated an accompanying strategy focused on women’s economic empowerment. Now that it has been launched, this new work may lead to still other opportunities to contribute to gender equality beyond and in addition to our historical focus on reproductive health. In this way, the Foundation’s work grows and evolves within sensible guardrails defined by past practice and experience. It is the same pragmatic, historical approach that I described above in connection with the Madison Initiative: a way to think about, understand, and solve problems.

Let me add a final point: the answer above says “I” too much to be an accurate rendering of how the Hewlett Foundation works. Our Board Chair, Walter Hewlett, often refers to the Foundation as a “three-legged stool” consisting of Board, President, and staff. To this I might add our grantees and, increasingly, the intended beneficiaries of our grant making, because we regard philanthropy as a partnership and do our best to listen to the people most affected by our choices. How the Hewlett Foundation evolves, and will continue to evolve in the future, thus reflects a rich, ongoing, cultural and empirical process of give-and-take among all those actors. The president and Board may be “first among equals”—the Board holding final authority, while our guiding principles describe the president as “the leader of the Foundation”—but that’s true only in a formal sense, as the first principle of good leadership is knowing when and how to follow as well.

One thought on “Q&A with Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer

  1. Pingback: Alexis de Tocqueville on Associations and Philanthropy | HistPhil

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