Philanthropy and Inequality

Will Ford’s Equality Initiative Be Radical or More of the Same?

Editors’ Note: Taking the Ford Foundation’s equality program as a starting point of conversation, HistPhil is hosting a forum on the past and present relationship between philanthropy and inequality in the United States. Today, we begin this discussion with posts by HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey and then by Faith Mitchell, president and CEO of Grantmakers in Health (GIH). Please reach out to us if you would like to add to this discussion on economic and racial inequalities; we are especially interested in expanding it to address other forms of inequalities and to other regions of the world.

Earlier this summer, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker announced that the organization’s future funding program would confront the “drivers of inequality” on the global stage. With an eye toward the history of U.S. philanthropy, however, Erica Kohl-Arenas subsequently questioned on openDemocracy whether the Foundation would stray from philanthropic practice and attack “inequality at its roots” instead of simply promoting “the tradition of individualized ‘racial uplift’ or ‘self-help’ that calls for assimilation, upward mobility, and ‘social responsibility.’”

Much like Kohl-Arenas, I wonder whether the Ford Foundation will distinguish itself from other foundations in its efforts to address inequality. Sure, the organization recently declared itself a champion of racial, gender, ethnic, and wealth equality, but it remains unclear whether the organization’s staff and trustees will tackle these inequalities in meaningful ways.

For starters, elite philanthropic organizations are themselves products of wealth inequities and the ensuing imbalances in wealth concentration. Will the Foundation be such a zealous advocate of wealth equality across the world, for example, that it will be willing to risk its own existence as a site of concentrated wealth? Even more, its board members—like many other trustees in past and present elite philanthropic organizations—tend to be well-established members of the upper- and upper-middle classes. To what extent will they act against their class interests and honestly grapple with the root causes of wealth inequality: from education and tax policies to varying salary and bonus scales in distinct careers and professions?

Thirdly, the Ford Foundation’s recent funding priority was determined in a moment of social unrest and heightened discussions of wealth and racial inequalities. Last May for example, The Economist confessed that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) was taking the world by storm: “The English version quickly became an unlikely bestseller, and it has prompted a broad and energetic debate on the book’s subject: the outlook for global inequality.” In the U.S., James K. Galbraith, Bill Gates, Paul Krugman and others chimed in on this general discussion of wealth inequity, and so too did the national media. And far from lying dormant, the question has persisted in the country during the past year. This summer, Walmart, Target, and T.J. Maxx raised workers’ salaries in response to a growing movement in favor of a $15/hour minimum wage in the country.

Besides wealth inequality, Americans also have demonstrated a heightened sensibility to racial inequity in the past year. In Missouri last summer, a teenage Mike Brown was gunned down by a police officer; then 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed while holding a toy gun in a Ohio playground; Eric Garner died after a group of New York policemen held him in a chokehold; and most recently, Sandra Bland was harassed by Texas police and died in their custody. In response, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has called on Americans to recognize and correct the current devaluation of black bodies in American society. And a recent NYTimes/CBS News poll found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans “think race relations are generally bad” and that nearly 4 in 10 “think the situation is getting worse.”

Against these ongoing conflicts, it’s possible that the Ford Foundation’s newly announced initiative reflects less an unflinching interest in equality and more a concern for these and other similar episodes of social discord both within and outside the country. If so, the organization might hope to achieve peaceful social relations, even moreso than substantive equality for the subordinate groups in these racial, ethnic, gender, and wealth divides. If the organization finds itself at a crossroads needing to choose between these two aims, for example, which will it prioritize? If today’s Ford trustees are anything like the trustees at the Carnegie and Rockefeller organizations during the first half of the twentieth-century, they would make the first goal a priority over the second.

Lastly, the Ford Foundation’s press release also makes me question whether, along with social peace, the organization isn’t trying to achieve the interconnected goal of economic growth. If so, the Ford Foundation’s new equality focus would not be diverting from the history of U.S. philanthropy, but rather, would fit quite well within it.

For example, Andrew Carnegie formulated his theory of philanthropy against the backdrop of gilded age class-consciousness and class strife in this country. Fearful that socialism would become increasingly popular in the U.S., he explained in The Gospel of Wealth (1889) that philanthropy could serve as an alternative form of wealth redistribution. From his perspective, then, this type of redistributive process would placate the complaints of the American working class while at the same time maintain the economic incentives and structures of a capitalist society.

Compare this to the Ford Foundation’s announced efforts to address social inequities, in which their President stressed that this initiative would serve to strengthen, rather than undermine, the existing economic structure. As he noted, “extreme inequality weakens economic growth and undermines the social cohesion of societies.” By addressing inequalities, then, it seems that the Ford Foundation aims to achieve both economic growth and social peace. If this is the case, it hardly will be a radical or transformative episode in the history of U.S. philanthropy. Rather, the Ford Foundation’s equality initiative would be well-rooted in Carnegie’s vision for philanthropy—not as an agent of social revolution, but rather—as a pacifier of social discord and agent of economic growth in capitalist societies.

Perhaps, though, this is exactly where the Ford Foundation wants to be: No more or less radical than its predecessors and contemporaries in the field.

-Maribel Morey

A co-editor of HistPhil, Maribel Morey is an Assistant Professor of History at Clemson University.

3 thoughts on “Will Ford’s Equality Initiative Be Radical or More of the Same?

  1. Pingback: Philanthropy is Capable of Addressing Inequality Effectively | HistPhil

  2. Pingback: Is Ford’s Inequality Focus a Turning Point in the History of Philanthropy & Capitalism? | HistPhil

  3. Pingback: Beyond HistPhil: Discussing the Ford Foundation’s Focus on Global Inequality | HistPhil

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