Philanthropy and Inequality

Is Ford’s Inequality Focus a Turning Point in the History of Philanthropy & Capitalism?

Editors’ NoteThe philanthropy & inequality forum continues with this post by Alice O’Connor. Earlier contributors to this forum include HistPhil co-founder Maribel Morey and Faith Mitchell, president and CEO of Grantmakers in Health (GIH). 

There are some refreshingly forthright things about Ford Foundation President Darren Walker’s announcement of the foundation’s intention to make inequality the central focus of grantmaking under his leadership. Among them is the acknowledgement that inequality is a first-order problem that underlies, cuts across, and—left unaddressed—continues to hamper its long-stated commitments to social justice, human rights, and opportunity.  This is welcome, as is the recognition of inequality’s structural embeddedness– in markets, political institutions, social attitudes, and cultural norms—not something, that is, that can be addressed by traditional opportunity-opening grants. The analysis itself is hardly a revelation—echoing, as it does, what progressive activists and intellectuals have been saying and working-class people have been experiencing for decades, and what in Barack Obama’s more recent characterization constitutes “the defining challenge of our time.” More notable, to me, is the foundation’s at least implicit acknowledgement that current-day capitalism—and the political power lines and cultural narratives that prop it up—is a big part of the problem. That, and the foundation’s stated intention to take on inequality, in all its dimensions, at its structural roots.

Certainly, albeit without saying so, Ford’s move cuts against recent trends in foundation philanthropy, which if anything has mirrored and reinforced the polarized patterns of capitalism by growing more concentrated in asset distribution, enamored of ideas such as “philanthrocapitalism,” and overt in its efforts to capitalize on, rather than question the political economics that produced the fortunes of the global .01%–of which the Warren Buffett/Bill Gates billionaire “giving pledge” and the hoopla over “social impact bonds” are just two cases in point. It’s also a departure from the foundation’s liberal, but decidedly establishmentarian past, which, right-wing critics to the contrary, has always kept its programming within the boundaries of capitalism as it exists; even at its most innovative, Ford grantmaking has been far more inclined to use its influence to ‘leverage’ markets for program purposes than to question the way the market system works.  With this announced change of direction, and accompanying talk of structural and systemic-level intervention, Ford positions itself as a countervailing force to the direction capitalism has and continues to take in its late 20th/early 21st century period of neoliberal restructuring. Darren Walker takes up the charge more directly in a CNN opinion piece posted on the Ford website, which credits economists Thomas Piketty—who writes of structurally imbalanced returns to capital—and Joseph Stiglitz—who criticizes the wealth- and finance-friendly, “supply-side” turn in economic policy dating back to the 1970s—with providing the “roadmap” for understanding the origins of contemporary inequality, and for structuring a root-cause response.

That is a massively ambitious project, even for a foundation as large and influential as Ford. For historians of the field, it suggests thinking about the significance of Walker’s announcement in terms of the history not only of philanthropy, but of capitalism—of which the Ford Foundation is decidedly a “creature,” as Henry Ford II reminded his fellow trustees when he resigned from the board in 1977, partly in protest against what he considered to be philanthropy’s disengagement from its free enterprise roots. Considered in this context, the foundation’s contemplated redirection calls to mind similarly transformative moments of capitalist restructuring—beginning with the period of late Gilded Age corporate and financial consolidation that gave rise to a number of the most prominent multi-purpose foundations in operation today—when existing or newly established philanthropies have felt compelled to position themselves in relation to capitalism, whether in the spirit of regulation and reform, as in the case of the early Russell Sage Foundation, or of deregulation and advocacy, as in the case of conservative movement philanthropy in the 1970s.

Just how the Ford Foundation is going to pursue its ambition to strike at the roots of inequality—and how willing to challenge the power of capital—at this point remains to be seen. Forthright though they have been about the dimensions of the problem and the scope of the response, Walker’s statements about “what’s ahead” have thus far been deliberately non-committal when it comes to how this translates into practice, except to characterize Ford’s move as an “evolving” strategy. Among the things observers will be looking out for: Does the foundation intend to extend its grantmaking philosophy to its own investment, internal governing, and global employment practices? Will it be willing to fund organizing as a core, institution-building need rather than an afterthought? Will it be open to bringing class, in intersection with race, gender, and sexuality, more overtly and systematically into its analysis and programming—relinquishing what has long been an unspoken taboo in mainstream philanthropy? Will it break with tradition by engaging more directly with organized and organizing labor? Having acknowledged that it needs to change its own standard operating procedures, how far is the Ford Foundation willing to go?

There are promising signs on this front, especially in the foundation’s willingness to emphasize long-range core operating rather than narrowly project-specific support, here responding to a plea grantee organizations have been making for decades to little avail. But much remains to be filled in. For now, historians of philanthropy might ask what it means that the nation’s second largest foundation has made structural inequality its defining issue, rather than treating it as a fact of life, and what that may portend for the still-evolving debate about capitalism and democracy in the 21st century.

-Alice O’Connor

Alice O’Connor is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has written extensively about the history of philanthropy, and is the author of Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History; and Social Science for What? Philanthropy and the Social Question in a World Turned Rightside Up among other publications. Before joining the UCSB faculty in 1996, she was a program officer at the Ford Foundation and the Social Science Research Council in New York, and directed a small nonprofit in Washington, DC. 

4 thoughts on “Is Ford’s Inequality Focus a Turning Point in the History of Philanthropy & Capitalism?

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

  2. Pingback: Historian O’Connor Comments on New Ford Foundation Strategy | Nonprofit Quarterly

  3. Pingback: Does Ford’s Announcement Signal a New Gospel of Wealth? | HistPhil

  4. Pingback: In Case You Missed It: ‘No More Yielding But a Dream’ on Inequality |

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