HistPhil Exchange

The Possibility of the Free Gift, the Dramaturgy of the Program Officer, and the Revival of the Walsh Commission: A HistPhil Exchange

Editors’ Note: This is the first installment of HistPhil Exchange, our new series in which the editors ask two members of the HistPhil community to trade emails and discuss prominent issues in their work. (We were inspired by Slate‘s “Breakfast Table” posts). We hope it will be the first of many. The participants in this inaugural exchange are two of the leading scholars, and critics, of contemporary philanthropy, Linsey McGoey and Erica Kohl-Arenas.

McGoey: As an opening gambit, HistPhil asked us to reflect on things that we found most compelling or challenging about each other’s recent books. I don’t want this first comment to seem like an exercise in ‘disciplinary jingoism,’ but one thing I found fascinating is the way our shared background as sociologists framed our analyses. We have never met in person. We only got to know each other’s work in the past year. But I had a nice feeling of familiarity when reading your book, in that rightly or wrongly I sensed we’re both immersed in a discipline that we find equally inspiring and restrictive. When it comes to understanding philanthropy, sociology as an academic discipline seems to mirror the conventional attitudes the many members of the public have. Philanthropy is either benignly accepted as something inherently good, or it’s vilified as an obviously underhanded act, used to consolidate personal or institutional power. Both of us were trying to distance ourselves from either extreme, but I think your book is more successful at showing the limits of sociological critiques that fall in the second camp. You convincingly imply that Marxist and post-Marxist analyses are insufficient for analysing philanthropic power today. In other words, although you acknowledge Gramsci’s importance, you also confront the post-Gramscian literature on philanthropy and point out its inadequacies for understanding negotiations that take place between social actors vying to achieve separate goals.

Your book is one of the first major sociological studies of US domestic philanthropy during the late to post-Cold War era. It succeeds at a difficult task: to illuminate power asymmetries and patterns of economic exploitation without relying on post-Marxist tropes such as hegemony. At this same time, I don’t think either of us has yet developed a strong alternative, non-Marxist framework for making forms of philanthropic disempowerment easily comprehensible to a broad audience. Should this be the goal? If so, how do we achieve it? Which aspects of our books come closest to that goal?

Kohl-Arenas: Thank you for starting the conversation and for the excellent question. I also enjoyed your book and the way you brilliantly illustrate the current iteration of philanthrocapitalism without relying on rigid theoretical frameworks. Yes, we both aim to find a way out of the propagandist versus Marxist dichotomy. As an ethnographer and former non-profit practitioner I witnessed a great deal of strategic negotiation on the ground. Co-optation was not always the result of top down capitalist agendas constructed by donors in philanthropic boardrooms. Organizing failures were more often the result of compromises made by program officers and non-profit staff reluctantly resigned to muddy direct action agendas in the interest of maintaining relationships with conflict-shy foundation leadership. I agree that if we are to speak to the diversity of people impacted by this work it is important to make forms of philanthropic disempowerment legible to broad audiences.

Because my book was written for a public scholarship series the theoretical discussion was not as prominent. However, I do find many of Antonio Gramsci’s ideas very helpful. For example, Gramsci’s understanding of the ‘war of position’ in civil society helps us think about how networked social actors make strategic decisions (and compromises) around what ideas and institutions make sense to ally with in the broader movement to challenge (or maintain) the status quo. In my book I show, for example, how leader Cesar Chavez contributed to the Farm Worker Movement’s acceptance of foundation grants to incorporate non-profit organizations and strategic alignment with the War on Poverty, both of which he and his allies initially thought to be rigid, unaccountable forms of social change. These decisions enabled the movement to attract a diversity of resources, catapulting the United Farm Workers onto the national stage. Yet the non-profit institutions formed also presented a politically neutral space of retreat from field organizing when the movement faced serious challenges.

Some critical philanthropy studies fail to provide an analysis of this actively negotiated political process. A common example is the denigration of ‘service’ work as necessarily neoliberal and counter-revolutionary. A social change organization’s turn towards service work may often represent co-optation. Yet community service was also central to the radical self-determination goals of many twentieth century social movements. A more nuanced Gramscian analysis, as also articulated by cultural theorists like Ernesto LaClau and Chantal Mouffe and critical development geographers like Tania Murray Li and Gillian Hart, encourage us to think about how ideas and institutional alliances can be transformed to preserve or contest the status quo, depending on what is included and what is left out. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street and in the midst of Black Lives Matter, the Ford Foundation is claiming the position of tackling inequality and racial justice. What and who will be incorporated and excluded in Ford’s plan is yet to be determined. Ford’s president Darren Walker has articulated a critical analysis of the drivers of structural inequality, and simultaneously understands that the foundation will not directly confront capitalist systems. So the positioning work is key.

I see the success of your book as showing us how ideas of social entrepreneurship and double bottom line development are strategically rearticulated to disguise and enable continued profiteering through charitable investments in private agencies. I find your focus on explicitly profit driven motives much more emergent and troubling than the grassroots funding trends I describe. You almost don’t need theory to explain some of these blatantly plutocratic schemes in privatizing public education and global agriculture. So I wonder, does the idea of strategic negotiation make sense in these cases or are the agenda setting actors simply too powerful to be contested? Is there a way out? And methodologically how does one gain access to the elite spaces where key players are attempting to influence funding trajectories, especially after publishing a book as superbly bold as yours?

McGoey: You have raised two questions: how useful is the concept of strategic negotiation for theorizing new forms of overt plutocratic power consolidation; and how is access possible after public critique? I’ll aim to answer both questions together.

When it comes to access, on the one hand, US legislation currently affords us a number of opportunities for investigating the growth of horizontal wealth transfers – the rich giving directly to the rich – and we need to do a better job of exploiting the transparency that is made possible by US laws. Every grant that the Gates Foundation has made is publicly listed on its 990 forms. From these forms, we can gauge how much of their giving is going to for-profits companies such as Scholastic and Mastercard. On the other hand, communicating this information is surprisingly difficult.

To offer an anecdote, last December, on the day that Mark Zuckerberg announced he was giving away 99% percent of his fortune, I was invited to appear on BBC national radio. During a preliminary phone discussion with a producer, I mentioned that an emergent trend in philanthropy is the growth of non-repayable donations by foundations to for-profit corporate recipients such as Mastercard and Scholastic. I was set to appear live on the early evening news. Then I received another phone call. I was then told I could only speak about the grants going to corporations in generalities and that no specific company could be named. I questioned this prohibition, especially as the grants going to corporations are a matter of public record. A few minutes later I was phoned back a third time and told I was no longer welcome to appear on the show.

A few months later, I was invited to appear on a separate BBC radio programme, and there was no similar attempt to curtail the discussion of corporate giving. But the lesson for me was: what conduits can we use to actually transmit publicly available information to the public? A phrase like ‘publicly available’ is very curious. It implies that accessible information is easy to investigate or to act on. In reality, much available information is left unexplored by the very authorities that one presumes are tasked with vetting it. For example, a former IRS tax lawyer told me during a phone interview that the IRS rarely looks in depth or even reads a foundation’s 990 forms unless a public scandal forces investigation. If the media and regulatory authorities are too complacent, too under-resourced, or too wedded to corporate interests to do their jobs as we expect them to, then what avenues do we have? On this point, I often take inspiration from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. He cautioned theorists against presuming that the most important truths in any era are those that must be veiled in order to obscure the interests that they serve. In reality, although many techniques of power are kept secret – Edward Snowden’s revelations are evidence of that – often the most self-serving strategies are proudly championed by those who have the most to gain personally from their wider acceptance and legitimacy. The fact that corporations are profiting from tax-privileged foundation dollars is no secret. It’s widely trumpeted by the companies themselves. The problem is: we’re not paying close attention to the effects. A well-known insight from George Orwell seems apropos here: ‘To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.’

You mention above that the practice of community service is something that critical literature on philanthropy tends to dismiss too easily. I was struck by your use of Erving Goffman’s work. He was a prescient sociologist, writing about service work and the ‘impression management’ that it required before scholars such as Arlie Hochschild made the notion of emotional labour such an important concept for understanding service industries. To understand foundation power through the lens of ‘service’ strikes me as a very astute contribution of yours – could you expand on this?

Kohl-Arenas: First, I appreciate your point about publically available data and information, which we are not paying enough attention to. This is a hopeful call to action for philanthropy and non-profit scholars. I also find it useful to test the public pronouncements of private foundations against where the dollars are going. I have casually mapped recent philanthropic proclamations to address poverty and inequality, and food justice, against the type of work funded. A majority of grants provide resources to programs that ask individuals and families to gain new skills or increase participation in existing economic, civic and political processes but seldom ask major institutions or industries to change. This relates to your question about my use of Erving Goffman’s theories. In my current research I found Goffman’s ideas of ‘symbolic interaction’ useful in explaining the brokering and translating roles foundation program officers play as they negotiate the sometimes divergent ‘theories of change’ between grassroots organizations and foundation leadership.

Goffman’s seminal work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) provides a general theory for understanding how structures in institutional life are maintained by face-to-face human encounters. Using theater performance as a metaphor, Goffman proposes that certain actors are cast in positions to maintain institutional power in the face of a multitude of daily disruptions and contradictions. The individual actor performs on a particularly constructed stage with a specific costume, set of props, and script (in my research the stage is the philanthropic field, and the program officer learns to present oneself among colleagues in well appointed foundation settings and in grantee communities, conversant in carefully vetted ‘theories of change’). The actor has personal agency but, primarily concerned with maintaining coherence within the play, are beholden to perform the particular role they are cast. Oftentimes audience members challenge the story. The actor is faced with the option of ignoring the disruption or confronting the fallacies revealed in the narrative. Most frequently an actor will choose to continue with the scripted play. Backstage, actors hold varying degrees of belief in the roles they are cast. Some completely inhabit the character on and off stage. Some have an internal consciousness that contradicts or is cynical about the character they are made to portray.

Foundation program officers occupy this kind of space in institutionalized philanthropy. In terms of your question about social service, I found that foundation staff interested in supporting the California farmworker movement translated a more radical understanding of social service as a means to building self-determination through member owned and collectively run movement institution into a more acceptable approach to delivering services. Breaking away from the collective ownership and mutual aid model proposed by movement leaders, the service approach ultimately funded by private foundations required non-profit 501c3 incorporation, professionalization, reliance on outside donors, and a firm separation between labor organizing and service provision. By accepting the script presented by donors a mutual aid approach that sought self-determination and self-sustaining collectively owned institutions was transformed into a privately funded service provision program.

As program officers negotiate relationships and funding frameworks on a daily basis they perform to different audiences within and outside of their foundations. One set of audiences is the potential grantee. Another is the foundation leadership including presidents, vice presidents and boards of trustees. The contrast between the ways in which program officers pitch their ideas to foundation leadership, and the ways they are pitched to by eager grant seekers contributes to a conflicted duality embedded within their role. At one end of the spectrum, grassroots organizational leaders see foundation program officers as powerful decision makers with deep pockets directly connected to their monolithic foundations – they are treated as if they are always right. The program officers I interviewed emphasize how this is far from the truth and shared how flattery from grant seekers often inspires false visions of grandeur. As they attempt to frame funding initiatives to address issues of structural socio-economic inequality in ways that will resonate with their more conservative boards many program officers focus on creating what Goffman calls a “working consensus.”

For example, the California program officers interviewed for my book believe that in order to improve conditions for farmworkers industry must pay better wages, provide more housing, and eliminate the pesticide poisoning and financial and sexual abuse, and immigration policing practices still commonly reported in the fields. Yet they know that foundation leadership would never accept a proposal that aims to hold industry or federal immigration agencies accountable. So the program officers work hard to produce theoretical and institutional frames, or in foundation parlance ‘theories of change’, to foster a working consensus between greatly unequal partners such as foundation leadership, program staff, grassroots organizations, and the poor and marginalized people they serve and represent. This consensus is sometimes disrupted, revealing cracks in philanthropic narratives. Yet these cracks are often quickly filled-up by both ‘grantee’ and ‘grantor’ professionals who do not wish to alter the institutional relationships and resources they depend upon.

I think many people understand the ‘performative’ nature of philanthropy and the tension between what is presented on the formal stage and the backroom negotiations. This reminds me of the TED Heads, of Gates’ bold pronouncements, and current debates surrounding the large-scale initiatives in education, health, and agriculture you write about. One answer you present in response to the threat to democracy presented by major philanthropic players is donating funds to a greater diversity of smaller non-profit organizations – ideally gifted with a ‘lack of self-involvement’ on the part of the donor. I agree wholeheartedly that more funds should be given to smaller organizations with fewer strings attached. Yet, given what I have learned about foundation funding to grassroots social movements, we still need to consider the troubling power relationships fostered by gift giving which you so eloquently describe through Baudelaire and classic anthropologists in your book. Given your sharp analysis of the self- interested behaviour of major philanthropic players in national and global governance, what will it take for the surplus of wealth to be given as a truly free gift? Or is there such a thing?

McGoey: You’ve raised a crucial question that speaks to an overarching dilemma: can and should US foundation giving be reformed to make it more democratic and less elitist? Or is the act of large-scale giving so inherently linked to plutocratic control that we need far more radical and less conciliatory approaches to the redistribution of excess wealth?

I think the answer is: we need both. Far too often debates over political reform and wealth redistribution are framed in overly dichotomous way, with ‘reformers’ pitched against ‘radicals’. What’s notable about philanthropy is that short-term objectives focused on legislative reform could potentially serve as a forum for more profound and far-reaching discussions about the role that foundations can and should play in societies which are riven by such extreme divides between the rich and the poor.

As you know, US history is marked by two major shifts in the congressional oversight and regulation of private giving. The first was the Walsh commission from 1913 to 1915, where business magnates were forced to defend their employment and charity practices before a largely sceptical set of commissioners. The final report offered a damning indictment of the Gilded Age robber barons. It condemned efforts to block union organizing, something both Carnegie and Rockefeller were guilty of. Fifty years later, US philanthropists were again forced to justify their giving patterns during the reform efforts that resulted in the 1969 Tax Reform Act. The Act deepened minimum pay-out requirements for foundations and introduced new prohibitions against private inurement – personally profiting from philanthropic giving. Of course, the impact of this Tax Reform Act is still being debated, but the key point is: this is the very last time that US foundations faced any serious congressional investigation. The time is ripe for another large-scale congressional inquiry into foundation practices.

If such an inquiry did happen, it could serve as a lever to elevate largely unasked questions to a wider public audience. Should corporations such as Mastercard be entitled to non-repayable grants from the Gates Foundation? What is the observable relationship between ‘big philanthropy’ and widening wealth inequality? Does giving actually make the rich richer and the poor poorer by thwarting more progressive tax policies and by insulating large pools of money from redistributive demands?

We don’t currently have a lot of good macro-economic data to answer these questions. A common perception of large-scale giving is that it inevitably helps to narrow inequality. That perception is the reigning ideology of today’s plutocrats – and yet it rests on assumptions rather than evidence. Too few economists of wealth inequality are looking seriously at the relationship between large-scale gift-giving and growing wealth inequality – a problem that scholars such as Robin Rogers have pointed out. A project targeted at reform could be the best avenue for obtaining more empirical evidence about the role of philanthropy in either alleviating or perpetuating wealth gaps. So, moving forward, I think it’s helpful to insist on reform but only as a strategy towards increasing public understanding of the political sway that large foundations exert. Can extreme wealth ever been surrendered selflessly, without a desire for political control that threatens democratic values? I doubt it. A century ago, socially minded individuals spoke openly about the need to abolish forms of private privilege that entrenched plutocratic power. Today, demands for such radicalism are increasing. I think reform efforts can and should serve radical objectives.

You conclude your book with a nice vignette looking at the Kellogg Foundation’s support for radical food justice movements, and a discussion of the lack of fair pay for farm workers. To me, that’s the vital nexus: rejuvenating attention to the link between two separate but related problems. One, the exploitation of workers while wealth is accumulated; and two, the way that funders often deploy foundation grants in a manner that thwarts any attempt to seriously redress worker exploitation. Your book is brilliant on this point. You show clearly and systemically the ways that philanthropic dollars are used to prevent structural change. And yet I sense optimism in your account too. What’s your own response to your crucial question above – can concentred wealth ever be given selflessly? Or should we cease speaking of ‘gifts’ and speak instead of obligation?

Kohl-Arenas: I agree with your proposed way forward: more empirical research on the role of philanthropy in alleviating or perpetuating inequality, and a reform movement to spur dialogue and ideally catalyse more radical ends. Your book makes an important contribution in this direction. Without significant reform it is unlikely that we will see any change in the patterns of privilege, power, and elite control so prevalent among philanthropic institutions. And yet reform towards public accountability, transparency and spend out requirements will not be enough. Even for foundations that do not invest in profit generation schemes or appear to play a role in political advocacy or systemic reform, they are still primarily concerned with managing wealth produced through capitalist systems. As one foundation president recently told me, foundation trustees are mostly concerned with protecting the endowment and are not willing to take many risks.

So even with significant reform we will continue to see limits around what most foundations feel comfortable supporting. Few will fund work that threatens the bottom line of specific industries and markets that produce inequality, such as real estate and technology. So where do I find hope? Critical conversations about philanthropy almost always revolve around how we fix foundations and seldom ask more broadly how we resource social change. I find hope when I listen to people invested in the social movements of our time. Compared to when I started to conduct research on philanthropy back in 2003, there is a greater sense of frustration and a clear-eyed recognition among non-profit professionals and grassroots social movement leaders that the so called ‘Non-Profit Industrial Complex’ is part of the problem. From Occupy Wall Street, to Black Lives Matter, to the intersectional racial justice, LGBTQ, disability, environmental justice, immigrant rights, and economic cooperative movements people are strategizing around how to build collective ownership and alternatives to the mainstream model. If you view the problem from the ground up, foundations are just one player in a complex ecosystem. It is hopeful to see such a wide-ranging conversation taking shape right now about how to build, align, and resource movements that not only push foundations and mainstream institutions to better serve poor and systemically marginalized communities but to also create locally organized and collectively owned alternatives.

-Linsey McGoey and Erica Kohl-Arenas

Linsey McGoey is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Essex. She’s currently working on two main research projects. The first explores the relationship between global philanthropy and growing economic inequality. The second is a project on abundance and scarcity in economic and social thought, with an emphasis on work by Georges Bataille and Henry George. McGoey is co-editor (with Matthias Gross) of the International Routledge Handbook of Ignorance Studies (2015), and the author of No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy (Verso, 2015). McGoey contributes often to publications geared at a general audience, including recent articles in the Guardian, Fortune magazine, and Jacobin.

Erica Kohl-Arenas is an Assistant Professor at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School in New York City. She is the first recipient of The New School’s award in Outstanding Achievements in Social Justice Teaching, and earned her PhD from the Social and Cultural Studies in Education program at the University of California, Berkeley. Kohl-Arenas’ book, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016), analyzes the history of philanthropic investments in addressing farmworker and immigrant poverty across California’s Central Valley. Prior to her graduate studies, Kohl-Arenas worked as a popular educator and community development practitioner in a variety of settings including urban public schools, immigrant nonprofit organizations, and coal mining regions. 

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