Book Forum on Philanthropy in Democratic Societies / New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Democracy

Disruptive philanthropy?

Editors’ Note: For this current forum, we have asked the authors of the recently-published volume Philanthropy in Democratic Societies to present synopses of their contributions. Here, Aaron Horvath discusses his chapter on disruptive democracy, which he co-authored with Walter W. Powell. 

In a June 2015 Wall Street Journal editorial, Sean Parker, of Napster and Facebook fame, advanced a manifesto for the new generation of “hacker” philanthropists. “It’s important for hackers to embrace the values that made them successful in the first place,” he writes, “skepticism of the establishment and a desire to provoke or upend it.” By staying small and nimble, making radical bets, and finding the clever “hack” for stubborn social problems, he suggests that hacker philanthropists can bring society closer to utopia. His language – “upend,” “demolish,” “disrupt,” “transform” – intones a hacker ethos selectively appropriated from economist Joseph Schumpeter: “the perennial gale of creative destruction” is reborn as “move fast and break things.”

While reading Parker’s pitch, one might anticipate admonishment or self-conscious reflection about the power wielded by newly minted tech titans. After all, the audience he urges toward philanthropy is young and notoriously hubristic. The complex issues they seek to address usually evade easy hacks. But his only proviso is that hackers not lose their “outsider” perspective. Parker writes, “The moment anyone begins to worry what the establishment thinks, it’s probably an indication that they’ve become a part of it.”

Though headline-grabbing, Parker is a relative latecomer to what we view as a growing trend in philanthropy. As explored in our chapter, “Contributory or Disruptive: Do New Forms of Philanthropy Erode Democracy?” approaches like Parker’s depart from a long held view that philanthropy is contributory, catering to needs unmet by government and experimenting with new forms of provision with the aim that they will be adopted on a large scale by the state. The new trend – as epitomized by Parker – is toward disruptive philanthropy. We define this as any activity that through the magnitude of donations either explicitly or implicitly reshapes the public agenda by prioritizing which social issues are to be addressed and by dictating how they are to be addressed, without engaging with the deliberative processes of civil society. Rather than fulfill a contributory role where philanthropist-backed efforts are later brought to scale by the state through deliberative democracy, disruptive philanthropy prizes circumvention of the state altogether, a principled eschewal of the establishment, and attempts to scale independently.

Our approach is largely historical. Indeed, while the tools and vocabularies of these philanthropists are new, even more remarkable is that their actions have been met with wide acclaim. Less than a century ago, statements such as Parker’s would have been publicly decried as illegitimate, if not illicit, attempts to advance elite interests at the expense of popular will, and any super-rich philanthropist making them would be viewed with grave suspicion by citizens and various levels of government. For example, the wave of foundation formation following World War II sparked a slew of congressional inquiries in the 1950s and 1960s that sought to investigate unchecked power of wealthy elites and the potentially subversive activities of their foundations. Today, statements like Parker’s are widely celebrated and philanthropists, it would seem, are granted carte blanche as long as their intentions are good. What explains this shift, and what does it mean for the practice of democracy?

Tracing the trajectory of civil society, government, and philanthropy from early days of associationalism to the current era, we argue that the institutional context surrounding philanthropic activity has shifted over time, increasingly legitimating private efforts to define the public good, and more recently favoring the swift usurpation of old systems. This emergent form of philanthropy comes at a time when faith in government is at a nadir, and faith in entrepreneurialism is on the rise. Meanwhile, critiques of government efficacy linger from the 20th century, as does the view that state bureaucracy is necessarily sluggish and risk-averse. In this context, and in the vacuum left by retrenched government provision, a new generation of super-rich philanthropists have risen to enact their visions of social change. As they do so, popular or democratic input is quietly cast aside, and elite interests are readily woven into public provision. To the extent that these interests compete with or seek to undermine extant systems of government-led provision, they are disruptive.

To illustrate various dimensions of disruptive philanthropy, our chapter draws on several recent examples. First, we look at the role that philanthropic funding has had in shifting scientific agendas from basic science to more vogue interests in line with philanthropists’ curiosities. For example, Eric and Wendy Schmidt became involved in marine research following Wendy’s first ocean scuba dive, and a number of superrich philanthropists drive efforts to understand rare diseases that afflict family members. Although such funding can produce valuable research, it is also uncoordinated and parochial, often driven by whim, and ends up shaping scientific inquiry in the image of philanthropic interests. Second, we consider the much discussed role of billionaires, such as Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, in advocating not for a systematic reform of public schools but for a purging of the old and replacement with the new. Their top-down, outsider-driven disruptions, premised on the idea that “American high schools are obsolete,” fail to incorporate the interests and perspectives of those they purportedly aim to help. Fortunately, education reform is one arena in which philanthropists are beginning to listen to public criticism. Third, we discuss new forms of state provision, such as social impact bonds and self-funded political positions such as Bloomberg’s dual role as mayor and philanthropist of New York City. These new modes of funding help to solidify private wealth as a criterion for determining social programs.

To be sure, the modern moniker of disruption elides an incomplete historical comparison. We have had decades, if not more than a century, to evaluate the contributions of gilded age philanthropists and only a few years to consider more recent acts. It may well be that what we now dub contributory was also disruptive in its time. Nevertheless, the explicit goal of some modern philanthropists is to skirt the state altogether and develop parallel, competing provision. Such views would have been untenable in earlier eras.

The examples we draw on are disruptive in multiple senses of the word. In one sense, like AirBNB or Uber, they take on an established system, exploit inefficiencies, and claim a piece of the action for the entrepreneur. In another sense, they disrupt by sidestepping the deliberative channels of civil society, effectively blunting public censure of private action. Thus, instead of carefully appointed and publicly accountable peer review boards determining the flow of scientific funds, individual agendas are used instead. Instead of publicly accountable and self-determined schooling, private decisions and administration are imposed. Instead of funds being allocated in accordance with public interests, funds are allocated to more readily quantified and compared issues in accordance with private interests.

Though these clever philanthropic disruptions may at times be effective, and the programs they attempt may, in the long-run, contribute to the public sphere, it is important to note the challenge they posed to democracy. Even as the civic leeway granted to the super-rich has expanded tremendously, the risks of particularism and plutocracy have not waned. “Hacking” and “disrupting” may yield gains, but they can also be disenfranchising. The Sean Parkers of the world would be wise to recognize both the novel historical context of their actions, and the implications of their philanthropic aspirations. Hacker insights might be useful, but outsider imposition is no substitute for genuine democratic engagement.

-Aaron Horvath

Aaron Horvath is a PhD candidate in sociology at Stanford University and a fellow in Stanford’s center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. His work is in economic, organizational, and political sociology, with an interest in evolving and contemporary forms of political expression, economic rationalization in the nonprofit sector, the blurred/blurring lines between business and civic spheres, and private provision of public goods.



2 thoughts on “Disruptive philanthropy?

  1. Of course there is nothing new in “disruptive philanthropy”, since every modern reform movement began as philanthropy—e.g., anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, human rights, and the environmental movement, to name just a few.


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