Rachel Pritzker: A Philanthropist Takes on “Wicked Problems” by Backing New Ideas

Rachel Pritzker says that she’s been involved in philanthropy “my whole life.” It was something “instilled in my family.”

That would be the famous and sprawling Pritzker family, which includes 11 billionaires and has a combined net worth of some $30 billion. So many Pritzkers are involved in philanthropy that it can be hard to keep them all straight. Just the other day, we wrote about the IDP Foundation, bankrolled by Liesel Pritzker Simmons, and we’ve reported on a range of Pritzker gifts and foundations.

Rachel is a member of the fourth generation of Pritzkers, and like many younger philanthropists we look at, she’s intent on doing things differently.

Her first major foray into giving was during the early 2000s, when she became a founding board member of the Democracy Alliance, a group of wealthy donors set up to fund progressive causes in 2005. Pritzker was galvanized by a PowerPoint presentation given by Rob Stein, a Democratic operative, that documented the enormous reach and power of conservative groups and media outlets. She was struck by Stein’s point that progressives “were losing because we weren’t winning hearts and minds,” and plunged headlong into helping create the DA, investing time and money to get the organization going. She also served on the board of Media Matters for America, a group that pushes back against right-wing media outlets like Fox News.

Beyond the Beltway

The Democracy Alliance focuses heavily on near-term policy and political battles, with a keen eye on the electoral cycle. After a time, though, Pritzker found her own attention shifting to a different set of challenges, the kind that often can’t get traction in the politics of the moment.

“I wanted to think longer term and focus more on original problem solving ideas,” she says. And to do that, she felt she needed to get out of Washington, D.C., a place famously fixated on the politics of today as opposed to the potential breakthroughs of tomorrow. Pritzker moved to the Bay Area and, as she remembers, “I started hanging out with people who were having big and bold conversations.”

Among the kindred spirits she connected to over time were the co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who’d made a name for themselves by advancing iconoclastic ideas, most famously through their essay, “The Death of Environmentalism.” The Breakthrough Institute describes itself as a “paradigm-shifting think tank committed to modernizing environmentalism for the 21st century” and it lists “audacity” and imagination” as among its core values. The place is the antithesis of a typical Beltway policy shop, and Pritzker loved it. Since 2011, she’s served as the chair of its advisory board.

Wicked Problems

Pritzker also tapped her family fortune to set up her own foundation, the Pritzker Innovation Fund, which works mainly on climate and energy issues, with the goal of developing and advancing “paradigm-shifting ideas to address wicked problems.”

"Wicked problems" is not a phrase that you’ll hear often in policy circles, so what exactly does it mean? Well, simply put, these are problems “without easy solutions,” says Pritzker. Mike Berkowitz, an advisor to the fund, adds: “they aren’t just complex problems; they are extraordinarily complex problems.”

Climate change, along with sustainable energy use, is the top wicked problem on the fund’s agenda. While this issue area has some low-hanging fruit—like, say, raising the price of carbon to change incentives around energy use—the larger, more daunting challenge is ensuring that all of humanity has access to energy. In a recent article, Pritzker and Berkowitz argued that energy is an all-important issue that touches on every other cause you can think of including "health, education, women's empowerment, and poverty."

Still, most funders don't give money in this area. Pritzker notes that even the very basic question of how much energy humans need to have a high-quality life has not been as closely analyzed or discussed as you might think. Is it really possible to meet the energy needs of nine billion people down the line without flooding the planet? That’s not clear. What is certain is that it’s a wicked problem.

Ideas for Leverage

Ideas are the key to addressing wicked problems, Pritzker says, since the solutions are seldom evident, and you need to identify breakthroughs before you can jump into pushing a policy agenda. “When you’re addressing a wicked problem, jumping into advocacy is not the best way to solve the problem.”

The Pritzker Innovation Fund mainly backs intellectual work, supporting think tanks and research, with the view “that new ideas can create paradigmatic shifts in approach that break through polarization and gridlock by changing the terms of debate.”

In addition to Breakthrough Institute, the fund's small portfolio of grantees includes the Center for Clean Energy Innovation, the Center for Global Development, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, and Third Way, a think tank where Pritzker is a board member and co-chairs its clean energy program. 

One way the fund seeks to advance fresh thinking is backing work that fosters collaboration and “new kinds of conversations.” Lately, for example, it’s been trying to open up a conversation on nuclear power that takes into account new technological advances. “We look for areas that are overlooked,” Pritzker says, and nuclear energy definitely falls into that category, at least in environmental circles. The fund has supported work by the Clean Air Task Force on nuclear energy, which has now spun off an initiative called the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.

A number of other funders have also supported this work, some of whom would rather not be identified.

Just to be clear, Pritzker and her team share a core progressive faith that government has a central role in solving humanity’s problems. This crew isn’t like some of the techno-market Utopians you’ll find in the Bay Area, who think that for-profit models can conquer all our challenges. The fund says bluntly: “The United States government is the largest and most important lever on many of the most wicked problems facing our world.”

An Unusual Funder

Overall, Pritzker is highly unusual as a funder. While plenty of foundation dollars go to research and policy work, surprisingly few funders focus their work on generating ideasor, for that matter, exclusively targeting the toughest problems. Many philanthropists are keen on having impact in the near term, and backing intellectual work on Mission Impossible challenges isn’t the way to do that. Plenty of funders are working the same problems as the Pritzker Innovation Fund, but typically with a mix of grants that balance backing for research with support for immediate policy gainssay, like shutting down coal-fired power plants.

Pritzker’s fund is small, with a limited budget, so it can’t do everything. Investing in ideas, she says, is a way to make that money go as far as possible. “If you can help fund work that examines underlying assumptions, you can have tremendous leverage.”

Pritzker’s approach is similar to the strategy that conservative funders have embraced over the past thirty years. A cabal of relatively small foundations on the right, including outfits like the Sarah Scaife and Bradley foundations, have stayed laser-focused since the 1980s on bankrolling think tanks and legal groups, and they’ve had enormous influence with that strategy. Ironically, while conservatives are often seen by coastal elites as the barbarians at the gate, their philanthropic leaders have invested huge faith in the power of ideas.

What’s also ironic, in terms of Rachel Pritzker’s story, is that while her first big philanthropic foraythe Democracy Alliancewas all about pushing back against the right, it’s really her own Pritzker Innovation Fund which has most closely mimicked the core winning strategy of conservative philanthropy: Give money to thinkers and trust that new ideas will eventually win the day.

I know, the story of conservative philanthropy is not quite that simple, since these funders give plenty of cash to robot ideologues at places like the Heritage Foundation. But I do think it’s true that the right’s playbook of looking for leverage in ideas has gone largely uncopied among progressive funders, despite all the evidence of how well it works. Pritzker is a major exception in that regard.  

A New “Ecosystem”

Looking ahead to her longer term goals, Pritzer says that she’s trying to create a new “ecosystem” of people and groups who are exploring big ideas related to ecology, energy, and human needs. “Our goal is to broaden over time the number of groups populating this space.”

The ecosytem around the organizations the Pritzker Innovation Fund supports is already pretty well developed, and the Breakthrough Institute is a main hub of conversation for these folks. Recently, the institute released an Ecomodernist Manifesto that aims to get past the longstanding view in environmental circles that economic growth always stands at odds with protecting the environment. The essay argues that “both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but also inseparable.”

Pritzker is one of the 18 authors of the manifesto.