"We Have To Try." Three Questions for Larry Kramer, President of the Hewlett Foundation

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Larry Kramer is the president of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, one of the largest in the country, and notable for its focus on climate change. Larry is among the nearly 50 social sector leaders that Vivien Hoexter and Linda C. Hartley interviewed for their new book, Big Impact: Insights & Stories from America’s Non-Profit Leaders. Here is an excerpt from that interview.

What, if anything, is keeping you up at night?

The Hewlett Foundation supports grantees tackling huge, complex challenges: combating climate change, alleviating global poverty, improving education in America. But solutions to all these problems require a functioning government. Observing what’s happening today, I fear we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of American democracy. I know that sounds dramatic, but it just might be true. So that’s what keeps me up at night.

Democracy is more than just voting. It’s voting in a system in which everyone’s participation is valued. And it is governing in ways that respect the legitimacy of opponents; that recognize the need for compromise; that let science and evidence shape policy; and that cherish a free press, an independent judiciary, and other critical political and civil institutions. Democracy presupposes ideological conflict, but it’s supposed to be like Fight Club, governed by a political version of Marquess of Queensberry rules to keep it from becoming “Win at all costs.”

Our leadership has forgotten that there are more important things than winning a policy fight today. The greatness of America has been as the most successful experiment in popular government of all time. That is so much more important than seesawing disagreements about free markets versus a mixed economy. The shortsighted people in power today, and I mean on both sides, have their priorities backwards and are grinding down the foundations on which our system rests. Worse, they are doing so with the support (or, possibly worse, the indifference) of large segments of the American people.

I don’t know if philanthropy can help fix this. People in democratic societies, it is said, get the government they deserve. But there may be things we can do to preserve or reawaken awareness of the attitudes and institutions and practices that are needed to make democracy work. We think we have to try, in any event, which is why we launched the Madison Initiative in 2013.

How are the choices of the very wealthy private philanthropists influencing traditional foundation giving?

Two things that are not always appreciated have shaped the new generation of wealthy philanthropists. First, many of them became wealthy early in life, and they are mostly still young (as these things go). Second, they are objects of media fascination, celebrities whose philanthropic choices are scrutinized very publicly. The Hewletts acquired their wealth gradually, without media scrutiny, and this enabled them to learn over time what mattered to them and how to do philanthropy well. Today’s mega-rich don’t have that luxury. The results are not always good, particularly when combined with the confidence, often bordering on arrogance, that great success at an early age brings.

This has led some of them to look down on and denigrate the veterans in the field. Traditional philanthropy has “failed,” they say, and confidently predict that they can do better by being more “innovative” and “entrepreneurial,” and by using new tools and “disruptive” thinking.

This could be good, and, at worst, it may be harmless. It could be good because they may well find new ways to do things from which we can all learn. That would be great. But this could also turn out to be just so much Silicon Valley prattle. The truth is, they are still learning, and who knows where they will end up? The good ones, I suspect, will discover that folks like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and, yes, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, have more to teach them than they realize.

The notion that traditional philanthropy has “failed” strikes me as particularly naïve. By what measure? Dealing with social problems like poverty, racism, climate change or income inequality is not like developing a new piece of software. Progress is slow not from lack of imagination or willingness to take chances, but because the problems are hard. Addressing them requires patience and perseverance, coupled with a willingness to learn continuously and a lot of humility.

Yet the new philanthropists are definitely influencing traditional foundations—and not necessarily for the better. The attention and praise lavished on them has created a kind of insecurity in the field, a fear of seeming stodgy and behind the times. There’s a sudden rush to change how we work, to try out the latest shiny objects. Worse, there has been a pronounced shift toward big, splashy efforts, coupled with demands for quick results. With all the hype, I worry that too many funders are moving away from what we and they do best.

If there were one thing you could say to your colleagues who are leading grant-seeking organizations, what would it be?

Be honest with us. Recognize that we cannot accomplish our goals without you, and that we need you as much as you need us. If it seems there’s a power imbalance between funder and grant-seeker, recognize that if you aren’t honest, and don’t tell us what you really need, we can’t provide it. We’re not thin-skinned prima donnas. Really. So don’t just tell us what you need—tell us, also, if we’re making your work more difficult. I cannot promise we will always agree or do what you want, but let us at least have a relationship built on candor. The NGOs that work that way are our best partners. And I believe we are theirs.

Vivien Hoexter and Linda C. Hartley are principals of H2Growth Strategies LLC, which provides strategic planning, fundraising and governance counsel to mission-driven organizations. H2Growth has partnered with more than 100 organizations to raise over $1.5 billion. For more information about the book and the authors, please visit http://www.h2growthstrategies.com/book.