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  • Andres Spokoiny

Is “The Twilight of the Elites” a Sunset for Jewish Philanthropists, Too?

We live in an era that journalist Chris Hayes calls “The Twilight of the Elites.” As a culture we have discovered that our society – in all its sectors – is ruled by elites that are both corrupt and incompetent. Our congressional leaders, for example, have a lower approval rating than George III had during the American Revolution (a mere 8%).

If you think that the mistrust of leadership affects only the political class, think twice. At 18%, large corporations have the lowest approval rating in decades and only one in five Americans trusts her bank (and this was before the recent Wells Fargo scandal). Civil society institutions like churches and sports clubs don’t fare much better, and “organized religion” has a favorable rate of 40% against an historical average of 55%. (The Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse by priests is probably the main culprit behind that decline.)

The effects of this debacle of authority range from the merely absurd to the outright horrifying. Modern-day Flat-Earthers (yes, really) are laughable, but “anti-vaxxer” parents actively threaten public health by refusing to vaccinate their children, and climate change deniers threaten the world’s political will to act in the face of one of humanity’s biggest challenges.

Most threatening of all, perhaps, is the fact that demagogues stand ready to exploit the public’s persistent cynicism and distrust, even (or especially) at the expense of common sense. We see the surreal spectacle of a billionaire (if Donald Trump is indeed a billionaire) berating “the elites” from his gold plated armchair. As the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut once said, when legitimate authority is in crisis, authoritarianism follows.

To some degree, technology drives this new populism. The internet produces rapid access and flattens hierarchy. You can now challenge your doctor with information you find online, and never mind that the information isn’t always fact-checked. The internet gives the same platform to both the wackiest conspiracy theory and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Rubbish now spreads at the speed of light. It took decades for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to disseminate in its original printed form, but mere minutes for the “birther” conspiracy theory to reach millions.

What are philanthropists to make of this? We are a sort of elite. Is this our twilight as well?

The signals are mixed. The approval rating of charities is higher than that of other sectors: 64% of Americans have a ‘great deal of confidence’ in the charities they support (down from 71% five years ago). The flipside, of course, is that one in three Americans doesn’t trust charities, and the trend seems to be downward. I haven’t seen any data on how the public perceives philanthropists and funders in particular, and whether or not we are painted with the same negative brush as other elites.

But the anecdotal evidence we have so far is important and troubling. The professional philanthropy literature is now full of articles around the issue of philanthropic power. One seminal piece called Bill Gates “a benevolent dictator” because he “imposes” health care policies without having been elected to do so. The failed program that Mark Zuckerberg launched to reform the school system in Newark, NJ is often cited as a case study in funders’ overreach and has sparked many questions about the legitimacy of funders influencing public policy, especially when their lives are far removed from the reality they seek to influence. As I write these lines, Alliance Magazine has a special feature entitled “Does philanthropy have too much influence?” Other signals are more indirect; think of the frequently recurring debates about lowering the cap on the tax deductibility of philanthropic contributions. What those conversations are really about is the competence of philanthropists to administer tax dollars and the legitimacy of allowing them to do so.

Within the Jewish community, the chatter isn’t particularly reassuring. While folks overwhelmingly value funders’ generosity, there is growing – if still muted – dissatisfaction with the capacity of individuals to “dictate” the communal agenda. Accusations of “ego-driven” or “whimsical” philanthropy are commonplace, and some are starting to use the term “bullying” to describe the grantmaker-grantee relationship. Setting aside whether and when these critiques may sometimes be warranted in particular cases, the broader point is that philanthropists are increasingly being seen in the same light as other elites.

How, then, can Jewish funders stem the tide of populist backlash, or, at least, protect ourselves somewhat from the new anger and distrust that has engulfed other elites?

I want to share five ways that Jewish philanthropists can respond to this powerful trend – both by responding to its legitimate calls and by resisting its dangerous aspects.

1. Feedback

Our difficulties in assessing the problem are part of the problem. Philanthropists don’t have adequate feedback mechanisms to evaluate our work. When (and if) we solicit feedback from grantees who depend on us for funding, we may not get a completely forthright response. It’s imperative for funders to design anonymous (or otherwise nonthreatening) feedback mechanisms so they can assess (1) their effectiveness/impact; (2) how they treat grantees and other communal stakeholders; and (3) how they are perceived by the community.

2. Distance

The political left and right agree that elites are out of touch with the broader public. Libertarian thinker Charles Murray speaks for many on the right when he describes elites “promulgating policies for which they do not pay the price”, while liberal thinkers focus on apathy about inequality among elites who don’t understand how difficult it is to be poor. Both critiques point to a true phenomenon: different socio-economic groups share less and less of their daily lives. When I first moved to Montreal, I was kibitzing with a top donor of the community about life in the city. I asked him where people shopped. “Mostly New York, and Paris a couple of times a year,” he said. True empathy across that wide gap can be hard to achieve.

So Jewish funders must ask: are we close enough to understand the ultimate beneficiaries of our grants? We fund campus activities, but most of us haven’t been part of campus life for decades. We fund poverty relief, but do we know how it feels to be poor? We fund in Israel and advocate about Israeli policies, yet we don’t necessarily know how it feels to be Israeli. While the distance is structural (most philanthropists are, by definition, well off and most recipients belong to other socio-economic strata), we need to find intentional ways to be in touch with the realities of beneficiaries – and grantees, too. (Do we really know what it feels to be running a nonprofit on a shoestring?)

3. Curated Transparency

A paradox central to the “twilights of the elites” is that while people demand ever more transparency from institutions, that very transparency contributes to weakening public faith in those institutions. As every Broadway fan now knows, Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton went into “the room where it happens” and made an historic compromise, but today that room is made of crystal. That makes compromise harder – nobody wants to be seen as weak. It seems there was value in those old smoke-filled rooms. But we can’t turn back the clock. In an age of mistrust, a lack of transparency only makes matters worse. How do we square the transparency circle?

The solution may be curated transparency: giving information to the appropriate public under the right conditions so that they can fully and contextually understand it. Curated transparency is a deliberate process of transmitting and interpreting information, rather than simply demolishing all informational barriers.

Philanthropists are not legally obligated to be transparent about their decision-making. While they need to file 990s, they can generally avoid scrutiny about the substance of their grants. Nonetheless, funders should adopt this paradigm of curated transparency, for the sake of their long-term relationships with their communities.

4. Standards of Excellence

In philanthropy, excellence is self-imposed. However, it’s necessary to achieve our goals. Moreover, adopting clear public standards, and holding ourselves accountable to them, is critical for public trust.

Today the philanthropic community has no agreed standards. In the secular community, organizations like GEO are trying to create them, and, in the Jewish world, JFN has created guidelines for funders regarding transparency and honorable conduct. Yet much more work for the field of Jewish philanthropy remains to create standards of excellence with enough consensus behind them that the field can hold philanthropists accountable.

5. User–Centered Philanthropy

The field of industrial design has seen a quiet revolution in the form of “user-centered design.” This approach starts by studying how the user lives, what kind of product she needs, and how the product will integrate into her life.

The corollary in philanthropy is obvious: we should put the beneficiaries of our funding at the center of our philanthropic strategy. We must consider how our programs affect them in their daily lives. We must realize that, in many cases, beneficiaries themselves are best placed to design programs. The grassroots (the school, the camp, the JCC, the university campus) are the places in which most programs need to originate, not our boardrooms.

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These five concepts are not a “solution” to public distrust in elites. They are a beginning to what must be an ongoing adaptation to evolving trends. Beyond examining our practices through these lenses, funders should maintain our attention to issues of public trust in the future. It’s all too easy to say, “Who cares what people think? As long as we funders have ‘the power of the purse,’ public perception doesn’t matter. If people don’t want my money, they don’t have to take it.”

Deep down, though, we know we can’t ignore public perception. Our money is necessary for the causes we fund, but money alone is not sufficient. Public respect and buy-in is indispensable to the long-term success of philanthropy. That’s why the world’s turn toward populism, and the resulting “twilight of the elites,” can be neither celebrated nor dismissed.

This article was published in eJewish Philanthropy.

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