Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde

Former Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

Reaching across the aisle, when 'dancing with the devil' is ok

8 October 2019

In times of division, civil society can promote a bridging of values and foster collaboration

The summer of 2019 saw the launch of a new think tank in the USA, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Named after former U.S President John Quincy Adams, the think tank takes inspiration from his apt insight of 1821 that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”. Its vision is an end to “endless war” abroad, inflicted by the USA’s foreign policy and defined by interventionism.

These are already salient topics included in the missions of other organisations. But what is noteworthy about this new venture is the collaboration of unlikely bedfellows George Soros and Charles Koch – each famed in their own right as a billionaire philanthropist, but up to now set far apart by their political leanings.

Opposing and incompatible world views

In the philanthropic landscape and beyond they might be seen as people with opposing and incompatible world views. Soros is the famed funder of the Open Society Foundation, often loathed by the political right for promoting liberalism and concepts of justice and equality across the globe. Koch, by contrast, is often criticised by the left for his philanthropic projects aligned with conservative values and Libertarian ideas – opposing things like environmental regulation, collective bargaining and public transport schemes.

What both sets of critics have in common is that they are wary of unchecked power. They see the philanthropic efforts of billionaire funders as vehicles to exert overt political influence, and are critical of the ability to fund and implement far-reaching interventions that aim at social and policy change - they just don’t agree on what legitimate change looks like. The discussion and criticism of both funders also takes place in a greatly polarised political and social environment, where their philanthropic efforts are seen as almost aligned with political party preferences.

civil society cuts across political party affiliation

But funders are ultimately independent. And civil society (at least in theory) remains a space where political concerns and the competition of political parties should not define the framework or boundaries of finding common cause. The founding of the Quincy Institute is a strong reminder of this. While the project is political in its nature – ultimately calling for foreign policy reform – its agenda and thematic direction cuts across political party affiliation. Democrats and Republicans alike might support or oppose findings and policy recommendations that the Institute will put forward in the future. At the same time, both high-profile funders might continue to disagree on a wide spectrum of topics – but they are free to collaborate on the issues they agree on. Political parties may be less capable of doing so in a polarised world.

What are the wider lessons from this unlikely collaboration? For one thing, their common-cause engagement seems to defy some of society’s schisms; demonstrating the fact that civil society can allow people to come together around the causes they agree on, even when they agree on little else. CAF’s own recent polling found that 88%, regardless of how they voted in the Brexit referendum, thinks it is important that people help others. Other funders could amplify this by supporting spaces where common cause can be explored beyond political affiliations, class and identities.

motivations for philanthropy

A second, related question is: what does the fact that such different characters as Koch and Soros can come together on the same cause tell us about the ultimate motivations for philanthropy? Research by the University of Kent found that wealthy donors are demotivated when their giving becomes an avenue to address shortfalls from gaps in public spending. Givers were found to “aspire to be a catalyst for change”, not the mechanism to “plug gaps” where needed. “Anything that affects donor confidence in what can be achieved with their gift is bad news for encouraging philanthropy” - i.e. funders want their impact to be additional, rather than compensational. This may have been a factor in the founding of the Quincy Institute if both donors saw as the venture as fulfilling the conditions of being ‘additional’ by bringing about something that otherwise would not exist.

The US is far from alone in facing high levels of societal divisions these days. Here in the UK, the Brexit vote laid bare the fact that our country and many of the towns and cities within it are starkly divided along a range of lines. CAF’s polling after the 2016 referendum found that nearly 14 million people felt that their community was more divided than a year before. This febrile environment makes collaborative philanthropy more important than ever. Not only can pooled efforts maximise impact, but the mere act of brining people together around common cause in times of division may bring its own benefits. Furthermore, efforts within civil society to achieve consensus on issues where mainstream politics is divided are likely, by their very nature, to be ‘additional’.

In the face of adversity, funders – due to their independence – can represent a catalyst for developing unifying platforms upon which those who are otherwise divided can come together. The Soros and Koch example is of collaboration amongst unlikely partner philanthropists, but it also has the potential to foster ‘bridging values’. We need more examples like this in the UK. Perhaps among the division rendered by Brexit, there is a space for unity in giving.

Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde and Rachel Seagar, undergraduate University of Warwick 


Additional sources

Koch exec, Black Lives Matter in group pushing prison reform

What does Brexit mean for philanthropy?

How collaborative philanthropy efforts are starting to learn from one another