Monday, February 24, 2014

Gates Goes Shopping

Why shouldn't Bill Gates spend his money terraforming the education landscape? Why shouldn't rich guys use their power and influence to promote the issues that they care about? Haven't rich powerful guys always done so?

These are not easy questions to answer. After all, Rockefeller, Carnegie and others made hugely important contributions to the American landscape, legacies that have continue to benefit Americans long after these dead white guys had moved on to Robber Baron Heaven.

How is Gates different? This post by Mercedes Schneider (whose blog you should already be following), helped me see one significant difference.

Rockefeller and Carnegie (the dead white guy philanthropists I'm most familiar with) helped invent modern philanthropy by discovering some basic issues. Mostly, they discovered that when people hear you want to give away money, the wold beats a path to your door. So they set up various entities whose job was to accept, filter and respond to the applications for big bucks that various groups sent to them, based on a set of criteria that the rich guys developed out of A) their own set of concerns and B) the opinions of knowledgeable people in their fields. That's how Rockefeller, a white guy who believed in homeopathic medicine, ended up revolutionizing the study of medical science and building a higher education system for African-Americans.

This is not how the Gates Foundation does business.

Where classic philanthropy says, "Come make your pitch and if we like your work, we will help support you," the Gates Foundation says, "We have a project we want to launch.Let's go shopping for someone to do that for us."

From the Gates Foundation Grantseeker FAQ:

Q. How do I apply for a grant from the foundation? A. We do not make grants outside our funding priorities. In general, we directly invite proposals by directly contacting organizations.

There is also this:

Q: Who makes decisions on investments and when?

A: As part of its operating model, the foundation continues delegate decision making on grants and contracts to leaders across the organization.  With our new process, decision makers are identified at the early stage of an investment.  Check-in points are built in to help ensure that decision makers are informed about and can raise questions during development, rather than holding all questions until the end.

I know it says "investments," but we're still on the foundations Grantseeker FAQ page, in the section that talks about how various data and progress reports will be used along the way as grant recipients complete whatever project Gates is funding.

We pick the project, we approach the people we want to have do it, we bankroll it, and we supervise it until completion. The Gates Foundation model looks less like a philanthropy and more like corporate subcontracts.

This model explains a few issues about the Gates approach.

Why do so many edu-groups funded by Gates seem to have no existence outside of doing Gates work? Because Gates isn't looking to find people already running proven programs that can use a financial boost, but instead is looking to sow money and reap groups doing exactly what Gates wants to have done. "I've got a gabillion dollars here to give to a group that will pilot and promote an unproven educational technique! I'd like to pay you guys to set that up for us?"

Occasionally Gates does work with a pre-existing group, but often this is a matter of shopping for someone who can provide brand recognition, like AFT or NEA. But those "grants" are still predicated on "I have a project I want you to do for us" and not "Let me help support the good work you're already doing."

This is far different from Rockefeller's "I've got a gabillion dollars to spend promoting Black education in the South. Find me some people who are doing good work in the field that I can help expand with this money."

The Gates Foundation model is astroturf philanthropy.

Look, if you're a rich guy who loves anchovy pizza and you want to use your clout, that's fine. If you open the door for successful anchovy pizza makers to apply for grants so they can expand, that's super. But if you decide that you are going to fund a whole new anchovy pizza plant, and hire health department inspectors to get all other pizza makers condemned, and hire consultants to flood the media with bogus reports about the healthful effects of anchovy pizza, and create other consulting firms to push legislation outlawing everything except anchovies on pizza-- if you do all that, you are not a philanthropist. You're just a guy using money and power to make people do what you want them to.

Rockefeller, Carnegie and the rest were not saints, and it's arguable whether their philanthropic benefits offset their robber baronical misbehavior. But when it came to running a corporate-based oligarchy, they were small-timers compared to the folks at the Gates.

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