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A Series on Risk, Change, and the Year Ahead: A Conversation with Larry Kramer

Thursday, February 6, 2020

By Emily Katz, Vice President of Public Affairs, Northern California Grantmakers: A conversation with Larry Kramer

I asked five foundation executives—private, public, family, tech, small and large—if they’ve taken any special measures to ready themselves for the year ahead. In our second installment, we hear from Larry Kramer, President of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a nonpartisan, private charitable foundation that advances ideas and supports institutions to promote a better world. Read the interview below.

EK: So, how are you thinking about your funding for 2020 and is there anything that you queued up to do a little differently than you were doing before?

LK: So the answer is no. We made the major adjustments we needed in 2016 and 2017. Obviously, the election result was unexpected. And you could immediately see what the consequences were going to be for some of our key strategies. In particular climate, women's reproductive health, and democracy.

Our budget is structured so that in any given year we've got a chunk of unallocated money—typically $50 to $60 million—that we use for unanticipated challenges or opportunities. That year, we allocated the whole amount to those three strategies, so they could make the shifts they needed to make.

The thinking was that we're not changing our perspective on the problems, and we're not changing our goals. They were important before the election and they're still important now. But to the extent there's going to be some dramatic shifts in the way the government is operating, we have to adjust those strategies.

At the same time, we didn’t want to just cut off grantees we've been working with, even if some of them no longer make as much sense in the new environment. So we could use the money to begin making the adjustments right away without having to unfairly hurt grantees we were going to tie off. We could give them grants and time and support to adjust, while making our own strategic shifts.

We did that in 2016, and we're set up to do it again in 2020. I'm not sure it’ll be necessary this time, because we've had four years to evolve and adapt our work to fit where the Trump administration goes. But, if they do change direction or accelerate or exacerbate some of the things they're doing that cut against our goals, we will be in a position to continue making adjustments.

In 2016, there were also some other things we did, separate from adjusting our own strategies. We put resources into helping some other funders do things outside our strategies, just to help—the notion being to build our “help-each-other” muscle. This followed from an article I had written earlier called diffuse reciprocity.

In addition, there were a few things the administration did that we thought required a philanthropic response—things that were sort of orthogonal to our strategies. We thought the Pence Commission was a genuine threat to voting rights, and since there was no evidence to support the notion of widespread in-person voting fraud, we needed to help make that case. We use the flexible funds to respond quickly to those unexpected one-of-a-kind things, but you can’t plan for those and have to see what they are.

EK: There’s an appetite for people to inform their own thinking by how others are thinking about it.

LK: Yeah, we did a lot of meetings and talking to people, and you know that has never stopped. A lot of people started to ask whether we need to do something more fundamental, more dramatic. But we had started our work responding to democratic dysfunction before Trump. Trump is a symptom, not a cause, of an ill that we were already working on. The idea that we might actually elect a demagogue in the United States may have seemed far-fetched to some, but we thought there was no reason to think it couldn't happen here. That’s what happens in failing republics, and by 2012 it was clear that ours was in trouble. That was why we started the work back in 2012.

What was unexpected was how fast it happened. I thought it was a worry for 20 or 30 years down the road, not four. So that led us to step back and ask what we had missed. The 2016 election was awful in so many ways, just bad on all sides. You had the loser of the popular vote getting elected, again, and there were all sorts of additional signs that something was deeply wrong. This second look led us to realize the importance of the media environment—that is, the problem of digital disinformation. So we added that to our work.

I should say that I think everyone should recognize these problems. You can be a Trump supporter and still should be able to acknowledge that American democracy is not healthy, and the ills are deep.

Anyway, we started this work in 2012 and then made a bunch of adjustments in 2016. I think it’s unlikely that 2020 will tell us something we don't already know. But, then, I would have said that in 2016. So if it does, we'll make further adaptations.

EK: So your strategy is to keep pursuing the goals you've identified as worthwhile in the first place, adapt the strategy, and build up collaboration in the sector.

LK: Yes. I think of the following three things.

First, we will continue our long-term work on improving American democracy. Nothing about the election changes that. We will learn and adapt to a changing world, but that’s always true for any long-term philanthropic effort, and any modifications will be in pursuit of the same long-term goal.

Second, we have other important goals: mitigating climate change, preserving biodiversity, protecting women’s reproductive health and rights, etc. And there we may have to adapt. But those goals, too, remain as important as ever, and there's no reason to abandon them. So we wouldn’t suddenly say, “Oh no, let's stop doing that, let's do something else.”

Finally, third, there may be particular, unexpected things that happen as a result of the election that we can address. After 2016, there was the Pence Commission, but also the Census. We used our flexible funds to play a role with other funders on those things, and we may do so again.

For instance, there were a group of funders after the election who wanted to take proactive steps to protect the social safety net. It was a public education campaign, and we participated even though this isn’t an area in which we typically work. But I thought we should all help each other, so we supported the effort, basically just following what the more experienced funders thought should be done. It succeeded, and the benefits remain secure.

EK: When you think about your peer community at NCG, is there anything in your long-term thinking that would be instructive?

LK: Maybe the following: There is a balance that needs to be struck between continuing to work on problems that you have been working on, and adapting to changing circumstances. Finding that balance is a challenge every funder faces. If we don’t change, people say we are slow and stodgy; if we do change, they say we are fickle and flighty. Whoever doesn’t like what you do or don’t do will criticize. Keep your eye on the long term, because that’s something philanthropic organizations are uniquely able to do.  More than government, more than markets. But there really is a balance to be struck, and you need to be thoughtful about striking it.

EK: In life, too.

LK: Absolutely. In life, too.