Larry Kramer, president of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, penned a letter in which he reflects on philanthropy after, what he calls, “a year as tumultuous and unsettling as 2017.” Kramer points out the spirit of a funder’s work, the responsibility to steward tactfully a foundation’s resources, and the adaptations and responses required to navigate changes in the political landscape in the US and abroad.
It has not been my usual practice to write annual letters—they feel at odds with the foundation’s commitment to “operating in the modest, low-key style of our founders.” But after a year as tumultuous and unsettling as 2017, a few words seem appropriate. Not to cheerlead or sound a clarion call to the barricades; everyone working in the social sector understands that extraordinary events are afoot and fundamental values are being tested. What matters now, is not rhetoric, but how we meet these tests—substantively, and on the ground.This is especially true for a funder. We don’t do the work that matters: we support other people and organizations who do. Yet that must be balanced against our responsibility to steward the foundation’s resources wisely—a duty that lies here, with us, and that cannot be outsourced to others. How, then, should we weigh what our grantees say and want against our own best judgment about what’s happening and what we should do? How do we find the right balance between change and continuity? That’s a difficult question in the best of circumstances, so the very least we can do is to explain clearly the adjustments we’re making, and why.
We did a lot of adjusting on the fly this past year, learning and adapting to changes in the landscape while trying not to lose sight of principles that have guided us well for more than 50 years. That’s particularly challenging at times like these, when so much that we have taken for granted—shortsightedly it seems—is under threat.
I am thinking especially of democratic institutions, both in the United States and abroad. Having spent most of my adult life studying and writing about U.S. constitutional history, it’s hard to watch the cracks that have emerged continue to widen, even harder to stomach the hate-filled tribalism that passes for public discourse these days. That much, ironically, seems to be shared across the political spectrum. Sometimes, it feels like it’s the only thing shared.
When cynicism or hopelessness creeps in, I remind myself of what inspired Bill and Flora Hewlett to create this charitable foundation: their belief in the capacity of people to do good and to become better. Certainly there is evil in the world, and people can do incomprehensibly awful things. Institutions run by individuals acting in complete good faith can commit, or ignore, terrible wrongs. Our task is to help rectify these wrongs—something we do motivated not by anger, an understandable but unhelpful reaction, but rather from a firm conviction that we can all learn, can all change, can all become better. The work of philanthropy rests, and in the end depends, on this abiding faith in the dignity of individuals and the possibility of progress.
The Hewlett Foundation’s approach to philanthropy flows directly from this hope and ethos. The Hewletts may not have foreseen things like climate change or the rise of social media, but they built into the DNA of their foundation some enduring values that continue to guide us and to which we continue to aspire.
Topping the list, our first Guiding Principle, is a commitment to “seek to bring about meaningful, socially beneficial change in the fields in which we work.” That principle was on my mind a great deal in 2017. As I have written elsewhere, when it comes to complex social problems, meaningful social change is not achieved by quick fixes. Effective philanthropy requires becoming part of and helping to nurture an ecosystem of grantees, beneficiaries, and other funders whose efforts, cumulatively and over time, can deliver lasting impact. This means making long-term commitments, while leaving room for goals and strategies to adapt and change with the times.
Our emphasis in 2017 was heavy on the adaptation side of that equation. Changes in the political landscape, both in the U.S. and abroad, threatened progress and exacerbated problems we’ve been working on for years. We responded by allocating more than $60 million in available flexible funds to bolster our most vulnerable strategies. These extra funds, spent on top of ongoing grantmaking of roughly $400 million, enabled us to pivot responsibly and try new things while our grantees adjusted, altering their own strategies or making new efforts.
As 2018 begins, I want to talk about strategic adjustments we made, and what lies ahead, in three areas: women’s reproductive health in the U.S., climate change, and democratic dysfunction. After that, I’ll close with a few words about developments in a fourth area—diversity, equity and inclusion—that was a matter of concern long before the events of last year but that has become ever more meaningful in their wake.