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Funders, Turn Adversaries into Accomplices

Highly recommend this piece by Theo Kalionzes of the MacArthur Foundation in the Chronicle of Philanthropy urging grant makers to think more creatively about controversial topics. Instead of using foundation dollars to dig deeper political trenches, he argues, use them to turn adversaries into accomplices. 

He comes to this strategy through his work on nuclear power at MacArthur. Though he came in rearing for a fight about proliferation, he found he could do more good by partnering with others interested in climate solutions. This turned into fruitful collaborations between some nuclear nonproliferation experts and the nuclear power industry in service of 1) avoiding climate catastrophe and 2) strengthening policy to protect against nuclear disaster. What an outcome! 

Kalionzes’ work is a fabulous example of what is possible when strategies think bigger and more creatively about how to reach their goals. It can be hard to break out of the trench warfare mindset, but wars of attrition stall progress on all kinds of contentious issues. 

And we are in a war of attrition. 

Americans are pretty equally split over whether they want republicans or democrats in Congress. More minorities support Donald Trump for president in the 2024 election than they did in 2020, giving the lie to Democrats' claims of uniting minorities. More broadly, the right has given up on many of its foundational values to win at the polls - a strategy likely to turn more people away from democratic engagement than toward.

Meanwhile, the left’s wins of the last few decades are being reversed - Dobbs and the Affirmative Action SCOTUS decisions being two of such reversals. The left overall is too busy eating itself alive to unify.

Trench warfare doesn’t seem to be working all that well, to be honest, for either side.

To top it off, we’re all losing our commitment to basic democratic principles along the way. 

Funders have their own part in this warfare. Kalionzes describes the situation he found at MacArthur before they changed strategy: “With the climate crisis intensifying, this wasn’t good enough. By wittingly or unwittingly funding people with biased views on the admittedly controversial topic of nuclear power, we were not just sitting this one out. We were actively undermining a policy debate that demanded serious inquiry.” This reflection accords with Suzette Brooks Masters’ argument about philanthropic contributions to political trench warfare too. 

No one is winning this war.

Funders have an opportunity to get out of the trenches and down to work. Kalionzes lays out four basic steps to do this. I’m paraphrasing these slightly:
1. Be willing to consider alternatives.
2. Seek diverse expertise.
3. Bring together unlikely allies.
4. Test results.

If it seems daunting, reach out to a depolarization strategist like me to help you sort out whether and how you might rethink the possible.  


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