Public Commentary / 15 February 2022

Philanthropy Must Disrupt Polarization Before It Does Irreparable Harm to the Field and Those It Serves

Photo by Mark Jones

Much discussion of late has focused on how the rise of polarization around the globe is affecting politics, democracy, and culture. Very little, however, has been said about its destructive effects on philanthropy — specifically, how increasing polarization threatens to undermine the essential role that philanthropy plays in society.

Polarization, like Covid-19 or systemic racism, has the potential to alter much about how philanthropy is conceived and practiced. The question for societies, as well as for grant makers, is whether we can disrupt polarization before it seriously disrupts us.

Extreme polarization directly threatens philanthropy’s ability to live up to its promise as “society’s passing gear,” as educator and urbanist Paul Ylvisaker described the field. Philanthropy is the spark that ignites transformational change. It is a resource for developing original ideas, supporting visionary leaders, and helping organizations bring groundbreaking programs to scale. Unlike government and the business world, philanthropy isn’t constrained by short-term thinking, which makes it uniquely poised to tackle large, structural problems.

But grant making aimed at tackling enormous challenges such as economic inequality, systemic racism, and climate change can’t flourish if the toxic divisions of our time are allowed to metastasize. These divisions promote rigid thinking. They limit the exchange of ideas. And they inhibit the kind of collaboration and partnership necessary to make and sustain long-term progress.

Fortunately, foundations and nonprofits are starting to recognize these dangers. Philanthropic organizations such as the New Pluralists and the Center for Effective Philanthropy, through its Bridging Divides learning series, are advancing creative grant-making approaches to address polarization. At the international level, a group of foundations is supporting work by the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford to develop a curriculum on leading in polarized societies.

But while plenty of work has focused on the rise in polarization, especially in the United States, the reality is that little is known about what types of approaches are most effective in preventing toxic polarization from settling in — or reversing it once it takes root.

Without turning our attention directly to this complex global problem and the specific strategies needed to address it, philanthropy and the causes it supports may end up in a continuously reactive response mode to those who deliberately and actively foment division and distrust across different societal groups.

Causes and Consequences

To that end, we at the Ford Foundation and the Institute for Integrated Transitions have joined forces to launch the Global Initiative on Polarization. Drawing on our respective strengths, the project aims to deepen understanding of the diverse causes and consequences of severe polarization in both democratic and nondemocratic settings.

The four-year project will start by identifying and analyzing organizations and programs across the globe focused on combating polarization. International and regional gatherings will be held to bring together experts and people affected by our growing divides to exchange lessons and debate ways to prevent toxic polarization from arising or becoming more entrenched. We will also select eight to 10 countries in which to test and deploy strategies for addressing polarization. All of this will feed into the creation of an interactive resource hub and practical grant-making framework for mitigating polarization.

Our particular interest is in the nexus of polarization and violent confrontation — the tipping point at which polarization goes from being merely corrosive to catastrophic.

For organizations dedicated to social justice and accountability, this can be an especially sensitive point because so often their work is unfairly attacked as polarizing by people interested in maintaining the status quo or gaining political power. But anyone who has witnessed a country cross the tipping point into violent confrontation on a significant scale can attest to the value of including marginalized voices before polarization becomes an unstoppable force. Multiple studies have shown that social, political, and economic exclusion, enforced by state repression, poses a grave risk of violent conflict.

New Alliances

Addressing the harms of rising polarization will require not only more evidence and varied strategies, but also new alliances from different fields and across regions — all working together to find solutions. We will need to build bridges — not just between groups, but within them — to reduce the barriers and social costs for those who venture beyond an expected set of narrow allegiances.

As we know from nations such as South Africa and Northern Ireland, lasting peace does not come from everyone holding a common narrative. Instead, it emerges in environments where many diverse narratives are encouraged to thrive together and where plurality and participation replace simplification and polarization.

While we may never defeat polarization, we can create a structured process to identify and respond to its symptoms, and thus work to contain it. Building up this emerging field will ultimately help philanthropy deliver the broad consensus required to effectively support the causes we care about — and avoid the type of extreme divisions that stand in the way of change.

By working together, philanthropic efforts to fight polarization will become deeper and stronger. And all our organizations will be equipped with the strategies, tools, and alliances we need to reduce rampant polarization before it’s too late.

Originally published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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