Outgoing philanthropy exec says this era is like the 1920s, when ‘A lot of people became fascists, and a lot of people became communists’

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Larry Kramer, longtime president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, doesn’t think it’s healthy for an executive to lead the same organization for more than 15 years. The problem, he says, is that it takes 10 years for a leader to get anything done.

Nevertheless, Kramer, known for his early support of the fight against climate change, will make his own deadline. At the end of 2023, he will step down from his role from the organization he has led since 2012.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Kramer talks about how Hewlett became the largest climate funder in the world from 2007 to 2018, as well as started funding around cybersecurity, political polarization in the context of democracy and reimagining capitalism. The AP receives funding for climate coverage from several philanthropies, including Hewlett.

“We’re really broadly across the field,” Kramer says about Hewlett’s climate funding. “When we spot problems, we’ll start (working on) them and people will often follow. And that’s been true of a number of things in recent years, whether it’s carbon dioxide removal, finance, there’s a number of different areas.”

An expert in constitutional law, Kramer will go on to be the president and vice chancellor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The Hewlett Foundation has launched a search to hire a replacement. The interview was edited for clarity and length.

Q: Speaking of economics, could you talk about how we might decrease inequality here in the U.S.?

I don’t want to answer it in terms of specific policies because there are a whole lot of specific policies that could do that. The challenge is making them seem intuitively appealing and obvious to people. The neoliberal paradigm is definitely crumbling. I think there’s almost a consensus that it has crumbled. The question is what replaces it?

So if you think about the crumbling of the laissez faire paradigm in the 1920s and the wake of World War I and the Great Depression, it wasn’t clear what would supersede. A lot of people became fascists, and a lot of people became communists. I think we’re in a similar period of uncertainty, which is a big part of the political turmoil that you had then and you have now. You had in the 1960s when the Keynesian order collapsed and neoliberalism ended up taking place. That wasn’t a given. So I think everything is being renegotiated. We see the rise of authoritarianism and ethnonationalism filling that gap too. That’s not a good outcome. So we have to offer people something better

Q: What have major philanthropic donors learned about where they can influence fostering an inclusive and representative democracy?

I think you can break the philanthropic contributions down into two separate pieces. The one piece, the more common piece and the easier piece, is the one that looks at particular problems and tries to fix them. We need to get rid of the obstacles to people voting. We need to solve the problem of campaign finance. We need to solve the distortions created in representation by gerrymandering. Think of those as kind of good government solutions. The other part, which is where we focused, is actually on a precondition for democracy. The precondition for a democracy to exist at all is that the people within the political society see themselves as part of the same political community, notwithstanding their differences. If they divide themselves into warring camps and see the other as enemy, then the democracy cannot survive, no matter what kind of processes you create.

Q: You’ve worked on a lot of collaboratives. How do you get another foundation with its own mission and own momentum to join with you?

It has to be a CEO to CEO conversation because the program directors or program officers aren’t necessarily in a position where they can reprogram or add new dollars. Number two is you have to have a compelling story. The Biden administration decided to try to do this global methane pledge. The IRA got passed. So you can go to somebody and say what you’re doing is great. We think that about what we’re doing, too. But here’s this new thing, and we cannot afford to let this opportunity go away. So we’ve got to put money into it and here’s a way to do it where we can really maximize the impact. And so it’s having an actual story and a reason to make a change, something that’s changed in the world that creates a new opportunity.Q: What advice would you have for newer megadonors on organizing their giving?

How do you learn to do anything? Go call people, ask, meet. I’ve had some new funders come and meet with me. When I got to Hewlett, I spent my first year meeting with CEOs of all the other major foundations just to learn from them. And then I developed relationships that I could continue to learn from. I will tell one one thing that I think gets missed. The Hewletts started doing philanthropy young when they started the company back in the 1940s. So by the time they launched their foundation in 1966 — and even more by the time they professionalized it in 1977 — they were pretty experienced philanthropists. A lot of these new funders, they’re really in the same place that Bill and Flora were in the 1940s. It’s just that they have a lot of money because they earned it very fast. And so people are paying more attention, but they’re going through the same journey that any philanthropist does, which is figuring it out as they go along.


Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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