Last month the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a recent and rare interview with mega-philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs that challenged me. In reading it, I found echoes of my search for a new chapter when I was contemplating retirement, a resonance that surprised me. It also challenged me to re-examine my long-standing critique of this generation of mega-philanthropists that Ms. Powell Jobs is a member of.
Ms. Powell Jobs, whose personal wealth is currently estimated to total almost $12 billion, focused on how she could best improve her community and our world. In speaking to the WSJ, she reflected on how she came to that point. “Growing wealth is not interesting to me. What’s interesting to me is working with people and listening to them and helping to solve problems. I also felt that given my life experiences, I was in a place where I was old enough that I knew I wasn’t going to change—I wasn’t going to get corrupted. I felt I was in a good place to try to deploy it.”
Ms. Jobs decided this was the moment to use her wealth philanthropically but she chose to do it in a unique, non-traditional manner. She formed the Emerson Collective which, according to the WSJ, “was established as a limited liability company, not a charitable foundation. The name is a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose quote she borrows as a slogan of sorts: ‘In one soul, in your soul, there are resources for the world.’ Foundations carry restrictions that dramatically limit the ability to make investments, and face broad reporting requirements to maintain their tax-exempt status. LLCs, which have become a favorite of the wealthy for myriad purposes from buying homes to running family offices, are more agile and discreet. They also don’t require explanatory paperwork to be filed for every financial move—though, like any for-profit structure, they are subject to income tax. “
In her interview, she shared her motivations for this approach. “’ We can find the most compelling use for the dollar without any restrictions,’ says Powell Jobs, who brings a venture-capital mindset to finding and supporting charismatic nonprofit founders with big ideas. Most of what they think about at Emerson, she adds, is ‘how you can come and wrap around problems, issues, domains, so that in totality, it combines in a symbiotic way and rolls up to some really lasting changes.’… ‘Money is the fuel for our work. I really don’t want it to be used as leverage. I don’t want it to be used as power,’ she says. ‘Sometimes there is an unhealthy dynamic between the donors and the people receiving the donation,’ she adds. “Having money as a tool to try to manifest the goodness, it’s a gift. I take it very, very seriously….I believe deeply that the way we do work could be helpful to other people who are looking to work in the social sector,’ says Powell Jobs. ‘Integrating venture investing or private equity or any kind of for-profit investing and then advocacy, artists, activists and philanthropy—all of it—can be done in a much more comprehensive way.’”
These words resonated with me. Ms. Powell Jobs and I share similar motivations about leaving the world better than we found it and we both approach our work with a confidence in our abilities to figure out solutions to difficult challenges. (Or should I call it what it really is – egotism?) What distinguishes us is that I do not have a huge fortune to support my efforts. Like most of us, I can give my time, I can make modest charitable gifts as well. But I do not, with either, have the power that Ms. Jobs, like all mega-philanthropists, has solely because of the size of her bankbook.
And that is where I continue to see a major problem.
Ms. Powell Jobs and other mega-philanthropists have the ability, because of their wealth, to intervene in ways that are unavailable to most people. Not only can they select the issues and the problems they have an interest in but they can decide with little oversight what the best solutions for that problem are. They do not have to work with governmental or non-profit organizations already working in their areas of choice. They do not have to listen to any outside or public input if they do not wish to. And they have little accountability for the good or harm they do as they move forward. Their impact is limited only by their willingness to not take the lead or direct. This is a level of control available to only the very wealthy.
Here’s how the Washington Post described the power that great wealth gives Ms. Powell Jobs and her peers. Her “grand plan was unstated while its methods of spurring social change implied that simply funding good works is no longer enough. The engine Powell Jobs had designed was equal parts think tank, foundation, venture capital fund, media baron, arts patron and activist hive. Certainly, it was an original creation — and potentially a powerful one. “I’d like us to be a place where great leaders want to come and try to do difficult things,” Powell Jobs told me recently. “I think we bring a lot more to the table than money. … If you want to just be a check writer, you’d run out of money and not solve anything.”
The ability to put a lot of money behind an effort to attack an important societal problem and to try a novel approach can lead to a positive outcome. Ms.Powell Jobs turned her attention to the problem of street violence in Chicago, an area that, indeed, needs attention. With her resources, she was able to start a new anti-violence program on top of those already in existence. “Chicago CRED —CREATE REAL ECONOMIC DESTINY— is an anti-gun violence organization…” established as a charitable foundation with major funding from Ms. Powell Jobs ($22.8 million or 2/3 of the total receipts in 2020). The resources added by Ms. Powell Jobs are certainly needed.
In this case, the early reviews of the program are promising. A Northwestern University Policy institute study found that “early results suggest that CRED (a) successfully locates high-risk populations, (b) successfully connects participants to intensive programming, and (c) potentially reduces the risk of involvement of gun violence of its participants in the short term. Importantly, this emerging evidence on CRED demonstrates that outreach can be an effective tool at reaching individuals who are at high levels of risk for involvement in gun violence and are, for a variety of reasons, ‘hard to reach.’”
In the same way, Ms. Powell Jobs launched the XQ Institute: “We believe young people everywhere deserve vibrant high schools, where students can grow to the fullest as civic participants, critical readers, proactive problem solvers, original thinkers, generous collaborators, and learners for life.” She believes she knew best how to reinvent the Public High School. She looked past the lessons that The Gates Foundation and other mega-philanthropists have taught us many times over as it injected huge sums into its vision of how to rebuild our national system of public education with little benefit and much damage being left in its wake. Charter Schools, Vouchers, Small Schools, high-stakes testing, the common core curriculum, and “value-based” teacher evaluations all were thrust onto the educational main stage because mega-philanthropists had the power to impose them on an underfunded educational system.
That Ms. Powell Jobs cares about creating a better world is wonderful. That is willing to invest in that effort is as well. But that she, like many of her peers, acts as if she is unaccountable to anyone but herself is very problematic. The problems she has targeted are complex. They are not a private concern.
Northwestern’s evaluation of Chicago CRED recognized that “such efforts must extend beyond participants to include neighborhood- and city-level efforts to improve the neighborhoods, schools, and employment conditions in which CRED participants and other young people like them live. Outreach can locate and connect these individuals with services, but outreach is not enough. Programs like CRED—that strive to extend the lives and opportunities of those most impacted by gun violence—must be further developed and more fully integrated into neighborhood, city, and state level efforts to improve neighborhood safety and community thriving. “
The desire to use your personal skills and resources for more than just earning more money was what motivated me when I retired ten years ago and was facing the need to decide what would come next for me. Like Ms. Jobs, I was fortunate enough to not to need to work to support myself and my family. Like Ms. Jobs, I thought the skills I had acquired over a lengthy career might be of value to non-profit organizations as they worked to improve the lives of people whom our society was leaving behind. I also had the ability to become more philanthropic without affecting our lifestyle.
Like Ms. Powell Jobs, I have opinions about how best to solve many difficult problems. But I am unable to impose them unilaterally. I am unable to use my money to put my thoughts into action although I believe they are important, and new and will be successful where others have failed. That Ms. Jobs and other mega-philanthropists do have such power is problematic. I must work within a system and with others if I wish to have an impact. They do not.
My having to do so is slow and messy. But is at the core of democracy and community. We give up a lot when we allow such great wealth to be amassed into personal fortunes. We give up a lot when we buy into the myth that wealth and wisdom go hand and hand. We give up a lot when we allow personal belief to override collective wisdom.
The challenge of controlling the power of wealth is daunting. But we cannot continue to look away from the problems it is causing.