2020 and beyond: Annual grantee conference call

Last week, we held our annual grantee conference calls. Part of the foundation’s ongoing commitment to openness and transparency, the calls give grantees an opportunity to ask our president and senior staff questions about our work. In our President Larry Kramer’s opening remarks, he reflected on the extraordinary challenges of the year and addressed the three topics of most interest to our granteesour response to the global pandemic, steps to address systemic racism, and efforts to safeguard the U.S. election. Watch the video or read the transcript of Larry’s remarks and view a selection of questions and answers about our grantmaking below. 

Let me start by thanking all of you—not just for making the time to participate today, but for everything you’re doing. It’s been a year of extraordinary challenges, and I’m grateful for all that you’re doing. It really is a privilege to support you.

We received a lot of questions in advance—too many to answer if we want time for live questions. But most of the questions focused on three topics of high interest: the global pandemic, racial justice, and the U.S. election. So, let me open by saying a few things about these, and we can then turn to live questions.

The global pandemic

I’ll start with the pandemic, which has affected all our work, as well as taking a huge toll in lives and well-being. Right now, the situation is dire across the nation. Rules for social distancing remain in place throughout California. As you can see, all of us in the Bay Area are working from home. But the number of new cases is still growing globally, as well as in the U.S. At Hewlett, we’re among the lucky people who can continue our work from home, something we’re acutely conscious of—though we regret not being able to travel and meet with all you to better understand your needs and be a good partner.

There is, at the same time, good news given the remarkable progress in vaccine development. It’s a cliché, but we really can begin to see light at the end of the tunnel. That said, the end is still a ways off, and much remains to be seen about how quickly the vaccines can be manufactured and how they will be distributed globally and in the U.S., and especially to the most vulnerable.

Lacking expertise, we have not shifted gears to work on global public health and remain focused on our core areas of grantmaking. We continue to be as flexible as possible when it comes to grant conditions and requirements, which we have heard from many of you has been helpful in enabling you to pivot to most pressing needs. That’s been a long-term commitment at Hewlett, but we were happy to see other funders shift toward providing flexible funds. Hopefully, they’ll stick with that after the pandemic ends.

We did make several pandemic-related moves aligned with our work or long-term goals. Together with other local funders, we made $10 million in grants for broad COVID relief, alongside significant efforts to address the profound needs of the performing arts sector in the Bay Area, which was particularly hard hit.

Emiko Ono, who directs our Performing Arts program, can go into this in greater depth if anyone has questions, but it included a special one-time allocation of $17 million to help key organizations that will be essential in rebuilding the sector prepare and adapt. We also made grants to help make the election work despite the health crisis.

Addressing systemic racism

Next, as you all know, several months into the pandemic, the latest series of high profile police killings of Black men and women broke open concerns about racism that have been building for years. Like every organization in philanthropy, the resulting protests and national awakening deeply affected and moved the foundation and its staff and board.

We have been actively working on improving the foundation’s practices respecting diversity, equity and inclusion since my first year at the foundation; I’ve talked about that during these calls in the past. But the outcry led us to realize that focusing broadly on DEI issues was insufficient and that we need to attend more specifically to systemic and anti-Black racism. While equity and racial justice have been elements in much of our past work, and had recently become more central in many of our strategies, Hewlett had not historically addressed systemic racism directly, and events this year served as a call to action.

I wrote about this on our website earlier in the summer, when we announced a number of new steps we’re taking to combat systemic racism specifically. These include more intentionally addressing systemic racism in our ongoing programs, new grantmaking commitments of $170 million to address the problem directly, and internal steps to better align our culture and operations with these commitments.

In terms of funding, we awarded the first $18 million in grants this year to address anti-Black racism. These one-time grants went to organizations working across a range of issues, including education, health, and economic inequality, to name a few. Part of the funding went to the Democracy Frontlines Fund, a collaboration organized by the Libra Foundation with 10 other funders, to support frontline organizations working on systemic racism in the political and criminal justice systems. Knowing we have a lot to learn, we’re glad to partner with other, more experienced donors and frontline groups.

The next step in our grantmaking commitments is to develop a new racial justice initiative. The board has allocated $150 million for an initial 10-year effort, and we are presently exploring where and how to focus it. We expect to launch something in 2021.

Meanwhile, and at the same time, our existing programs are all looking into how systemic racism may affect their work and whether there are ways to address it that will enhance our ability to achieve the foundation’s programmatic goals. Inside the foundation, we created a new role for a Chief of Equity and Culture, who will report to me, bolster our internal operations, and oversee the development of our racial justice initiative and the hiring of the initiative director. That search is ongoing. We also began facilitated conversation about race among our teams, started one-on-one racial justice coaching for everyone on the Senior Staff (which we will make available to the whole staff), and begun planning a series of talks and lectures on the history and nature of systemic racism in the U.S. There’s a lot to do, and a lot to learn, but we’ve started.

Safeguarding the U.S. election

The third topic many of you asked about was the U.S. election. First, I want to thank the many grantees who worked to help safeguard the vote. Another response to the pandemic, this was an incredible effort on your part. In just a few short months, you successfully shifted complicated voting processes to enable everyone who was eligible and wanted to vote to do so in the middle of a pandemic. Reliable, independent sources, as well as election officials from both parties, say this was the most secure election ever, even with the highest turnout since 1900. And despite the best efforts of President Trump and his supporters to disrupt the post-election process, it has proceeded smoothly and exactly on schedule right up to today’s meeting of Electors in all 50 states. It’s really remarkable.

That said, the relentless disinformation about and attacks on the election have taken a toll. Mistrust in our electoral system has been building for years, but the events of 2020 have taken it a few notches. We may have gotten through the election, but there is a great deal of critical repair work that needs to be done. And now. The Hewlett Foundation will be part of that effort.

Earlier this year, our board voted to convert what had been a time-limited special initiative (the Madison Initiative) into an ongoing program. The new U.S. Democracy Program thus takes its place alongside our other longstanding programs in environment, education, reproductive health and global governance, philanthropy, and the Bay Area. Among other things, the program will continue our work on digital disinformation, but with a new focus on elections and as part of a larger effort to rebuild trust in the electoral system. It will likewise continue our work to strengthen Congress, but with complementary efforts to strengthen and rebuild the executive branch. Like all of you, we’re also thinking about the results in Congress and the states, not to mention watching the Biden transition, to understand how the landscape may have changed for the issues we work on.

One last announcement. Some of you might have noticed that we just launched a new Economy & Society Initiative. This has been in the works for a couple of years. The rise of ethno-nationalism in the U.S. and around the world reflects and responds to a widespread loss of faith in the institutions and ideas that have broadly structured politics since at least the 1970s. To counter that, we need some kind of new “common sense” about the relationship between government, markets, and people: one better than blaming them on some “other” or on some secret evil elite.

Societies always have a prevailing wisdom about how the economy works and what its proper aims should be: think of mercantilism in the 18th century, or laissez faire in the 19th century, or Keynesianism in the mid-20th century. For the past 40 years, the prevailing model in the U.S. (and much of the rest of the world) – embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike – has been what we have come to call “neoliberalism.” It’s a variation on laissez faire (hence the “neo”) based on the notion that society consists of individuals in competition, that our goal as a society is to generate wealth without much regard for its distribution, and that free markets are the best tool for that.

However useful this approach may have been in addressing problems at an earlier time, it is failing now—as evidenced by things like skyrocketing wealth inequality and our inability to address problems like climate change that need government solutions. We need a new way of thinking about government, markets, and their relationship to society to shift the underlying terms of debate and open up space for solutions that neoliberalism is currently choking off.

There’s real ferment on both right and left to think differently, and we believe that philanthropic investment in ideas can make a difference. Neoliberalism was promoted by patient philanthropy in the 1950s and 60s, and we need to do something similar now.

Q&A Highlights

Performing Arts

We received several questions about the adaptation funding in our Performing Arts Program. Program Director Emiko Ono provides more details on that work.

Unrestricted giving

Vice President Fay Twersky and Global Development Program Director Dana Hovig answer the question: “Hewlett has been a long-time leader in the cause of unrestricted giving to nonprofits, both as a grantmaker and as a thought leader in the field of philanthropy. But do you see evidence of other foundations embracing more flexible forms of support in the face of the pandemic? Are there ways we can use the experience of navigating COVID, with all the nimbleness that has been required, to shift the paradigm in a sustainable way so that unrestricted giving becomes more of a norm among foundations?”


Economy and Society Initiative

We received a number of questions about our new Economy and Society Initiative. Jennifer Harris discusses the goals of the new strategy, how the initiative is positioned generally, and how it intersects with our work in education and climate.

Climate and Energy

Environment Program Director answers two questions about our grantmaking:

“Joe Biden’s election presents a huge opportunity to advance climate policy in the US, especially as the G20 and COP26 meetings are both held next year. Is Hewlett considering allocating funding specifically for the U.S. climate policy to catch up from previous years?”

“How is Hewlett reacting to the broader realization that we need to increase investments in frontline communities who have and have always had solutions in the battle against climate change and environmental degradation that is disproportionately killing and destroying our communities?”

U.S. Democracy

U.S. Democracy Program Director Daniel Stid answers the question: “This year, we’ve seen a groundswell of funding toward democracy due to the threats to the election, including from foundations that hadn’t previously funded in this space. Is there concern that these funders could lose interest in democracy issues? Any thoughts on what Hewlett could do to help signal to their peers that these issues won’t disappear once Trump is out of office?”

Education and racial justice

Education Program Director Kent McGuire answers the question: “Could you talk about how you’re thinking about the national reckoning around racism in the Education portfolio? How can that produce positive changes for the K-12 education system?”

Financial outlook

Larry Kramer answers questions about the foundation’s financial situation: “Given the uncertainty of the global economy and the ambiguity about whether vaccines will bring the pandemic under control, what’s the financial outlook for Hewlett and the foundation sector in general? How can we think about macroeconomic trends and other medium to long-term dynamics that affect the foundation’s position in 5, 10, even 20 years?”

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