Day One of #GPF19

This year’s conference is focused on the imperative of reclaiming democracy and how the next generation will give vitality to democratic norms and modernize democratic institutions. The plenary sessions will feature different actors and how they are helping to solve the big problems of the day through technology, collaboration, communication and sharing of information.


Michael Ignatieff, president and rector of the Central European University (CEU), ignited an early call to action as we began three days of discussions about democracy, which Michael Ignatieff proclaimed is itself “being used to weaken democracy.” As public discourse has moved towards “we the people against the elites,” educational institutions everywhere have an increasingly important role to play in teaching the next generation how to discern fact from opinion, how to manage conflict and disagreement with respect and how to re-engage in constructive civic dialogue. The next generation has lost faith in representative democracy and our legitimacy as servants of democracy is at stake. The good news is we have the talent and commitment to work together to come up with effective solutions.


The first full panel of the day set the tone around the extreme urgency of this year’s theme. Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, says “democracy is on life support and has been stagnating for over 12 years.” Growing economic inequality and insecurity at all levels has provided fertile ground for the disinformation and cynicism being promulgated in social media. This has in turn fueled intolerance and hate, said Kati Marton, trustee at CEU, who works on the issue through the lens of the European immigration crisis and the rise of extremist groups. In the face of these challenges, Brad Smith, president of Candid (formerly Foundation Center and Guidestar), says that philanthropies are uniquely positioned to work on these issues and encourage us all to listen and pay attention to all voices.


There are those who believe that democratic movements are generated and strengthened from the grassroots, and some who believe we need to work from the top through stronger national/global institutions. While the former is always necessary, Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, believes that it will be insufficient to grapple with the biggest issues of our time. Meryl Chertoff, executive director, Justice and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, emphasized that “just existing side by side with tolerance isn’t enough.” Engagement must be active and come from every level of society, especially harnessing the naturally curious energy of young people on behalf of liberal democracy. Philanthropists must share resources, work together and take on the bigger issues of our time together, said Larry Kramer, adding that “since everything else you’re working on will get undone if these institutions collapse.”


As we learned in the previous sessions, the collapse of democratic institutions and processes cannot be resolved within the same paradigms that created the collapse in the first place. Jeremy Heimans, co-founder and CEO of Purpose, proposes a way to think about this conundrum that differentiates “old power” (control, separation, competition, managerialism) from “new power” (cooperation, agency, shared control). The most effective institutions today are blending old power and new power, as is being done by Giving Tuesday, represented in this session by Asha Curran, co-founder. She described Giving Tuesday as a movement that has “many leaders” and thrives on its very decentralized structure. Philanthropists can help organizations to determine what power strategy is needed and how to build it effectively.


One of the most important tools for collaboration is data, which is the focus of a session with Stephen King, CEO, Luminate, Sandor Léderer, co-founder and director of K-Monitor, and Sean McDonald, co-founder of Digital Public and CEO of FrontlineSMS. The panel discussed the effect of technology on democracy, which can be very positive but also has high risks and dangers. Data and technology are expensive to manage and use effectively, so all agreed that one of our important roles as philanthropists is to help NGOs develop strong networks to share information in a way that is safe for them and for their beneficiaries. We in the philanthropy space need to work together to support improved regulation and protection of vulnerable populations, and we need invest resources in making data the powerful tool it is meant to be.


The first day closed with a discussion of identity and how we can develop a healthy democracy beyond hate. John Wood Jr., director of media development with Better Angels, says that the more we know about each other the more difficult it is to hate each other; there is a human experience behind every opinion. Mehrdad Baghai, founder and global CEO of High Resolves, believes that hatred is a learned behavior, which means it can be unlearned through holding up a mirror to our conditioning if started early on. And Christian Picciolini, founder of the Free Radicals Project, experienced first-hand how hatred and intolerance become the dominant narrative when there is abandonment and loneliness, especially in childhood. While there are many factors at play, all three speakers stated their belief that philanthropists can have the most beneficial impact on this problem by educating future generations to listen and connect across divides with empathy.