Cultural philanthropy: Influencing the culture to improve the world

Disclosure: I personally know some of the people discussed in this article.

When you decide to use your money to do good, you’re presented with a plethora of options. You might purchase malaria nets, or give direct cash transfers to the world’s poorest. You could fund research on AI safety, or lobby for new climate change policies. Or you could walk down the street and give some money to a homeless person in your community.

But there is another kind of philanthropy—one that is much less common, but growing in importance. It’s based on the idea that the culture we live in influences the decisions of everyday people, entrepreneurs and policymakers. Recognising that influence, this kind of philanthropy wants to change that culture.

I’m going to call this “cultural philanthropy”. It is very distinct from other forms of supporting culture, e.g. building a new wing at the Met or paying for stage-hands’ balaclavas at the Royal Opera House (no, seriously). That kind of philanthropy is done out of a general love for the arts (and, often, a desire for status). “Cultural philanthropy”, as I use the phrase, is specifically defined by a clear theory of change: the idea is to use culture to disseminate ideas that will go on to change the world.

Stripe and its founders, the Collison brothers, are two prominent examples of cultural philanthropists. Stripe Press, a publishing division of the payments giant, produces books, articles, podcasts and films with a view to improving the world. Whether exploring why technological development has stalled or advocating for better heat systems, Stripe Press is laser-focused on diagnosing the world’s problems and offering solutions. Neither Stripe nor the Collisons will directly make money from this (though they do hope that by increasing “the GDP of the internet”, Stripe will be able to take a cut). The primary motivation is altruistic. The hope, it seems, is that distributing these ideas might make people think about things differently, encouraging them to make better decisions, which will in turn put humanity on a better path.

Sam Bankman-Fried, a crypto billionaire and effective altruist, is another advocate for cultural philanthropy. His FTX Future Fund is explicit about it: its website claims that “books and media are enormously important for exploring ideas, shaping the culture, and focusing society’s attention on specific issues.” Unlike the Collisons, who are doing much of this culture-changing-work in-house, SBF takes a more distributed approach: he’s funding a $500,000 blogging prize for “effective ideas”. This is similar to some of the work Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, two other effective altruists, fund through Open Philanthropy, their foundation. Open Philanthropy has recently given grants to YouTubers promoting effective altruist ideas. And while it appears to be picking up steam, cultural philanthropy isn’t entirely new: the Rockefeller Foundation’s previous support for Future Perfect and the Gates Foundation’s support for The Guardian are older examples (though still quite recent!).

You might draw parallels between this and the billionaires who philanthropically own news outlets, such as Jeff Bezos with The Washington Post, Marc Benioff with Time and Laurene Powell Jobs with The Atlantic. But this is different. For one, those organisations are still run somewhat like a business—profit is not an afterthought. More importantly, Bezos, Benioff and Powell Jobs all seem interested in the idea of journalism in and of itself, as being key to a healthy democracy. They are less interested in the specific ideas those publications disseminate, and they don’t have nearly as much editorial control over them.1

Nor is it quite like the Murdochian approach to media. Rupert Murdoch’s outlets are certainly no stranger to advocacy, but I don’t think they promote those ideas because he wants the world to be a certain way. He instead chases audiences, profit and power for its own sake. (The Sun switching from supporting the Tories to Labour and back again is a good example of this, as is his reluctance to back Trump at the beginning of his 2016 campaign. Murdoch just wants to back winners.)

If there is an analog to the Collison-SBF-Moskovitz approach, it is billionaire funding of think tanks. In both cases, the hope is to spread valuable ideas. But rather than doing all the work in house and taking a narrow focus on who might receive the ideas, the new approach takes a more bottom-up approach, finding ideas where they might arise, and hoping they take root in the culture.2 (It is not a coincidence, I think, that two of the people leading Stripe Press’s Works In Progress are former think-tankers; nor that the Collisons, SBF and Open Philanthropy all also fund the new Institute For Progress think tank).

The strategy has a plausible, if uncertain, theory of change. Matthew Yglesias summed it up quite well while discussing Future, a much-hyped online publication from Andreessen Horowitz:

“I think to make pro-tech, pro-markets, pro-innovation sustainable, you need a public culture that reflects those values. That means publications that propound them.”

Like many of the philanthropists funding this work, I have a pro-tech, pro-markets and pro-innovation worldview—which means I view this sort of cultural philanthropy as something that could be really good for the world. But, as with all things, views differ. Reasonable people might dislike the views of SBF, Moskovitz and the Collisons. And some people funding similar projects have very different views: most notably Peter Thiel, who promotes views I find repellent (and, in the case of René Girard’s mimetic theory, just plain weird). And while I believe most of these people—including Thiel!—have good intentions and genuinely want to make the world better, that will not always be the case. It is entirely plausible that people will masquerade as cultural philanthropists while actually spreading ideas that serve only their interests.

That isn’t necessarily a problem: people ought to be allowed to back whatever ideas they want. But we need to emphasise transparency. As money pours into cultural philanthropy, certain ideas will gain traction that otherwise wouldn’t have. Yet without transparency, the average person—even the average lawmaker—might not know that the only reason they’re suddenly hearing about a certain policy is because a couple of Silicon Valley billionaires wanted it to be heard. And if they did know that, maybe they’d think about it a bit more critically. While this problem is important, it is by no means a dealbreaker. Something as simple as clear, prominent disclosures on the bottom of each philanthropically-funded article would help, I think—as would clear statements from the philanthropists on what they are doing, and why they’re doing it.3

But transparency aside, I am broadly optimistic about the potential of cultural philanthropy. As FTX notes, culture plays a key role in how both the ruling class and the masses understand the world, and subtly shifting it in a more positive direction could have significant gains. A world in which “cheems mindset” is common parlance and serious consideration is given to the benefits of frontier technologies like artificial wombs strikes me as a very appealing one. The cultural philanthropists might help us get there.

Footnotes

1. Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition fits in this category, too: if his stated motivations are true, he is buying the platform because he thinks it is crucial to a modern democracy, rather than because he wants to promote any specific ideas. (There is some evidence, though, that he is in fact buying it to promote more right-wing ideas, which would push it in the direction of cultural philanthropy.)

2. When I talk about the “culture”, I don’t necessarily mean popular culture. All of these philanthropists seem particularly concerned with shaping, for lack of a better term, “elite” culture—policymakers, entrepreneurs and journalists who are in a position to have a potentially large impact. But they don’t limit themselves to targeting these people, and there’s an understanding that getting mass adoption of these ideas would help things along (it’s just much harder).

3. The Blogging Prize complicates things, because people are writing with the hope of receiving funding, rather than receiving funding before writing. I also have a suspicion that some people are going to write and publish takes they don’t fully believe, purely in the hope of winning the prize. Given the prominence of the prize and the people backing/paying attention to it, this could have a fairly large distorting effect on the “marketplace of ideas”, as it were. A potential solution might be for the Prize to require all entrants to put e.g. “This blog is an entrant for the Blogging Prize, funded by the FTX Future Fund” on each post, though that’s a little crude and a pain to enforce.

2 thoughts on “Cultural philanthropy: Influencing the culture to improve the world

  1. I’d argue that Stripe Press is mostly a a smart branding play. Especially considering that it uses the Stripe brand name vs being a project privately funded by the Collisons. Stripe Press allows Stripe to associate itself with the world of ideas vs being an overgrown credit card processing product.

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