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A curious duality governs the way observers of philanthropy and public affairs talk about money in politics. Donations that fuel one’s own causes constitute support for “policy advocacy,” “civic engagement,” “and community mobilization.” Donations that pay for an opponent’s causes amount to “buying political power,” “charitable plutocracy,” and “threats to democracy.” Plutocracy, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

Still, the growing ambitions of big philanthropy in American public policy debates — on the left and the right — is not just a subjective impression or partisan rallying cry. Recent decades have seen a marked shift in not just the amount of philanthropic contributions directly into public-policy debates, but the explicitness of their intent. Whereas most foundation grants in the policy arena used to take the form of “demonstrations” and “models” — in which foundations paid for small-scale tests of new policy tools, and then encouraged governments to adopt the most successful ones — funders today have tended to leap directly into the promotion business, advocating changes based on normative arguments that may be only loosely grounded in empirical evidence. More and more often, the message has shifted from “Here’s a demonstrated way to improve learning in grades 1-3,” to “Expand charter schools!” or “Reform the curriculum!”

Although private foundations can’t legally lobby, they can broadcast forceful messages to powerful audiences. They can fund aggressive think tanks and policy institutes — including some, like the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose mission is specifically to draft model laws for legislatures to pass. And they can pour jet fuel into nascent movements, turning struggling grassroots campaigns into soaring policy engines. These are not brand-new ambitions invented in the 21st century, obviously. But they are far more prominent in the playbooks of American philanthropy than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Duke Public Policy Professor Kristin Goss has begun training a scholarly spotlight on this phenomenon, most recently with an intriguing article in the July 2016 edition of PS: Political Science & Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association. In “Policy Plutocrats: How America’s Wealthy Seek to Influence Governance,” she argues that political scientists need to delve more analytically into the influence of tax-exempt dollars — and especially of ultra-wealthy individual donors — on America’s policy agenda. This is a group of funders whose total giving capacity she estimates at $1.2 trillion at a minimum.

But the article notes that understanding philanthropic advocacy is not just a matter of following the money. Influence comes in other forms as well: Boldface names like Gates, Koch, and Bloomberg also use moral authority (“I made a fortune; I understand how the world works; follow my advice”) to sway public opinion, and and they can amplify their message with echoes from their grantees and fellow donors.

Professor Goss starts by examining a dataset of major American donors and determining the extent of their interest in public policy (56 percent of her roster of “philanthrocapitalists” are “seeking to inform, advocate for or against, or reform the implementation of public policy” with their donations). Among members of the Giving Pledge — wealthy people who have promised to donate more than half their wealth during their lifetime — approximately two-thirds “have indicated and typically acted on their commitment to informing or changing public policies.”

“Political science,” she concludes, “needs to pay much greater attention to how billionaires spend their wealth. … The era of philanthrocapitalism has opened up a vast research frontier filled with intriguing questions ripe for scholarly investigation.” Regardless of whether one views this as “civic engagement” or “buying political power,” it is an increasingly important phenomenon on which the most interesting questions remain to be answered.

A pre-publication version of Professor Goss’s article is available here.

Tony Proscio