March 6, 2012

One Donor’s Answer to Broken Government: Think Long-Term

By: The Bridgespan Group

By Alison Powell

I attended a Public Policy Institute of California event last week entitled “Rebooting California’s Government.” The event featured Nicolas Berggruen, an investor and donor, who has pledged $20 million to enable his committee—the Think Long Committee for California—to reform California’s government. Berggruen was joined on the panel by Antonia Hernández, the president and CEO of the California Community Foundation and a member of the Think Long Committee, as well as Nathan Gardels, a senior advisor to the committee and to the Nicolas Berggruen Institute.

The panel focused on how Think Long has tackled the problems of California by bringing bipartisan voices together to arrive at joint solutions (Berggruen noted they had Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, or “recaller and recallee,” in the same meeting and agreeing on challenges). The committee has no illusions that the entrenched problems driving dysfunction in California will see quick fixes—hence the name “Think Long.” Berggruen clearly illustrated this viewpoint when he answered “all of the above” when asked, “When will the work be done: 2012, 2016, or 2032?”

While Berggruen has pledged $20 million to the effort, there was no talk of money at the panel. Instead, it was clear that Berggruen’s passion to, in his words, “make sure California continues to be successful and renew itself” has led the donor to use his influence to bring powerful and diverse voices to bear (members include Condoleezza Rice and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown).

The work is decidedly non-sexy. For example, a set of key Think Long recommendations focuses on tax reform. Specific recommendations include a service tax that would capture the 50 percent of the California economy (~$1 trillion) not currently taxed by the sales tax alongside recommendations for rebates for poorer residents to promote equity.

  It is perhaps in part because it is relatively bland work—yet at the same time extremely contentious—that creates such barriers to people effectively addressing these challenges. Yet, committee members seem to believe that without solving core governmental challenges, it will be difficult to address the specific issues that each cares about. For example, Berggruen noted his belief that “education is the bedrock of any civilized society.” The implication is that it’s unlikely for education (or other necessary services) to be substantially improved without removing barriers at the government level first. Think Long’s part in that is to focus on increasing revenue that can be available, and also to ensure money will flow to the local levels.

Whether one agrees with Think Long's proposal or not, the process of gathering a set of ideologically diverse constituents in a room, who all came in with their individual priorities and were able to agree on a set of recommendations, is no small feat. And likely one that philanthropy may have a unique role in funding and supporting.

What do you think: Have you seen other examples of donors funding similar initiatives? What are the benefits and risks of such a strategy? What barriers may be limiting your philanthropic strategies from succeeding? Are there ways that you could work to remove those barriers similar to the work of Think Long?

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