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After Pooling Their Money to Take on Corporate Monopoly, Funders See Signs of Progress

10. 05. 2022

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This article originally appeared in Inside Philanthropy.

Looking back over the past 50 years or so, liberal philanthropy in the U.S. has a pretty poor track record on battling poverty and inequality, and promoting an economy that works for the majority of Americans. One primary reason for that is funders’ longtime unwillingness to dig into the realm of political economy — the policies and power arrangements that govern economic life.

For the most part, little has changed. Philanthropy as a whole remains reticent around policy overall, which funders often loosely parse as “politics,” and many of the economic winners giving away money aren’t overly interested in challenging the structural basis of their own fortunes. However, the last several years have seen some encouraging developments in philanthropy’s tentative quest to probe the structural foundations of inequality. The Economic Security Project’s Antimonopoly Fund is one of them.

The fund dates back to around three years ago, when Facebook co-founder-turned-critic Chris Hughes laid into the tech behemoth in an op-ed calling for its breakup. Hughes’ piece was a much-needed messaging win for the contemporary antitrust and anti-monopoly movement, which has struggled mightily to gain traction in a regulatory environment awash in corporate dollars and corporate ideology. It also marked the start of a new area of work for the Economic Security Project (ESP), which Hughes co-founded in 2016 to “catalyze ideas” to promote a fairer economy.

For the first couple of years, that meant a focus on mainstreaming the idea of a guaranteed income, which is still a big component of ESP’s work. In 2019, though, ESP also turned to the problem of monopoly in a big way. When we first wrote about the Antimonopoly Fund, the plan was to distribute $10 million over about two years to a wide range of projects across fields like academic research, policy advocacy and grassroots organizing.

“I’ve come to understand that there are structural decisions within the economy itself that have been made to concentrate power in the hands of corporations, and increasingly, monopolies,” Hughes told us at the time. “And this disempowers everyone else.”

Now, after making grants to 81 individuals and organizations over closer to three years, the Antimonopoly Fund is moving on to its next phase of work. The folks at the Economic Security Project are happy with what’s been accomplished so far, as the upbeat tone of a recently released report on the fund’s activities attests.

“One thing that I’m really proud of is just how much we’ve facilitated a sea change in the general consensus around tackling anti-monopoly action,” said Becky Chao, director of antimonopoly at ESP. “There’s this shared understanding that letting monopolies pick the winners and losers — that just hurts us all.”

A big-tent approach

While its long-term prospects are still uncertain, the anti-monopoly movement is enjoying something like a day in the sun. Just this past week, the House of Representatives passed three antitrust bills, part of an effort to update the nation’s antitrust laws for the first time in decades. And while landmark antitrust legislation targeting the biggest firms has yet to materialize, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Tim Cooks of the world are regularly hauled before Congress to explain themselves. There’s newfound political capital in the battle against bigness.

As Chao put it, a hopeful “180-degree shift” in legislators’ attitudes toward antitrust action is just one part of the picture. “This is a big problem that needs a multidimensional approach, grounded in shifting power,” she said. And from the report: “We leaned into what was missing from the movement: grassroots organizing power around anti-monopoly campaigns, academic research that filled critical gaps in our understanding of the problem and potential solutions, and culture- and narrative-shift projects that told and made accessible the stories of how monopolies have impacted individuals and communities.”

Building a big tent for prospective funders was central to ESP’s strategy from the start. When we wrote about the Antimonopoly Fund three years ago, backers included Ford, OSF, Knight, Nathan Cummings and the Omidyar Network. Chao added that Surdna and the Wallace Global Fund were also involved early on. Coming on board since then were several additional funders: Hewlett, Justice Catalyst and Way to Win. Chris Hughes also chipped in to the tune of over $1.6 million, which covered costs involved with running the fund.

In total, around $9.74 million ended up going out the door across 122 grants ranging in size from $5,000 to $300,000. The fund disbursed both 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) money, with the majority going to policy work (about $4.2 million) and organizing ($3.9 million). About $1.2 million went to support academic research, while around $400,000 went to narrative and culture work. According to Chao, the vast majority of these grants came in the form of general support.

As for why the Antimonopoly Fund stuck around beyond its original two-year expiration date, the reason shouldn’t be too hard to guess. “Obviously, we didn’t plan for a pandemic that exposed the fractures in our economy and laid bare the problem of monopoly power,” Chao said. “And because of that, we got a lot of incoming interest from funders to stay invested in this fight. It just didn’t seem like the right time for us to exit.”

ESP has no plans to exit the anti-monopoly field anytime soon, but Chao said grantmaking will “scale down.” She went on to say that ESP will continue its work to educate and organize funders. “When we launched, we did a lot of big, foundational six-figure grants. And I think we don’t anticipate doing grants on that scale anymore, in part because funders are now directly investing in the field, which is a big success in our book.”

Needed: “a robust, sustained movement”

Part of the difficulty with gauging the impact of funding initiatives like the Antimonopoly Fund is a lack of clear metrics. Efforts like these are about seeding ideas, promoting policy, fostering interest (including from funders), and generally shifting the narrative about what’s possible. As grantmaking goals, those are all difficult to measure and thus off-putting to many funders. They’re also crucial to any effort to meaningfully shift power in the realm of political economy.

ESP’s report is chock-full of examples showing what these often modest grants have accomplished over the past three years. But Chao was also clear-headed about the scale of the challenge — and of the forces arrayed against anti-monopoly action. “Just a $10 million commitment… doesn’t hold a candle to the resources that industry and opposition have at their disposal,” she said. “Just looking at big tech alone since 2021, they’ve invested more than $210 million in this fight.”

Chao emphasized the need for “a robust, sustained movement” to support political and movement organizers, as well as rigorous research. As it stands, that’s something ESP’s Antimonopoly Fund won’t be able to deliver on its own — and never intended to. The good news is that a small but growing chorus of funders is investing in the broader movement to challenge neoliberal policy and build a more worker-friendly, middle-class-friendly U.S. economy.

Among the fund’s backers, the Hewlett Foundation is one grantmaker with an expansive and intellectually rigorous approach to looking “beyond neoliberalism,” one that includes copious funding for academic research and thought leadership. The Omidyar Network also turned toward economic justice in a big way starting in 2020, pairing support for worker empowerment (from a billionaire-backed outfit, no less) with funding to reform Wall Street and, through ESP, to challenge monopoly power.

Then there are funders like Way to Win, which employs both 501(c)(3) and political funding to advance staunchly progressive goals and progressive candidates. That’s another aspect to note: Only some of the Antimonopoly Fund’s grantees might be said to operate in the political arena, but it’s impossible to take political outcomes out of the anti-monopoly conversation. For example, ESP’s report cites the Biden administration’s appointment of corporate critics like FTC Chair Lina Khan and National Economic Council member Tim Wu as wins for the broader movement, wins that were predicated on a Democratic electoral victory.

Staying power?

Going forward, the big question will be whether funders can sustain and grow their support for an anti-monopoly movement that’s still heavily outgunned by the corporate lobby. As Chao emphasized, $10 million isn’t a lot of money, and ESP’s approach involved spreading that amount across a large number of grantees. Will some of those seeds, left unwatered, die on the vine?

On a more positive note, the Antimonopoly Fund is a good example of funders getting together to tackle a tough issue by pooling their resources — a trend we’ve seen take off over the past several years. In this case, the folks at ESP made most (but not all) of the funding decisions, which also speaks to the growing role of facilitating organizations in these collaborative funding projects.

Finally, even though ESP’s fund wasn’t designed as a perpetual source of support, it has paralleled, in a way, the ideas-centric, general support-heavy infrastructure funding that served the right so well during the ascent of neoliberal economic policy. We’ll have to see whether progressive funders — not historically known for their long-term funding commitments — will stick around to support the anti-monopoly movement through the setbacks and dry spells it’ll surely face in the years ahead.