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Benign Autocrats in Democracies. Philanthropic Foundations and their Charitable Ideas and Programs within the Horizon of Participation

  • Research project by Pascal Goeke and Evelyn Moser
  • Project duration: 2020-2023 (4 years)
  • Funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)
     

Philanthropic foundations thrive and prosper throughout many liberal democracies. They have grown in numbers, have become wealthier, and pursue more ambitious goals than ever before. Instead of simply financing projects in the name of the common good some of them aim at transforming societal structures. Against that end, they provide and create opportunities for participation within their programs, and they invoke the normative value of participation to enhance the legitimacy of their positions and claims. Whether these new ambitions are considered as desirable or not depends on the perspective: on the one hand, foundations appear as a part of the civil society and thus as contributors to the common good by the use of nonviolent means. On the other hand, however, they seek sovereignty vis à vis the state and, more doubtful, they transform private assets in political influence or even power. Especially with regard to the latter, it comes as no surprise that they spend considerable efforts in the production of legitimacy.

Our research project aims at a systematic and comprehensive study about foundations and participation. Its objectives are fourfold: First, it explores the ideas of the common good as they appear in the programs of philanthropic foundations, and it investigates how the issue of participation occurs in these ideas. Second, it draws on concepts from organization theory in order to analyze and systematize the organizational challenges that come along with their (transformative) ambitions and participative programs. Third, it focuses the actions of philanthropic foundation from the perspective of democracy theory and enquires about the effects on societal participation and political inclusion. The scientific claim of the project is fourthly complemented by a transdisciplinary claim: on the basis of scientific insights, the project sets out to initiate and engage in a debate about the position of foundations as benign autocrats in democracies.

 

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