Escape from ‘calculated opinions’
4 Oct 2021
Rien van Gendt, vice-chair of our supervisory board, recently published a call for foundations to take both risks and controversial positions. Because it is better to bravely tell the actual truth, rather than the ‘calculated opinion’:
When I recently saw President Biden giving a speech after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, I had the awful feeling that politics and political statements apparently now have to be trapped in ‘calculated opinions’: opinions that seek not to express the truth, but which instead are calculated to have a positive effect on the people you depend on. His speech boiled down to the fact that the war in Afghanistan could be brought to a successful conclusion: ‘mission accomplished’. It is perhaps too painful, given the sacrifices, both financial and especially human sacrifices made on both sides of the conflict, for the President of the United States to say: we have failed, this is the third war in a row that we have lost, we failed to recognise the complexity of the situation on the ground, quite apart from the question of whether we had the moral right to export our values and norms to other cultures in the first place.
In that sense, American politics isn’t so different from what’s happening in other countries, even in the Netherlands. It’s always about ‘calculated opinions’. A Lower House that insists on almost complete transparency for all political consultations between and with government authorities wants to play on the voter’s belief that ‘everything is negotiated in back rooms’. The recent government formation proves that all of those parties that insisted on transparency in fact had to admit that confidential talks with each other have a very useful function.
Even the business world isn’t immune to ‘calculated opinions’. We’re seeing more and more companies claiming to embrace sustainability, because it’s perceived as important to the customers they depend on. The reality is that these efforts are often mere symbolic ‘greenwashing’. Banks and other financial institutions are scrambling to show that they’re engaged in impact investing, investments that generate not only financial but also social returns. Of course, almost all investments do have an impact in terms of social return. A manufacturer that produces orthopaedic shoes will suddenly realise that there is a social return there. But what it’s ultimately about is the real truth behind impact investing: are we prepared to give up financial returns for the sake of social returns, and are we prepared to actually chart and monitor those social returns.
Critical participation in the social debate is apparently also something that can’t simply be expected of universities and the academic world. It’s becoming increasingly clear that self-censorship shouldn’t be underestimated and is linked to things like research financing from external partners with clear interests. It leads to ‘calculated opinions’. The Clingendael Institute has highlighted that issue and Dutch radio programme Argos devoted an entire broadcast to the phenomenon in May of this year, entitled ‘The scientist under fire: self-censorship is a real risk’.
What about philanthropy? Is this yet another sector where people have to hold their breaths and keep their mouths shut? Fundraising institutions sometimes want to appease donors by saying that almost 100% of donations go directly to the mission. In other words there are no, or very minimal, overhead expenses. Some charities even try to fund their overhead separately so that the rest of the donors have the illusion that there is no overhead. But of course it’s better to bravely tell the actual truth, rather than the ‘calculated opinion’, and the actual truth is: of course we incur overhead costs because we want to do a professional job. Overhead isn’t wasteful, it adds value.
Asset funds with their own endowment or a structural source of income seem to be in a more comfortable position – they’re independent and can use that independence to take a clear stance on important issues. But still, that will be easier for some equity funds than others. The range of asset funds is wide – there are family funds, corporate funds, private funds, local funds, and lottery funds. I can imagine that there may be more questions about independence with corporate funds (the interests of the company behind them) and family funds (the reputation of the family) than with private funds like the Van Leer Foundation. At Van Leer, there is no family or company to act as a barrier to an independent positioned.
In general, however, funds – both fundraising institutions and equity funds – are firmly focused on serving the public purpose independently, with private funding.
The fund world should be aware of our unique position. Calculated opinions can be avoided; funds are able to take both risks and controversial positions. Philanthropy can be contentious, and that actually contributes to our legitimacy.