Charles Koch, the chairman of the Charles Koch Foundation, and Brian Hooks, the Foundation’s president, reflected upon the organization’s role as a bridgebuilder during the Aspen Institute’s 2019 Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF) conference in a session titled “Funding Across Difference.”
Moderated by GPF’s founder Jane Wales, the conversation expanded upon the history of the Foundation’s commitment to the idea that the best way to break down seemingly unbreakable barriers is to have the courage to collaborate across political and ideological boundaries.
“If you work with us on this one important issue, and you bring complementary capabilities and we agree with the methodology and we share values, then we’ll work together,” Koch said. “And I think that’s what’s made all the difference.”
Koch also shared with the audience the philosophy behind his giving, which is rooted in the principle of mutual benefit that leads towards a society where all individuals can succeed by helping others.
Speaking on his experiences at Koch Industries, Koch continued, “you’ve got to be willing to have failures to experiment to constantly try new things and be open to different ideas and different ways of doing things.”
The willingness to be open to new ideas has been a critical factor behind the Foundation’s giving. Supporting over 1,000 professors and approximately 370 universities across the country, Hooks shared how the Foundation determines grantees. “It’s not up to us to decide which ideas to be supportable or rise to the top,” stated Hooks. “We want to empower faculty members who have a newer a different way of approaching a societal problem and then provide them with the resources so they can realize that vision.”
Recognizing that local knowledge and individuals “on the front lines” can make the biggest difference, Hooks shared that these partnerships have been key in moving towards a society of mutual benefit. You’ve got to tackle problems from all different angles and that really is what we found is critical. Rarely have we found a societal problem where there’s a single intervention that can solve it, and then you’re done.”
Charles Koch’s vision and the vision of the Foundation has enabled seemingly unlikely partnerships and yielded progress in tackling some of society’s biggest challenges over the last several years. Most recently, the Charles Koch Institute partnered with the ACLU and the NAACP to defend free speech in light of a proposed National Park Service rule to limit protests around DC landmarks.
Koch and Hooks both remarked on the successes of the Foundation in promoting criminal justice reform, with Hooks referencing research conducted at Arizona State University by Professor Erik Luna that is bridging the gap between scholarship and reform. “Today, if you want to know what is the ‘state of the art’ on criminal justice reform… you don’t have to be lucky to be in a jurisdiction that specializes in an area, you can go to Erik’s research at Arizona State University… and none of that is possible without philanthropy.”
The conversation concluded with Wales encouraging audience members to think about how they might bridge divides in their fields, and with the Charles Koch Foundation. “What are the issues on which you might see eye to eye?”