November 09, 2016

It’s Day One of the Trump Era: Let’s Defend Philanthropy

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

No matter whether your candidate won or lost the race for president on Tuesday, philanthropy was dealt a serious blow during the 2016 election race.

Never in our history have the roles of two candidates’ giving records and foundations been so prominently in the spotlight, as reporters uncovered allegations of possible wrongdoing at both the Trump and Clinton foundations and grappled with basic questions about just how generous — or self-interested — they were. History was made when those topics became part of the televised presidential and vice-presidential debates this fall.

To be sure, many people in philanthropy would have been overjoyed if the real issues we all grapple with were the ones getting so much visibility. Perhaps the candidates could have challenged each other over the merits of paying nonprofits to cover their overhead costs or earmarking money for specific projects. Or they could have debated the value of volunteering and other types of contributions that benefit charities versus donations of cash.

But instead, all that Americans, and indeed a worldwide audience, heard about the topic of philanthropy were charges of wrongdoing. Factually correct or not, the swipes that candidates took at each other gave the impression that all foundation giving is corrupt and conducted primarily with the goal of achieving more power and a better image — and only occasionally about a genuine desire to find and fund effective programs that improve our communities.

Amid all this, most of us in the nonprofit world kept silent in our public discussions about the campaign. We didn’t rise to challenge the incorrect perceptions about philanthropy or seize this opportunity to shine a light on our good work, our outsize impact, and the difference we are making across the nation and around the globe.

Fending Off Regulation

All of us could and should have done more in this past election cycle to make it clear that philanthropic giving helps people of every party and no party: Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green, Libertarian, and others. Where were our voices — free of politics and candidates’ babbling — sharing our stories of success, demonstrating to citizens, the media, government officials, and the candidates the impact we have?

As individuals, as leaders of nonprofits and of foundations who try every day — not just Election Day — to improve the lives of people, to protect the environment, to enrich the arts, to cure diseases, and so much more, we have a responsibility to counter the candidates’ arguing and their outright assertions that foundations only operate poorly and for personal gain. We should have been trumpeting the overwhelming number of philanthropic successes that benefit so many.

Yet trumpets alone are not enough. All good ensembles have many contributors, and it is only when they play together that music, as opposed to noise, is created.

Starting now, foundations and donors of all types should be speaking up and talking about the ways our communities benefit from grant makers of all sizes and types.

While this will do much to remind Americans why it’s so important to give, it’s also critical if we expect to fend off greater regulation and new legislative mandates.

Most Play by the Rules

We still have a great partisan divide in our country, and we have to realize that regardless of who occupies the White House, ambitious members of Congress will take this opportunity to put donors and foundations under close scrutiny, wielding as evidence what was turned up, whether true or not, about the Trump and Clinton foundations during the campaign.

Not only do we need to tell lawmakers and other Americans why grant makers matter, we need to make clear that most foundations and donors are motivated by good, play by the rules, and would never try to use their philanthropic institutions to benefit themselves, their friends, or their professional aspirations. That’s what we need to focus on, now that the rancor of the campaign is over and long-lasting damage to philanthropy’s image is at stake.

Nor is it enough for foundations alone to talk about this. Together with nonprofits, we coexist in a shared philanthropic ecosystem. We rely on each other as partners to improve the world. And so nonprofits, too, must demonstrate how they work hand-in-hand with grant makers to have a positive impact. Unlike our shared silence during the election cycle, we now must raise our voices and tell our stories, individually and collectively.

Defining Ourselves

To be sure, some grant makers recognized early on that we need to speak out and exhorted us all to do so. In September, at the annual conference of my organization, Exponent Philanthropy, Bill White, head of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, urged the assembled donors: "Tell your story! Communicate with your elected public officials at the local, state, and national levels. Make sure your public officials … understand what you fund and why."

More of us should have followed Mr. White’s advice earlier, but we can make this our resolution for the first day of the post-campaign cycle as we look ahead to a new administration and Congress. We must tell our stories and the stories of those who benefit from our philanthropy, lest we allow the unchecked rhetoric of the campaign trail to define who we are, what we accomplish, and how we operate.

We must not let others define us. After all, if we fail to champion our stories and the outsize impact we have, if we do not share our successes, then who will?

Henry Berman is chief executive of Exponent Philanthropy, an organization that represents foundations, donors, and people who hold donor-advised funds.