Opinion
November 10, 2016

New Realities for Philanthropy in the Trump Era

Scott Olson/Getty Images
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, foundations are realizing they have been neglecting large segments of the population, such as rural communities and people displaced by global trade.

For many of us in philanthropy, this feels like a different nation than it did just a few days ago, and the feeling is likely to persist; the United States will certainly undergo profound changes in the years ahead as the presidency of Donald Trump unfolds.

The big question we face is how should philanthropy adapt? Most urgently, it will have to perform triage. The policies pushed by the Trump administration, although we can only guess at them now, will likely have drastic consequences in the realms of women’s health, health care in general, civil rights, environmental protection, and social welfare.

Nonprofits, with support from foundations and other donors, will have their work cut out for them: replacing cut governmental services; helping the most vulnerable navigate the altered landscape; calling out and guarding against violations of rights; monitoring and attempting to beat back the rise of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism; and charting the effects of Mr. Trump’s policies and pushing alternate ones.

Amid all this work, people in philanthropy will need to reconcile two conflicting impulses, one that suggests a degree of reconciliation to the forces that brought us President Trump and the other a measure of resistance.

The political elite of both parties clearly did not understand the worldview — the beliefs, the hopes, and mostly the frustrations — of large swaths of the citizenry, especially the white working class. Much the same can be said of the philanthropic elite. As a funding area, philanthropy has largely ignored the dislocations caused by global trade, which served as one of Trump’s defining issues. Foundations have neglected rural communities, a bastion of Trumpism.

From the perspective on the other side of the chasm, it’s now clearer than ever how deeply many Americans mistrust the technocratic and professional classes in which most philanthropic leaders are situated. The populism that boosted Trump regards Big Philanthropy with similar contempt as it does Big Government.

Fanning the Flames

While legitimate concerns over access to power provided the kindling for the conflagration surrounding the Clinton Foundation, a suspicion that much liberal do-gooderism was simply a mask for self-serving interests fanned the flames. Philanthropy and government both represent to many of President-elect Trump’s supporters the ways in which distant elites control the institutions and forces that shape their lives.

With regard to philanthropy, they might be onto something. It does seem as if we have witnessed in the past decade a drop in interest in philanthropy focused on specific communities. The recent announcement that the Silicon Valley Community Foundation would set up an office on the East Coast underscored this trend, as does the rise of high-net worth "sea gulls," members of a global philanthropic elite untethered to any particular community, as comfortable in San Francisco as they are in Shanghai or in Davos.

Although Silicon Valley was hardly a bastion of Trump support, the disconnect between the tech billionaires it harbors and the local nonprofits addressing the needs of the region’s poor — the subject of a recent report published by Open Impact — has produced a chasm, replicated in communities across the nation, in which populist antipathy toward philanthropy can fester. Those resentments should push philanthropy, and especially the largest foundations and donors, to shore up its local roots, even as they maintain a national or global perspective.

So philanthropy’s leaders would do well to listen to the voices of Trump voters (as should, for that matter, all Democratic office-seekers). But that does not mean they need to respect all of what those voices seem to have said. The aggrieved racial nationalism that Mr. Trump’s campaign stoked is underrepresented on foundation boards — and this is not a bad thing. The paranoia, the conspiratorial thinking, the intolerance, and the misinformation that characterized a good part of the political discourse that fed Mr. Trump’s rise must inform philanthropy’s work, but only in the service of etiological diagnosis.

The simple fact is that close to 60 million Americans voted for a buffoon and a bully, a xenophobe and a misogynist, a narcissist and a charlatan, a man preternaturally unqualified by temperament to hold the highest office in the land, and that some toxic cocktail of antipathy to elites, immigrants, and minorities played an essential part in their decision. In light of those facts, philanthropy must serve not as an instrument of accommodation but as an agent of resistance.

American Ideals

Resistance to Mr. Trump and what he stands for will mean different things to different people. In the dim days after the election, we can only begin to intuit the discipline, dedication, and sacrifice that such work will entail, though we can turn to the history of philanthropy for some instruction in how to go high when our nation’s political institutions go low: the Fund for the Republic’s opposition to McCarthyism, for instance, and the Julius Rosenwald Fund’s resistance to Japanese internment.

What we can say with near certainty is that the fundamental liberal values, those of tolerance and respect for others, of decency, charity, and moderation, have been enfeebled in our public life. The transition from President Obama, who embodied these values so confidently — if perhaps a little too coolly — to Donald Trump is almost too painful to contemplate.

Philanthropy must be a place in which those values are preserved, defended, and championed, a sort of glass-walled sanctuary for the best of American ideals. For long, one of the major legitimizing theories of the nonprofit sector has been that of government failure: Nonprofits can provide goods and services that are not produced or addressed by public institutions. Here we are contemplating government failure of a more troubling sort: Nonprofits and foundations will have to manufacture the civic resources that our contemporary political culture seems incapable of sustaining at the moment.

For we must be clear: Trump’s victory represents a civic failure of epic proportions. It is a failure of journalism and of media. It is a failure of our voting and electoral systems -- countless Americans had their votes intentionally suppressed through carefully designed restrictions. It is a failure of political engagement: By all accounts, turnout fell steeply from 2012 to 2016, and even with the stakes as high as ever, almost half of eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot for president. That millions could be swayed by Trump’s demagoguery and authoritarian fantasies exposes the fragility of our democratic system — its vulnerability to cynicism and apathy, political hacks, foreign hackers, and unprincipled hucksters.

And because all these institutions failed, we must admit that philanthropy, too, failed. With a few notable exceptions, grant makers have not given enough attention to our nation’s civic health. The numbers recently unveiled in the Foundation Center’s Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy online resource seem impressive — totaling more than $3 billion in grants over the past five years — but they have just been proven inadequate.

No matter how much more attention nonprofits and foundations have given to advocacy work, this election calls out the need for deeper structural investments in the civic infrastructure on which advocacy rests. There is a desperate need for more funding of grass-roots social-justice organizations that can speak to the anxieties and fears of Americans across the nation.

Facing Reality

All this will require confronting the reality of the Trump electorate — the majority of white America, really, except for the most affluent, largely holed up in liberal enclaves. Philanthropy must operate in the nation as it is, the one beyond the bounds of our Facebook friends and homogenous social networks. Although the names and historical particulars have changed, this is not a new imperative, and the challenges it represents for the sector are profound.

One of the earliest lessons learned by the first modern foundations at the turn of the last century, who were committed to improving the public education system in the South (and especially the education offered African-Americans) was that their efforts would have to go through the region’s poor whites. Southern leaders warned that focusing on black schools would stoke racial resentment.

As the president of Washington and Lee University instructed John D. Rockefeller, "If it is your idea to educate the Negro, you must have the White of the South with you. If the poor White sees the son of a Negro neighbor enjoying through your munificence benefits defined to his boy, it raises in him a feeling that will render futile all your work. You must lift up the ‘poor White’ and the Negro together if you would approach success."

Rockefeller took this advice. He dropped the name he was considering for his new foundation — the Negro Education Board — and instead called it the General Education Board. In practice, this approach meant that much of the early foundation investments in Southern education disproportionately benefited whites. Philanthropy helped establish the principle of universal access to state-funded public education throughout the nation, even as it capitulated to segregation and exacerbated inequality. The balance between accommodating the forces of reaction and resisting them is treacherous and not easily struck. But philanthropy will need to find it if it is to help make America great again.

Benjamin Soskis is a historian of philanthropy at the Center for Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy and Policy at George Mason University and a co-editor of the HistPhil blog.