Opinion
May 02, 2017

Philanthropy’s Response to Trump Misses Focus on the Most-Alienated Americans

Now that the first 100 days of Trump administration have come and gone, it’s fair to say the philanthropic sky hasn’t fallen. Instead, the early confusion that marked the new administration has produced a highly assorted set of pluses and minuses for the nonprofit world.

The next question is whether charities and foundations will be able to look at the positives and see any way to work with the White House — or whether they will remain convinced the Trump presidency threatens virtually every goal they pursue and every value they represent.

The most recent evidence about how the grant-making world views the administration comes from the Center for Effective Philanthropy, which found in a recent survey that almost half of CEOs of large foundations believe Trump’s tenure will make it harder for them to reach their philanthropic goals. A third say they’re changing goals or strategies. Almost half plan to do more collaboration with other donors and more advocacy.

These responses don’t tell us much, however, because the survey’s assiduously unbiased questions are too abstract to elicit a lot of concrete information. So let’s review some objective facts about philanthropy’s current standing under the Trump regime.

Starting with the positive, the biggest plus is that the securities markets — anticipating, and to some extent already seeing, cuts in taxes and regulations — are up, bigly. If recent history is a guide, this portends a sizable increase in charitable donations from both individuals and foundations (whose giving is required to increase with the value of their assets).

Next, it looks like the stream of donations won’t be radically constricted by unfavorable changes in federal tax laws. Whenever there’s talk of tax changes in Washington, the fear arises that this really means the abolition of deductions, including that for charitable giving. According to the tax plan outlined last week by administration officials, that’s not going to happen, although the proposed increase in the standard deduction could reduce the number of taxpayers who itemize their gifts to charity and other allowable expenses. Still, that may not greatly affect how much Americans give.

Other tax proposals, like the administration’s plan to end the estate tax, could also affect donation levels. But all these tax changes will face the normal roadblocks of American politics.

Donation Surge

For some groups — the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, to take the best-known examples — President Trump has been very good for business, causing exponential increases in donations. The question is whether this surge will continue once the administration’s panic-inducing plans bog down in Congress, the courts, and elsewhere.

In any case, conservative groups, including those politically sympathetic to the new occupant of the White House, aren’t reporting any fall-off in their support, and are even seeing some post-election increases.

Aside from donations, the other big issue for nonprofits has been President Trump’s vow to end the ban on partisan politicking by charities.

Even though the president, with characteristic restraint, has said he will "totally destroy" the prohibition, not many members of Congress have rallied behind this particular banner. For every pastor straining at the bit to make electoral recommendations from the pulpit, there are numerous nonprofits that (a) think they can do their advocacy work within existing laws, (b) worry that the loss of their nonpartisan mantle would chill potential donors, and (c) simply don’t want the aggravation and divisiveness likely to be caused by taking positions and allocating resources in election campaigns.

Then come the administration’s policy positions, which at least some philanthropies and nonprofits find attractive. For example, groups that promote charter schools are encouraged by Mr. Trump’s touting of school choice. Certain nonprofits focused on state and local action see opportunities in the idea that the administration may devolve policy decisions away from Washington.

Focus on the Fight

However, it is safe to say that these groups hold a minority position among nonprofits and foundations. There’s little reason to doubt that most nonprofit officials are appalled by almost everything about the Trump administration. They see anti-Muslim bias veiled as a quest for national security, a contempt for institutions veiled as a championing of ordinary Americans, a resentment of the "undeserving poor" veiled as anger over Obamacare, a misogyny cloaked by Ivanka Trump’s family-leave policy.

The cuts in federal spending proposed by the administration in March, which include eliminating agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts and merging the U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department, provide further fuel for this fire, even as many have seemingly been put on hold to avert a government shutdown.

People who focus on these matters are not in the mood to balance pluses and minuses in measuring the effects of the Trump administration on American philanthropy. Rather, they feel compelled to go into opposition — or, more radically, to adopt a stance of resistance.

To the extent that this view persists, it means we’re likely to see more of what foundation CEOs, responding to the Center for Effective Philanthropy survey, call "defensive" efforts against the effects of administration policies in areas like immigration, safety-net services, and family planning.

True, there will also be some foundation spending to mitigate the problems in rural areas that result from the effects of trade policies, the opioid epidemic, and the particular alienation of some Americans from conventional politics and government. But efforts like these will probably take a back seat to fighting Trump policies and providing remedies for those hurt by the administration’s changes.

These choices by foundations and nonprofits are certainly defensible, but they carry a risk — one posed by the fact that they do not address what might be called the roots of Trumpism: the objective economic and social conditions that produced it and the psychological consequences thereof. By failing to focus on those conditions and consequences, philanthropy does nothing to allay the rise of the kind of political movement that can overwhelm even the most concerted efforts of civil society.

Leslie Lenkowsky is an Indiana University expert on philanthropy and public affairs and a regular Chronicle contributor. He and Suzanne Garment, a visiting scholar at Indiana University, write frequently on philanthropy and public policy.