Philanthropy in the Age of Trump: Not Business as Usual
Since the election, I’ve read a number of spot-on commentaries about what the Trump presidency means for philanthropy. A lot have focused on the need to rebuild civil society, noting the polarization of the US populace along lines of race and class and geography. Others have focused on Trump’s cabinet nominees, several of whom have now been confirmed, and what it means for many of the issues in which philanthropy is actively engaged, from education to immigration to climate change. But, I have found few commentaries that address whether and how these new conditions require philanthropy to actually change the way it operates.
We have become accustomed in philanthropy to be measured and careful and thoughtful. We have hired brilliant staff and consultants to craft and implement programs and strategies, evidence-based and accompanied by detailed theories of change. But, as smart as we are, we have not yet broken out of the need to each have our own strategy, our own processes, our own self-imposed silos. And, as a sector we remain risk aversive, and too far removed from the urgency many of our grantees and constituents face or the accountability they deserve.
I’m not decrying the importance of being reality-based and using data well (particularly when the new administration denies the existence of facts, and has coined the term “alternative facts” for complete lies and fabrications). But this new reality requires us to look at our own assumptions and grantmaking practices and see what we may have to change in order to stay relevant and effective. And, we cannot do that in a vacuum – we need to get or stay close to the ground, listen to what our grantees and their constituents and allies are telling us about the impact of this administration’s policy directives, and be open and willing to move beyond our tightly crafted program guidelines as necessary.
Here are four initial thoughts on how philanthropy needs to change:
1. Create funds dedicated to rapid response. In just the first week of the Trump administration, each new executive order, press conference, and missive have come as body blows, challenging what many of us saw as shared American values, denigrating the press and elected officials who challenge the White House’s version of reality, and frightening citizens here and nations across the globe.
We need to have funds able to be quickly deployed to support those on the frontlines (and kudos to those already doing this). The immediate need may be for lawyers at our airports – or counselors to support terrified refugee children in our schools. Or it might be to help our mosques, Jewish community centers and LGBTQ organizations protect themselves against hate and violence.
Our program guidelines might not talk about legal services or community organizing or providing security– but examine your foundation’s values and its history to determine where you want to stand in these difficult times. If we work smartly and together, each of our contributions for rapid response does not have to be large – but we cannot subject it to our normal grantmaking processes and timing.
2. Examine our current programs and strategies in light of what’s real and achievable and what’s not in this political climate. It is likely that some of the things we thought were highest priority or feasible 3 or 6 months ago are no longer. And, for those organizations we currently support, let’s make sure our funding is flexible – and supports their sustainability.
Delivering resources via general operating funds that allow grantees flexibility, as opposed to very tightly targeted program dollars, gives our stretched nonprofits the ability to navigate in this rapidly changing environment.
3. Expand our investment in nonprofit and community leadership. We’re now engaged in a long-term struggle for the soul of our country – for democratic practice, for democratic institutions – for diversity, equity, and inclusion. That struggle needs great leaders with the skills and resiliency to endure the twists and turns in front of us. They need to connect to each other, build off each other’s strengths, and link issues, movements, and people.
Philanthropy has done some very promising leadership support work. Levi Strauss Foundation’s Pioneers in Justice, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund’s Flexible Leadership Awards, the O2 Initiatives, and the Durfee Foundation’s range of leadership initiatives have all made important contributions– but there’s much more to be done. We need more leadership programs to support existing leaders, develop new leadership, and most importantly, connect these leaders to each other in meaningful ways.
4. Finally, we need to pay more attention to building the network of progressive communities of faith. Part of the challenge in this next period is a conversation about values, about morality, about civic responsibility and accountability to each other. The progressive faith communities are well positioned to lead that conversation with great credibility and resonance.
I’ve seen the power of this work in relation to LGBTQ issues; Minnesota’s faith community, for example, was instrumental in defeating an anti-marriage equality initiative several years ago. And, they are allies with the broader nonprofit community in the fight to keep clear separation between church and state. Yet, very few philanthropic funders have paid sustained attention to these faith organizations, their work on the ground, and their networks.
The events of the past few weeks have dispelled the notion that a Trump presidency would be benign.
We are being confronted with what may well be seismic shifts in the role of the federal government, and the impact could have profound impact on state and local governments and our beloved communities. For decades, many foundations have counted on being able to rely on and leverage aspects of a broad social contract that has, while imperfect and insufficient, provided some semblance of a safety net for millions of Americans in need. Yet, the Trump administration appears set on dismantling or belittling many of the pillars of the federal system on which we have depended, and with which philanthropy is accustomed to working.
The safety net will be further shredded if the administration punishes sanctuary cities by withholding federal funds, or cuts off funding to universities if displeased with demonstrators. It is unconscionable for us to stay in our foundation bubbles and not examine our priorities and processes in light of these changes. We are being called by these times to engage in different and new ways, even if it causes us discomfort. Business must be anything but usual going forward.
An edited version of this piece will appear shortly in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.