This article was originally published on The Chronicle of Philanthropy website.
By Leslie Lenkowsky and Suzanne Garment
In recent months the contours of philanthropy’s role in the anti-Trump “resistance” movement have grown much clearer. Foundations have been announcing new giving efforts, and nonprofits have been adopting new approaches to raising money to oppose the administration.
Too often, these efforts miss a crucial point: Philanthropy will find itself in trouble if it simply opposes Mr. Trump and doesn’t respond to the voter concerns that produced his presidency.
Yet opposition seems a common tack. A recent survey by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that three-quarters of big grant makers plan to change their strategy in response to Trump’s election. Many are giving more for nonprofit journalism, opposition to Trump immigration policies, and grants to the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBTQ organizations.
When another new study found that almost a third of donors to progressive nonprofits plan to increase their giving to such organizations, its authors—officials at the marketing firm ABD Direct—advised nonprofits about the messages that would work best to tap this generosity. Among their tips: When you talk about the environment, focus on government efforts to loosen regulations, not on corporate polluters. In foreign affairs, focus on the administration’s destabilizing behavior, not Russia’s possible role in the 2016 election.
Some observers believe the Trump threat to nonprofits is bigger than particular policies. In a recent Chronicle opinion piece, Gary Bass, head of the Bauman Foundation, and philanthropy scholar Mark Rosenman argued that it is not enough for foundations to support specific causes because the very essence of “nonprofit values and missions”—involving inequality, injustice, people in need, civil and human rights, environmental protections, the arts, building a vital civil society, increasing tolerance, openness, creativity, and opportunity—is under attack.
Grant makers must work more at “strengthening our democracy” in general, they wrote, helping nonprofits “organize their constituents” and find “ways to connect democracy-strengthening organizations.”
This exhortation is very attractive, especially to people who are repelled by President Trump for reasons beyond policy. But it puts philanthropic organizations in a politically impossible position and risks distracting their attention and resources from more feasible efforts.
As has often been said, the Trump revolution is a populist revolution. But recent years have also seen a populist critique of foundations and the institutions they support, such as colleges and policy-advocacy groups. Some of it has come from the right, on account of foundations’ perceived liberal bias. But the more influential criticism has come from the academic and journalistic left.
One version of this critique asserts that “dark money,” pots of funds secretly disbursed by the rich, has subverted democracy. Another, more nuanced version argues that foundations use their resources to unfair advantage in generating and promoting particular policy ideas.
The criticisms all have a powerful common thread: Democracy—at least, the simple idea of democracy—rests on the will of the people, or at least the votes of a majority. Philanthropy violates this principle. No matter how liberal its causes, philanthropy is deeply reactionary, because it is based on the fact that some people have more money than others. It confers power on these moneyed people, letting them deploy their funds in ways that they alone choose.
Hence, the difficulty that wealthy donors like the NoVo Foundation’s Peter Buffett, who inherited his fortune from his father, face in being taken seriously as advocates for average Americans when they put their millions behind the resistance, as NoVo recently announced it would do. From a populist viewpoint, even if foundations purport to be on the side of the good, true, and beautiful, the entire philanthropic world affronts the simple democratic ideal of equal influence.
Indeed, to many of Donald Trump’s supporters, his election amounts to no less than the triumph of the populist idea of democracy over, among other institutions, the foundations that have now joined the resistance.
However, populist interpretations are hardly the only ways to understand democracy, or philanthropy. The entire enterprise of America’s founders can be understood as trying to establish a republic that was protected from being a simple democracy.
The founders provided for the will of the people to be checked in many ways — by the balance of powers among federal branches, the tension between federal and state governments, the complicated formula for congressional representation, the interaction between the pursuit of private gain and the pursuit of public good. And the public good would be pursued not by government alone, acting for the majority, but also by private individuals acting in pursuit of their private understanding of the public good.
In this more-complicated view of democracy, philanthropy is as legitimate as any other institution in the republic. That is, of course, as long as philanthropists don’t exaggerate their role as tribunes of virtue or shapers of national destiny or anything else that delegitimizes those who don’t share their views. What’s more, they must temper their sense of mission with an understanding of what their fellow citizens consider to be “doing good.”
In this light, another response to the Trump administration might be more valuable than the currently popular impulse to resist. That would be to repair — to tackle concrete deficits that result from changes in federal policy.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently tweeted a request for ideas to help him point his philanthropy toward the “here and now.” The responses to his tweet—2,500 in the first two hours, 42,000 within a week—cover everything from support for libraries (which provide many rural Americans with their only access to the internet) to nutrition resources for diabetics to harnessing the specific skills of veterans to respond to natural disasters and much, much more. They give a sense of the very wide world beyond the resistance.
A Third Way
A third approach is to respond in particular to the conditions and sentiments that made large numbers of the philanthropists’ fellow citizens vote for Donald Trump. Here is one not-very-obscure example: the opioid crisis. The damage it has done, especially in parts of the country that voted for the Republican candidate, beggars description — not just in overdose deaths, which are staggering enough, but in human beings rendered incapable of hope.
There have been a few significant gifts in this area, especially from donors with personal connections to the problem. But, as the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Alexa Eggleston and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Tym Rourke recently wrote in an article for Grantmakers in Health, “Despite the great need—and the opportunity to conquer an epidemic—funders with a long-term commitment to this issue are rare.”
There are plenty of other issues like this that speak to larger problems: the components of unemployment, the determinants of mobility, the noneconomic sources of the resentment in Trump country.
Unless philanthropists and those who speak for them are willing to open themselves to these concerns, their talk about “strengthening our democracy” might only reinforce the sense that their notion of “our democracy” means something even less inclusive than what it meant to the people who voted for Donald Trump.
Foundations shouldn’t forget what the stakes are. The line that separates legitimate grievances from Charlottesville is more easily crossed than we like to think.
Leslie Lenkowsky is an Indiana University expert on philanthropy and public affairs and a regular contributor to these pages. He and Suzanne Garment, a visiting fellow at Indiana University, write frequently on philanthropy and public policy.