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Trump Era Demands Big Changes in Philanthropy's Approach

Thursday, February 23, 2017

By Pamela David, Executive Director, Walter & Elise Haas Fund

As Donald Trump took office, many foundation and nonprofit leaders called for a rebuilding of civil society, noting how polarized Americans are by race, class, and geography. Others have spent time analyzing the president’s cabinet picks, considering what each choice means for issues such as education, immigration, and climate change. But too little discussion, in public or in private, has focused on how, in these momentous times for public policy, philanthropy itself needs to substantially change how it operates.

We have become accustomed in philanthropy to being measured and careful and thoughtful. We have hired brilliant staff and consultants to craft programs and strategies and put them in place. We have gathered evidence that our programs work and jettisoned those that don’t.

But 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. Foundations remain risk-averse, and too far removed from the urgency many of our grantees and constituents face or the accountability they deserve.

I’m all for being reality-based and using data well (particularly when the new administration presents fabrications as "alternative facts"). But this new reality requires us to look at our own assumptions and grant-making practices and see what we may have to change to stay relevant and effective.

We cannot do that in a vacuum. We need to listen to what our grantees and their constituents and allies say about the impact of this administration’s policy directives, and to move beyond our tightly crafted program guidelines as necessary.

Here are some steps all of us can take right away:

Create funds dedicated to rapid response.

In just the first month of the Trump administration, each new executive order, news conference, and missive has come as a body blow — challenging what many of us see as shared American values, denigrating the media and elected officials who challenge the White House’s version of reality, frightening citizens here and nations around the globe.

We need to have money ready to deploy quickly for those on the front lines (and kudos grant makers already doing this). The immediate need might be for lawyers at airports or counselors to support terrified refugee children in schools. It might be to help mosques, Jewish community centers, and LGBTQ organizations protect themselves against hate and violence.

Your grant-making guidelines might not include legal services or community organizing or providing security — but we can all examine our foundations’ values and histories to determine where to stand in these difficult times.

If we work smartly and together, our individual contributions for rapid response need not be large. But we cannot subject them to our normal grant-making processes and timing.

Examine current programs and strategies in light of what’s achievable in this political climate.

It is likely that some of the things we thought were high-priority, or even feasible, three or six months ago are no longer so. It may be time to revisit and reconsider efforts subject to tightly targeted dollars.

Providing general operating funds that allow grantees flexibility gives stretched nonprofits the ability to navigate in this rapidly changing environment. For those organizations we currently support, let’s make sure our funding is flexible and supports their sustainability.

Expand investments 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 resilience 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 work to develop leaders. The Levi Strauss Foundation’s "Pioneers in Justice" study, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund’s Flexible Leadership Awards, the O2 Initiatives, and the Durfee Foundation’s range of leadership programs have all made important contributions.

But there’s much more to be done. We need more programs to support existing leaders, develop new ones, and, most importantly, connect them with each other in meaningful ways.

Do more to build the network of progressive communities of faith.

The new landscape demands a conversation about values, about morality, about civic responsibility and accountability to each other. 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 religious institutions are allied with the broader nonprofit world in the fight to keep a clear separation between church and state. Yet very few grant makers have paid sustained attention to these faith organizations, their work in neighborhoods across the country, and their networks.

Seismic Shifts

The events of the past few weeks have dispelled the notion that a Trump presidency would be benign. We are confronted with what may well be seismic shifts in the role of the federal government, the effects of which could profoundly impact state and local governments and communities across the country.

For decades, many foundations have counted on being able to build upon a broad social contract that, while imperfect and insufficient, has provided some semblance of a safety net for millions of Americans in need. The Trump administration appears set on degrading or dismantling 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 money, or cuts off funding to universities when it is 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 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.


Published by: The Chronicle of Philanthropy Published on: February 23, 2017
Author: Pamela David, Executive Director, Walter & Elise Haas Fund