Backlash: A Sharp Right Turn by a Philanthropy Membership Organization

Phil Buchanan

It’s entirely predictable, I suppose, but the backlash to last year’s reckoning on racism is definitely here, a year after George Floyd’s horrific murder–and now it’s visible within the little world of institutional philanthropy.

We are seeing, for example, both the CEO and the board chair of Philanthropy Roundtable conflate, in recent op eds, a focus on racism and racial justice with “identity politics.” They are stoking fear that confronting this country’s historic and present-day systemic racism–or even using these words–means ignoring the plight of poor or rural whites (as if these things were zero sum) or somehow threatens free-market capitalism.

In short, they’re sowing division while claiming to do just the opposite. This is a sharp right turn for Philanthropy Roundtable under its new CEO, Elise Westhoff, who has ushered in a new staff and a new and decidedly different tone.

Unlike her predecessor, Adam Meyerson, who sought to find common ground “across the ideological spectrum,” as he put it during a plenary at CEP’s 2019 conference, Westhoff has issued broadsides against specific foundations and specific philanthropic leaders. She warns in USA Today that “people-focused philanthropy … is on the way out. In its place, a philanthropy that disempowers and divides has taken over.”

She leads off her piece with a genuinely powerful personal childhood story of her own resilience–and lessons of self-reliance learned from her mother and stepfather. She apparently worries that those lessons are being threatened by what she sees as a worldview in which donors “are … being asked to view all problems through the lens of particular identity groups, while ignoring others in the country who are suffering.”

I wondered, what, specifically, is she talking about? What are her examples of this supposedly prevailing mindset?

She names the Mellon Foundation and Ford Foundation–calling out the latter foundation’s president, Darren Walker, for focusing on shifting from generosity to justice. And, in a National Review piece, she writes of foundations like Mellon and Ford: “Perhaps they care less about helping white Americans, who are ‘oppressors’ according to critical race theory.”

In both pieces, Westhoff mentions Walker’s recent 60 Minutes interview but, incredibly, fails to acknowledge–as I pointed out on Twitter last month–that Walker specifically and pointedly discussed the need to focus on poverty affecting white people in that very interview! We can, as Walker does–and indeed as Martin Luther King Jr. did in his Poor People’s Campaign launched in 1967–both acknowledge and seek to redress the uniquely terrible impacts of racism in America and simultaneously also seek to address grinding poverty among whites, especially those in the rural areas Westhoff worries are overlooked. The two efforts are not mutually exclusive; quite the contrary–again, a point Walker himself often stresses.

Let me be very clear: I’ve got critiques of those ideologues on the left who engage in caricature, virtue signaling, demonization, and misrepresentation, too. (More on that in a future post.) I am not suggesting that polarizing rhetoric resides solely on the political right. But this attempt to suggest that combatting racism is tantamount to sowing division, or is somehow anti-American, is particularly troubling.

Philanthropy Roundtable Board Chair Richard Graber, president and CEO of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, portrays the focus on racial justice as antithetical to free market capitalism in an op ed published last week.Major foundations are committing staggering levels of funding to efforts that sound good, but in reality make it harder to start or maintain a business, value identity over initiative, and perpetuate the false, defeatist narrative that America is a land of racism, not opportunity.”

Missing from Graber’s piece is precious little in the way of specific examples or evidence to bolster these assertions. Like Westhoff, he takes aim at the Mellon and Ford Foundations, as well as the Rockefeller Foundation, which he chides for “committing $1 billion over the next three years to ‘catalyze a more inclusive, green recovery from COVID.’” The reader is left to wonder if he favors a more exclusive, more polluting recovery from COVID?

Graber argues that the “philanthropic wokeism” of these foundations “undermines the principles of free enterprise” and are “antithetical to the free market beliefs of these foundations’ namesakes.” It’s worth noting that the Rockefeller Foundation’s Board Chair is Richard Parsons, former Chairman of the Board of Citigroup Inc. and Time Warner. Other Rockefeller Foundation board members include the commissioner of the NBA and executives at the Carlyle Group and Morgan Stanley–hardly people who come to mind as enemies of free market capitalism.

Frankly, the descriptions of Rockefeller, Mellon, and Ford by Westhoff and Graber are little more than caricatures. Look, I am sure there is plenty to thoughtfully critique in the goals or strategies of those foundations, or for that matter the Bradley Foundation, and I am all for that kind of debate and discussion.

But that’s not what this is. These op eds misrepresent the grantmaking strategies of these foundations and engage in blatant fear-mongering and, frankly, disingenuousness–in which inclusion somehow becomes exclusion and the advocacy of left of center foundations is dangerous but that of right of center foundations (like Bradley) is not even acknowledged.

So why does the hard right turn of a philanthropy membership organization even matter? There are many reasons, of course, but here is one: because it leaves thoughtful, conservative donors and foundations, like the many with whom CEP works as clients of our assessments and funders of our research, with nowhere to turn.

Moreover, and perhaps more important, it renders the possibility of powerful cross-ideological philanthropic alliances–like those that have worked in support of criminal justice reform–much less likely. This at a time when we desperately need, as a country, to find common ground.

The shift at the Philanthropy Roundtable is pronounced enough that I think it deserves discussion. Caricature and denial of the role of racism in American history and today definitely won’t move this country forward. And it’s just wrong.

My guess is that many Philanthropy Roundtable members–or former members–agree. “We certainly find among our own membership a real concern for the state of the country, a concern about all the vitriol we see–the character assassination, the lies,” said Meyerson at that same 2019 CEP conference I mentioned earlier. “And we see this across the spectrum. And a number of our members have been working together with funders from a different perspective to try to encourage disagreement without demonization and to encourage serious debate.”

Wise words and worthy goals. And a shame to see Philanthropy Roundtable, under Meyerson’s successor, move in a direction so contrary to that sentiment.

Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, author of Giving Done Right, and co-host of the podcast by the same name. Follow him on Twitter at @philxbuchanan.

Disclosure: Some of the funders discussed are supporters and clients of CEP. All our donors, and their level of support, are listed on our website.

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