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Who Is Threatening ‘Philanthropic Freedom?’

Date: May 1, 2023

Phil Buchanan

President, CEP

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In college, I had a journalism professor who taught us never to start a piece with a question. But I can’t help myself.

I want to know: Who is threatening “philanthropic freedom?”

And I want to know what pluralism really looks like — and who defines it?

OK, that was two questions, but they have been on my mind since a strange bedfellows — more on that in a moment — op-ed came out in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (also re-published on the Ford Foundation website) a few weeks back. Ford Foundation President Darren Walker emailed it out under the subject line, “A Plea for Philanthropic Freedom.”

Let me pause here to say that I hesitate to take issue with Walker, who is one of the foundation leaders I most admire for his laser-like focus on inequality and his strong moral voice. I deeply respect him and what he has done at the Ford Foundation.

More personally, he wrote a beautiful foreword to my 2019 book, “Giving Done Right,” for which I will forever be grateful, and has been unwaveringly kind to me. On top of that, the Ford Foundation is one of CEP’s steadiest and longest-standing clients and grant funders — providing, between general support and project funding, some half million dollars a year to CEP. Its executive vice president, Hilary Pennington, has been a CEP Board member for nine years, just completing her term, and has also been a great mentor and friend.

‘Pledging Allegiance?’

But, since the op-ed is a call for “philanthropic pluralism,” I am going to respectfully offer a different take. The truth is, I tried to make sense of this op ed, and I could not.

The authors write that “foundations and philanthropists are often expected to pledge allegiance to one or another narrow set of prescribed views.”

What, I thought, could this be about?

The authors don’t say, so we are left to guess. Could it be a concern about the effort by the Council on Foundations (COF) and its CEO Kathleen Enright to get foundations to sign an actual pledge — to adopt trust-based funding practices in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020? That couldn’t be — because Enright co-authored the op-ed and the Ford Foundation was one of the prime movers behind that pledge.

So perhaps the concern is with those who encourage foundations to focus on racial equity? Are those the “prescribed views” that are somehow threatening to foundation leaders? This seems very unlikely to be Walker’s view; he has been a steadfast advocate for racial equity and wrote a book advocating for donors to shift their mindset “From Generosity to Justice.” Nor do I think that likely to be Enright’s or several of the other co-authors’ concern.

However, this does seem to be the perspective of another co-author of the piece, the CEO of the Philanthropy Roundtable, Elise Westhoff, who in 2021 went after Walker and others for focusing on racial equity, writing: “Perhaps they care less about helping white Americans, who are ‘oppressors’ according to critical race theory.” On stage with Senator Ted Cruz and her board member and Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy at a Heritage Foundation event that same year, she declared, “if woke culture is a cancer, philanthropy is the source of the infection.” For his part, Ramaswamy, at the same event, declared, “let’s get rid of DEI.”

Unfortunately, the authors don’t say what the unspecified threat to “philanthropic pluralism” is that they’re countering.

Best Intentions?

The authors — who also included the CEOs of the John Templeton Foundation, Doris Duke Foundation, and Stand Together — state that they’re opposed to “personal or ad hominem attacks.” Who isn’t? But they don’t specify what they’re talking about or what qualifies. If anything, I have found philanthropic circles to be quite polite. Sometimes people equate someone challenging someone else’s ideas with getting “personal,” but that conflation should be resisted. My sense, actually, is folks too often hold back from engaging in respectful dissent and debate — especially nonprofits who fear alienating donors.

Serious questioning of the default practices of philanthropy — which frequently involve, as Walker himself has noted, giving to wealthy institutions like colleges and hospitals that often serve those with privilege — is healthy. As much as there has been progress in terms of donors focusing on questions of systemic inequities in our society, there is — in my view — a long, long way to go.

So, while I acknowledge that donors are absolutely free to make their own decisions, as I believe they should be, I also feel like we shouldn’t worry too much about them getting critiqued. After all, critique, especially when it’s specific, often makes us better — sometimes even when it does feel “personal.”

They declare that “we should not question the underlying legitimacy of any foundation or philanthropist holding a particular view.” Putting aside the awkwardness of advocating for pluralism while telling people, “we should not question,” it’s again hard to understand what threat they’re worried about.

They maintain that we should “behave” — behave — “as if the foundations and individual donors who take stances with which we disagree are also committed to the betterment of society” and that they “have the best intentions.” But must I ascribe the “best intentions” to those philanthropists supporting efforts to deny the reality of climate change or ban the teaching of American history — including its history of racism — in our schools? How about those who seek to deny the humanity of people because of their gender or sexual identity?

Some Things Are Binary

The piece reads as if the authors believe that endowed, private foundations — arguably the institutions with the most freedoms and least strictures in American society — are somehow threatened or that their leaders can’t speak their minds. It’s unclear if they are worried about external threats from members of Congress or internal “threats” from those inside philanthropy. Because, again, they don’t say.

But it’s important not to conflate legitimate questions about the regulatory structure for philanthropy with a threat to “freedom” or an attack on “pluralism.” Or to suggest that, because some foundation leaders might be worried about critique, whether external or internal, they’re not actually free to do as they please if they just have the courage of their convictions.

“The United States has a strong, globally respected tradition of independent philanthropy that includes and is exemplified by the nation’s private foundations,” the authors write in their opening line, and I agree. I have done my best to be a champion of the importance of foundations, and I have tried over the years to defend them against broad-brush critiques that I think sometimes overlook their strengths, even as I also believe critique is healthy.

But I wish these leaders would have also raised their voices to support the nonprofits upon whom we all depend to do vital work every day — and spoken up for them. If anything needs defending, it is the role of these essential organizations upon whom donors and foundations rely to pursue shared goals.

Frankly, leaders of organizations that must bring in revenue every month to meet payroll — and who in many cases rely on support from foundations such as the ones several of the authors lead — will be hard pressed to think of foundations as terribly constrained in saying, or doing, as they please. To the extent that foundation leaders feel uncomfortable going against the grain on a particular issue, or pushing back on a staff member or board member who is being doctrinaire, that’s a leadership issue or perhaps a courage issue; it’s not about freedom and it’s not about pluralism, either.

Let me say, finally, that I believe in the power of unlikely coalitions, and think it can often be very important to stay connected to and in conversation with those with whom we disagree — and to search for common ground. Some big philanthropic wins, for example in the area of criminal justice reform, have come from donors working together across ideological lines. In the same vein, I am all for embracing nuance, avoiding binaries, and “complicating the narrative” — all the trendy phrases of the moment in philanthropy circles when it comes to bridge-building and pluralism — when the narrative is indeed complicated, binaries unwarranted, and nuance needed.

But that’s not always the case. Some things are clear. Some things are actually binary.

It’s OK for us to call out the Sacklers giving to an organization that advised on opioid policy as totally inappropriate and outrageous, for example. Or to condemn and learn from the shameful parts of American philanthropic history, like the Rockefeller Foundation’s support of eugenics, which its current CEO has laudably acknowledged. Or to walk away from working with those who insist, against all the historical and present-day facts, that systemic inequities don’t exist.

We can even call out what we see as illegitimate, if that is the word we want to use. Or just wrong. And debate it all vigorously, even passionately — free to “behave” as we deem fit.

That, after all, is what pluralism actually is, or should be, in my view — in all its raw messiness.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP and author of “Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count” and co-host of the podcast by the same name.

Author’s note: This probably goes without saying, but this is my personal take. It has been influenced by discussions and comments on earlier drafts from many CEP staff and board members. That said, this is my view, not necessarily theirs. I acknowledge and celebrate, in the spirit of pluralism, the many perspectives of my colleagues – and I learn from them.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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