About eight weeks ago, I wrote an op-ed in The Chronicle of Philanthropy that suggested philanthropy needed to shift both its thinking and methods because of the Trump administration’s impact on the issues and communities many of us hold dear. After attending CEP’s national conference last month and reflecting on its most recent research findings, I wanted to provide an update to my thinking on the challenges and opportunities ahead for philanthropy.
CEP’s research reflects that most of us in the foundation world have indeed been shaken by the election results. As shown in the Shifting Winds report, almost half of us believe that our work is going to be made more difficult by this administration, and roughly a third of us are shifting programmatic goals and budgets.
And, many foundation CEOs see the changed political landscape creating new opportunities for collaboration and predict increased support for public policy and advocacy. These are ALL good things. But I would argue that without a real shift in how we work — and in how we view both our human and financial resources — we will be minimally effective.
First, I would argue that foundations must support both offense and defense in these times — and that doing so requires a higher level of spending than in the past. On the defensive side of the ball, we are in danger of losing so much — from the attacks on our democratic institutions to the programs axed in Trump’s 2018 budget proposal. We need to preserve and protect those constituents, communities, programs, and partners at risk.
Yet, I am hearing from too many of our community partners that some funders are reducing or discontinuing their grant support, under the guise of needing to have funds to respond to the Trump administration’s attacks. This is not a time to retreat from longstanding commitments to grantees doing work that is still highly relevant and necessary. Funders must do all we can to support the nonprofit infrastructure on which we are dependent!
At the same time, there are always opportunities created during hard and chaotic times. There are promising things happening at the local, state, and regional levels — even while the federal government is in retreat on so many issues we care about. Whether it is increasing citizen engagement, supporting cross-sector movement building, raising the minimum wage, or expanding protections and benefits to independent workers, there are many avenues available that could make real differences in real people’s lives, even during these hard times.
This brings me to the question of money. I am agnostic on whether foundations should choose to spend down or live in perpetuity. But I also know that endowments of many foundations over the past few decades have grown at a much faster pace than their grantmaking budgets. I would suggest that these times call for foundation leaders to take a hard look at the size of their endowments, make assessments of “how much is enough,” and then put more money on the table for grantmaking. I know this suggestion might make trustees and investment committees blanch — including my own — but extraordinary times require extraordinary responses.
Additionally, I would suggest that this is a time during which trustees must speak out to support the values and missions of their foundations. Whether a private, family, corporate, or community foundation, trustees are not usually the face or the voice of foundations. Yet, many trustees are well known and respected in communities, and their voices can significantly amplify a foundation’s investments of capital — both human and financial. The inhumanity of the Trump/Pence 2018 budget, HUD Secretary Carson’s statement that poverty is a state of mind, Education Secretary DeVos’s attack on public education — these words and actions cry for new and powerful voices to be heard in the public arena. While these may be uncomfortable roles for many trustees, I believe it is necessary and important.
Finally, I want to talk about the way foundations work together. In much of our work, collaboration is a closely held value — but we, ourselves, are not good practitioners. We have a hard time giving up our specific strategies or our particular grantmaking methods in order to find common ground, simplify the hurdles we erect for nonprofits, and build more comprehensive responses to the big problems we face. Nor do many of us focus on building and supporting the infrastructure that enables great collaborative work for the long term.
This time we are in is not about one leader or one organization or one funder; this time is about building interconnected and interdependent networks of great people and great organizations — across race, class, gender, sexual orientation, geography, and all the other ways we are separated. Philanthropy could play an incredible role in building that connectedness across movements and across issues, investing in both individual and organizational sustainability. Our potential is huge, but realizing it will require some sacrifice in individual power and authority to move us forward together.
Pam David is executive director of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund.