The neo-populist wave that swept Donald Trump to power poses at least three challenges to elite philanthropy, which we define as both wealthy individual donors and foundations.
The first challenge is that elite philanthropy owes its wealth to an economic system at the heart of the neo-populist critique—an economic system based on job-draining automation, on job-redistributing processes of globalization, and on neoliberal policies. Second, much elite philanthropy embraces strategies driven from the top down by donors and cosmopolitan technocrats, whom neo-populists view with suspicion or even disdain. The third challenge is that elite philanthropy tends to focus on public problems (e.g., climate change) and constituencies (e.g., poor people of color, feminists, environmentalists, immigrants) that many neo-populists view as opponents in a zero-sum contest for society’s benefits. These three factors—the indebtedness to neoliberalism, the prioritization of elite approaches, and the orientation toward post-materialist progressive causes—would seem to put much philanthropy at odds with the political zeitgeist.
And yet, even as philanthropy faces these challenges, its legitimacy interests and moral commitments call it to action. At their best, philanthropic patrons help cultivate democratic norms and practices within civil society, thereby empowering citizens to live peaceably together and to counter antidemocratic moves by the state. Scholars have long observed philanthropy’s role in helping nondemocratic countries democratize, but philanthropy may be equally important in preventing established democracies from backsliding. In the present context, as Ted Lechterman has argued, donors find themselves “in the throes of a dilemma” between redressing the democratic deficits that have given rise to contemporary populism and taking a forceful stand against the wave’s anti-democratic impulses. What are donors to do?
We have been monitoring how the largest foundations, their leaders, and the nation’s most generous philanthropists have been answering this question. Since January, we have followed 20 of America’s most generous independent foundations (the Top 23 by giving in 2014, minus two that have effectively no web presence and one that has ceased operations). We have examined what they have proposed formally about any changes in programming relevant to the initiatives of the new administration. This data collection effort includes what foundation leaders have said in interviews, speeches, and tweets; what’s been said in articles about these philanthropies; and what the foundations have posted on their web sites. Our assessment focused on new initiatives and programs or statements of intent to establish new programs; statements or restatements of core values were not considered indications of change. We also have reviewed public statements and tweets by more than 100 leading individual philanthropists with major policy interests, those whom Goss has termed “policy plutocrats.”
Regarding the big foundations, almost all of them support causes threatened by the new administration, including environmental and climate protection, internationalist foreign policy, assistance to the poor, and the rights of marginalized groups. These (mostly progressive) foundations give away billions each year, and we might expect some of these dollars to be redirected toward the emerging “resistance” movement. Nevertheless, what we have found in our initial research (through May 1st) is that few foundations are shifting programmatic resources toward contesting those Trump initiatives that run directly counter to foundation priorities. One can review major foundations’ websites and see not the slightest hint of trouble in the policy areas they work on. For example, the Packard Foundation is a forceful proponent of arresting global climate change, yet there’s not a word on its website about the Trump administration’s hostility to climate change regulation. There could not be a more passionate advocate of expanding healthcare to all than the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, but you wouldn’t know the Affordable Care Act is under attack from the foundation’s formal statements.
Thinking beyond particular policy issues, philanthropy is a critical element in the American system of interest articulation and representation. Philanthropic dollars support civil society organizations, which provide a voice to everyday people. The election has provoked a surge in democratic engagement as evidenced by large and sustained protest marches, booming membership in legacy organizations such as the League of Women Voters, and the formation of political organizations urging constituents to speak out and even run against their elected officials. Spontaneous individual donations of money and time have fueled this surge in engagement, yet thus far there is little evidence that leading foundations see a new or expanded role for themselves in these movements.
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To be sure, some leading philanthropies and their donors have responded to the times. They have done so by verbally affirming their support for progressive causes, by providing new funds to organizations representing those commitments, or both. In terms of funding, the Rockefeller Foundation has given $1.5 million to buttress civil rights and liberties, the California Endowment has allocated $25 million to support healthcare for vulnerable children, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $20 million for reproductive health organizations harmed by the revived “global gag rule.” Pierre Omidyar has announced a $100 million effort to shore up journalism, and George Soros has pledged $10 million to combat hate crimes. Likewise, the Center for Effective Philanthropy found in a recent survey that almost 30 percent of 162 foundation CEOs intended to make changes in light of Trump administration initiatives. It’s possible that such changes haven’t been implemented yet. Perhaps America’s foundations are lumbering giants that just move slowly.
Wealthy individuals’ responses to the new administration are harder to track but nevertheless instructive. Beyond the contributions of Omidyar and Soros, we found little trace of new donations by policy plutocrats—perhaps because they have chosen not to make their contributions public. However, a small but critical mass of these individuals has taken to the media, including Twitter, to publicly challenge the Trump administration. Some, including Bill Gates and Richard Branson have reaffirmed support for policies that the administration may threaten, such as U.S. foreign aid and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Others, including Marc Benioff and Nicolas Berggruen, have criticized the administration for undermining traditions of diversity and inclusion. And still others, including Pierre Omidyar and Tom Steyer, have blasted specific Trump policies and framed the administration as a threat to the Constitution and rule of law. Supporters of Trump, including Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens, have largely praised the president’s early moves, including his inaugural speech and Cabinet appointments. Although we cannot determine if donors have backed their statements with contributions to charities and advocacy organizations, it is reasonable to assume at least some have done so.
As we continue our research, we are especially interested in whether philanthropies will reorient their giving—and their public voice—in a sustained way to counter threats to a high-functioning, civil, and inclusive democracy. Such grantmaking might entail a deeper commitment to constituencies left especially vulnerable by domestic and global developments—or it might entail new commitments to strengthening the norms and institutions of democracy itself. These two approaches have areas of overlap—defending liberty for some protects liberty for all, for example. But these approaches also reveal different perspectives on the fundamental challenges of our age. The hopeful perspective is that democracy is a flawed system that needs a little boost; the pessimist’s view is that democracy is existentially threatened. As this larger debate swirls around us, few leading foundations and philanthropists appear to be grasping what may be at stake.