Philanthropy and Political Uncertainty: The Opportunities

Friday, January 13, 2017 - 13:00

A German friend who is a scholar of American philanthropy and a university professor in Berlin asked me for my impressions on the impact the new administration might have on charitable organizations and those private groups that fund them. My thoughts? With crisis comes opportunities. Three come to mind here as the transition of presidential power begins:

Foundations will move to protect nonprofits and civil society, possibly as never before. Seasoned nonprofit groups at the forefront of immigration, environmental, health and reproductive rights protections form a bulwark likely to cushion the punitive attempts by the new government to bring their work to heel. I’ve come to think of them as ‘civil armies of resistance’ and I believe philanthropy will find ways to shore up and strengthen those leaders as they work tirelessly to sculpt ever-greater routes to civic, social, political and economic self-determination for individuals and groups. Foundations will need to become more flexible, more willing to take risks, and more trusting of nonprofit leaders’ community knowledge and ability to forge lasting change. Vu Le, in this Chronicle of Philanthropy piece, makes some excellent points about the direction philanthropy should take if we are to help the most vulnerable in our communities weather the coming storm. 

Nonprofits will in turn need to demonstrate – and better communicate – their fitness as partners for the wider public good. Organizational strength, impact, and deep community connections will be most important to foundations as they look to support nonprofits on the frontlines.

This means organizations will need to double down on telling their stories – making sure such key audiences as potential funding partners, donors, and the media know about how they are making a difference in the communities they serve. When I asked my board recently about what’s come to their attention in the post-election transition of power that might have bearing on our work, this was definitely an issue that bubbled up: the need to intensify communications and heighten visibility among those providing vital services and critical advocacy. It was also on the minds of the distinguished presenters at a recent California Policy Forum from CalNonprofits and Southern California Grantmakers, among others. Raphael Sonenshein, of the Pat Brown Institute, stressed the need for nonprofit leaders to be trusted sources of information to journalists covering the impacts of new government policy change. That apocalyptic fundraising appeals will need to give way to better storytelling about impact was also sage advice. 

Definitions of equity and income inequality may need re-defining. The admirable and well-intentioned push in recent years by many foundations toward addressing and correcting the pernicious effects of growing income inequality may need revising. Ford Foundation with its national reach and local philanthropic powerhouses like The California Endowment and California Community Foundation have been developing strategies for reversing and resolving gross income inequality as a matter of economic necessity, even national security. The recent elections demonstrated the extent to which the effects of inequality require a wider lens of understanding. When those gripped for too long by economic conditions rally to a political call from a charismatic figure holding the most powerful seat in the land, all bets are off on the accuracy of how the problem of income inequality has been defined. Where philanthropic foundations had hoped to lead the way out of a darkening wilderness, they may find themselves perplexed to the point of reconsidering their priorities and approach when traveling outside the familiar zones of dense cities where they tend to target most of their grantmaking dollars. Their local nonprofit partners need to step up as never before to help them see disconnected, disaffected communities clearly and without ideological blinders that could obscure understanding and thwart effective action.