Natasa Adzic/shutterstock
Natasa Adzic/shutterstock

Whether they acknowledge it or not, more and more grantmakers are finding and sticking with their tribes. They’re either abandoning cross-ideological dialogue altogether or engaging in rhetoric that paints like-minded organizations as true “civil society” while those on the other side are unacceptably divisive, and thus not really part of civil society at all.

The past several years have seen that trend escalate into high gear. First, we had Donald Trump’s rise to power, which set off a cascade of donations to progressive groups resisting Trump’s agenda and prompted fraught debate on the right about how far to embrace the president’s crass—though effective—rhetoric.

And now we have COVID-19 and the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, the latter of which has liberal grantmakers asking themselves how far left they’re willing to go, while the conservative backlash against “wokeness” reaches fever pitch.

In this climate, it isn’t all that surprising to see the Philanthropy Roundtable take what Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy has called a “sharp right turn.” With a new leader at the helm, this longtime bastion of conservative philanthropy has decided to double down on its ideological positioning. It’s engaging in fiercer rhetoric, picking more fights, and taking the Trumpier path more often than not. But harsher tone and some dubious claims aside, the Roundtable’s current positioning is indicative of longstanding, underlying political divides within the sector—ideological differences that leaders across the board are increasingly willing to acknowledge.

Shared goals?

Last week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Jim Rendon explored the Roundtable’s change of tone at length, detailing its new leader Elise Westhoff’s crusade against “woke philanthropy” and relaying reactions from the membership organization’s donors—some of whom have cheered its combative stance while others lament its increased “divisiveness.”

The main point: Westhoff (and, presumably, the board of directors who brought her on board) have a problem with progressive philanthropy’s fight against systemic racism. “It creates a system of victims and oppressors, and we don’t believe that that is the right way to address these issues,” she told Rendon. And later: “I am going to stand up for my beliefs, and I’m going to point out the areas we disagree on.”

The group’s new positioning has some longtime Roundtable donors abandoning ship. One such evacuee, Heinz Endowments President Grant Oliphant, told Rendon, “There is a difference between having a broad view, wanting to work across differences in order to accomplish shared social goals, and buying into the corrosive, partisan, divisive rhetoric that we now see permeating politics.”

Oliphant’s aspiration toward “shared social goals” is commendable. But what if, hypothetically, the rival camps involved no longer share any meaningful social goals—if they ever did? If that’s the case, it’s hard to blame the Roundtable for staking out its own position as firmly as its opponents have, even if one vehemently disagrees with the contents of that position.

Picking fights

Since she took the reins at the Roundtable, Westhoff has moved away from the more moderate rhetoric of her predecessor, Adam Meyerson. As she presides over sweeping staffing changes, Westhoff has taken a pointed right-wing stance in op-eds and interviews. This year, she’s picked fights with the likes of Ford’s Darren Walker and Mellon’s Elizabeth Alexander, and actually got into it with Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

Readers will have their own views on Philanthropy Roundtable’s positions—including its insistence that engaging with systemic racism—and the broad swath of equity initiatives conservatives refer to as “critical race theory”—is an inherently divisive thing to do, something that erodes and homogenizes philanthropy rather than strengthening and diversifying it. Then there are some of Westhoff’s more spurious claims, like, for instance, her suggestion that progressive grantmakers like Ford dismiss white poverty—patently untrue—or the idea that empowering one group of Americans necessarily means oppressing another—legible only if one buys into the kind of paranoid zero-sum political thinking that seems endemic on the right.

But rather than descend into ad hominem attack mode (a tactic Roundtable board chair and Bradley Foundation President Richard Graber apparently associates with the left), I will say that advocates of progressive philanthropic reform have some reason to take heart. After all, those reformers have spent years calling on grantmakers to get real about funding racial justice, mostly to the sound of crickets from institutional philanthropy. The Roundtable’s panic over “woke philanthropy” is a sign that it believes real shifts are taking place.

Founded on fear

Amid the corporate-inflected homogenization of nonprofit culture over the past several decades—and philanthropy’s customary politeness—it’s easy to forget that the Philanthropy Roundtable was founded on grievance. Specifically, conservatives’ mid- to late-20th-century fears that a liberal nonprofit establishment had hijacked the fortunes of America’s greatest capitalists to advance a leftist, even socialist, agenda. A “woke agenda,” if you will.

Those fears haven’t faded, even as conservative grantmakers struck back with a patient campaign of policy giving that helped neoliberal politicians roll back some of the last vestiges of the New Deal and entrench laissez-faire economic policy. Liberal foundations’ resource advantage and conservatives’ culture war failures (dare I add changing demographics?) make it possible for the Roundtable and others to forever employ this underdog rhetoric.

What’s left out is that liberal philanthropy’s policy record is pretty dismal, a natural outcome of the fact that liberal philanthropists have spent only a small fraction of their war chest on policy advocacy and movement building. But that may be changing, especially since Trump’s election in 2016, and even more so in the era of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter.

It’s no secret that philanthropy is becoming more politicized, so it’s not surprising to see the right throw down the gauntlet in response.

Of course, that’s not to say we should condone the Roundtable’s attempts to deny systemic racism and other injustices. Nor should misrepresentations of progressive grantmakers’ work and motivations go unanswered. But at the end of the day, despite everything foundations do to steer clear, politics is impossible to escape. Philanthropy scholar Benjamin Soskis called foundations’ traditional stance “the politics of the apolitical” in a recent Twitter thread on this topic. Whatever one calls it, the era of polite distance from partisanship may be drawing to a close on both sides, in spirit if not in the letter of the law.

Nothing lasts forever

Rendon’s piece in the Chronicle included a few dour reflections on what a more sharply divided grantmaking sector might mean for philanthropic reform. The basic point, articulated by folks like Hudson Institute Senior Fellow William Schambra, is that a philanthropic house divided cannot lobby effectively for its own interests, clearing the way for reforms like the Accelerating Charitable Efforts Act.

It’s still uncertain how far the ACE Act and other potential reforms will advance in Congress or in the states. But beyond the purely tactical question of how well philanthropy can lobby for its own interests (what exactly are those interests, anyhow?) growing ideological conflict in the sector may itself be a sign that it’s time for some change.

I’ll leave the extended debate over what constitutes civil society for another time. But surely when it comes to things like, I don’t know, tax exemptions and write-offs, there’s an argument to be made that two rivers of money flowing with the obvious intent to impede each other shouldn’t be subsidized by taxpayers looking for basic government functionality. Public budgets may be full of wasteful spending, but I can’t think of any instance where the stated purpose of two line items is to cancel each other out.

In the end, grantmakers looking toward “shared social goals” should certainly do so. But in the longer arc of history, change breeds conflict and conflict breeds change. And it’s unreasonable to expect American philanthropy to be immune from that.