I’ll never forget the last days I spent with my biological father. When I was a toddler, his mental health declined significantly, and the delusions and mania that are hallmarks of his illness led him to harm those he loved most. The day after he was taken into custody after a night of abuse, my mother sat down with my brother and me for a talk.
“You aren’t always dealt the best hand,” she said, “but you never give up and fold. You keep playing to the best of your ability. You work harder than you think is possible. And you have faith that the next hand will be better than the last.”
My stepfather made the same point years later when he told me about his experience growing up dirt-poor in rural Indiana. His dad was in jail, his mom deserted him and his sister got pregnant at 15. He was lucky enough to have another family take him in and share the values that helped him succeed: education, faith and grit. Like my mother, he helped me see that everyone is capable of charting a better path.
Philanthropy is a source of opportunity
This realization ultimately led me to pursue a career in philanthropy. In charity, I saw a chance to pass on the principles and practices that enabled my family to come through difficult times. I was motivated by a deep desire to help others facing challenges, and inspired by the stories of generous Americans who devoted themselves to empowering others. They built schools, cured diseases, tackled poverty’s root causes and inspired movements to end injustice. Philanthropy called to me because it is a source of opportunity and optimism for the entire country.
Yet the people-focused philanthropy that drew me in is on the way out. In its place, a philanthropy that disempowers and divides has taken over. I’m deeply concerned about what this means for the millions of Americans whom our industry could and should help.
The roots of this trend stretch back decades, but the past year has been a watershed. As our national conversation became more focused on racial injustice and economic inequality, philanthropists now face tremendous internal and external pressure to change their missions. They are also being asked to view all problems through the lens of particular identity groups, while ignoring others in the country who are suffering.
No doubt this approach is well-intentioned. In a recent “60 Minutes” interview, one of America’s most prominent philanthropists, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, described it as a shift from generosity to justice. The head of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has historically been the largest supporter of the arts and humanities, announced that all future grants will focus on “social justice.”
Yet beneath these words lies a profound shift in how philanthropy operates. Leading philanthropic thinkers and activists are pushing foundations to support political advocacy, grassroots organizing and government-run efforts to redistribute wealth and power.
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Philanthropists are free to fund whatever causes they like — freedom demands it. But it seems to me that this new approach undermines the unique and important role that civil society plays in America.
Hijacking philanthropy with political ideology
To start, it pushes philanthropy to support a specific political worldview or ideology. While it’s inevitable that some philanthropy will fund policy and advocacy efforts, if that’s all our industry does, then we’ll ignore a huge swath of worthy projects and people in need. It’s a path of myopic uniformity and division, when philanthropy should be infinitely varied and uniting.
Worse, I worry this new approach hurts those whom philanthropy should help.
At its best, philanthropy has given people the tools and resources they need to succeed. It enables people to rise together with the help of communities and private generosity. Yet the turn toward government-driven efforts sends a completely different message. It implicitly says people who are struggling have little chance of rising without public intervention. This is a deeply impersonal and even hopeless message, compared with philanthropy’s more productive role of fostering personal trust and unlocking individual ability. Under the new way of thinking, bottom-up empowerment gives way to top-down control.
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The new philanthropic framework seems unlikely to move America forward. But it’s not enough for philanthropy to simply go back. Now is the time to find and fund innovative efforts that promote real justice, ensure equal opportunity for people of all colors and creeds, and uplift struggling communities from the biggest urban areas to the smallest rural towns. Philanthropy can and should play a leading role, but it should do so in a way that unifies and uplifts.
I got into this field because I saw its unique power to do so and help families like mine. It would be a shame if the philanthropic sector that has done so much for so many forgot its foundation at a time of such urgent need.
Elise Westhoff is president and CEO of The Philanthropy Roundtable.