I will never forget the last days I spent with my biological father. When I was a toddler, his mental health deteriorated dramatically, and the delusions and mania that characterize his illness caused him to harm those he loved the most. The day after her incarceration after a night of abuse, my mother sat down with my brother and I to chat.
“You don’t always get the best hand,” she said, “but you never give up and never fold. You continue to play to the best of your ability. You work harder than you think you can. 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 as a poor childhood in rural Indiana. His father was in prison, his mother abandoned him, and his sister got pregnant at age 15. He was fortunate to be welcomed by another family and to share the values that helped him succeed: education, faith and courage. Like my mother, he helped me see that everyone is able to forge 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 have helped my family through difficult times. I was motivated by a deep desire to help others with challenges and inspired by the stories of generous Americans who were dedicated to empowering others. They built schools, cured illnesses, tackled the root causes of poverty, and inspired movements to end injustice. Philanthropy appealed to me because it is a source of opportunity and optimism for the whole country.
Yet the people-centered philanthropy that attracted me is about to die out. In its place, a philanthropy that disempowers and divides has taken over. I am deeply concerned about what it means for the millions of Americans that our industry could and should help.
The roots of this trend go back decades, but the last year was a turning point. As our national conversation focused more on racial injustice and economic inequality, philanthropists now face enormous internal and external pressures to change their missions. They are also asked to view any issues through the prism of particular identity groups, while ignoring others in the country who are suffering.
There is no doubt that this approach is well intentioned. In a recent interview with “60 Minutes,” one of America’s foremost philanthropists, Ford Foundation chairman Darren Walker, described it as a shift from generosity to justice. Foundation director Andrew W. Mellon, who has always been the greatest supporter of the arts and humanities, announced that all future grants will focus on “social justice.”
Yet beneath these words hides a profound change in how philanthropy works. Leading philanthropic thinkers and activists are pushing foundations to support political advocacy, grassroots organization, and government efforts to redistribute wealth and power.
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Philanthropists are free to fund whatever causes they want – freedom demands it. But it seems to me that this new approach undermines the unique and important role that civil society plays in America.
Diversion of philanthropy with political ideology
For starters, it pushes philanthropy to support a specific worldview or political ideology. While it is inevitable that some philanthropy will fund political and advocacy efforts, if that is all our industry does, then we will ignore a large number of worthy projects and people in need. It is a path of uniformity and myopic division, while philanthropy must be infinitely varied and unifying.
Worse, I fear this new approach hurts those who philanthropy should help.
At its best, philanthropy has given people the tools and resources they need to be successful. It allows people to rise up together with the help of communities and private generosity. Yet the shift to government-led efforts sends a completely different message. He implicitly says that people in difficulty are unlikely to get back on their feet without public intervention. This is a deeply impersonal and even hopeless message compared to the more productive role of philanthropy of fostering personal confidence and unleashing individual capacity. 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 is not enough for philanthropy to simply turn back the clock. 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 lift struggling communities from the largest urban areas to the most. small rural towns. Philanthropy can and should play a leading role, but it must do so in a unifying and uplifting way.
I got into this field because I saw its unique power to do so and to help families like mine. It would be a shame if the philanthropic sector which has done so much for so many people forgets its foundation at a time when the need is so urgent.
Elise Westhoff is President and CEO of The Philanthropy Roundtable.