Earlier this spring, a collection of unlikely bedfellows published a statement in the Chronicle of Philanthropy in support of what they call “Philanthropic Pluralism.” The heads of the left-wing Ford Foundation and Doris Duke Foundation, the libertarian group Stand Together, the conservative-leaning Templeton Foundation, as well as the head of the Council on Foundations and the Philanthropy Roundtable stood up in favor of the notion that “philanthropy provides the greatest value when donors enable and encourage pluralism by supporting and investing in a wide and diverse range of values, missions, and interests.”
As commendable as the sentiment may be, it does not address the most significant problems philanthropists and foundation leaders face when directing funds to programs and organizations that may diverge widely in their underlying principles and goals.
Why did the authors of the statement think it was needed at this time? In philanthropy, like other sectors in American life, there is little common ground to be found between the two sides of a polarized political discourse. Name-calling and “cancel culture” are now prominent features of debate and commentary in the field, more so in the wake of the Floyd protests of 2020. The effect has been to stigmatize some philanthropic initiatives as extreme or out of touch (or worse), and to narrow the range causes and policies that philanthropists can support. The statement on pluralism is undoubtedly an attempt to address this situation.
Though private foundations have been left-leaning for three-quarters of a century, the sense that only certain views—particularly on race and other identity issues—should even be heard has grown quite strong. The Olin Foundation supported programs on campus for decades, funding professors, graduate students, and various publications committed to free enterprise, among other things. This drew a fair amount of criticism but few large-scale protests. But in recent years, the philanthropic efforts of the Charles G. Koch Foundation have spawned a nationwide organization called UnKoch My Campus, which tries to ensure that no money from this source can support guest lectures, publications, or faculty research. Donors with ties to pharmaceutical companies or military equipment manufacturing have been unceremoniously dismissed from the boards of various universities and museums.
Since 2020, in particular, the view that philanthropy has a special duty to support racial equity has become widespread. Both private foundations and corporate donors are now single-mindedly committed to supporting Black Lives Matter and the organizations claiming a similar mantle. Staggering sums have been committed to this cause—perhaps more than $200 billion to be spent over the next several years.
But it turns out that simply supporting the cause is not enough. Now donors are being asked to support only organizations whose leadership and staff meet well-defined racial or identity criteria. A new effort funded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife will provide $42.5 million over the next five years to support more than 100 black-led nonprofits focused on improving economic mobility. The MacArthur Foundation, meanwhile, has pledged $80 million for “Racial Justice Field Support, with a focus on combatting anti-Blackness, and building Black power by supporting Black-led and -focused philanthropic organizations.” Many other philanthropists have jumped on this race-oriented bandwagon.
Foundations whose missions diverge from the emphasis on race and identity, or whose officers and trustees reject the claim that the skin color of an organization’s leaders should help to determine whether or not it is worth funding, must fend off pressures to conform to the new philanthropic orthodoxy. Donors who choose to support medical research or animal welfare or school choice or crisis pregnancy centers or an end to vocational licensing want to be able to do so without being told that they are racists or sexists or out of touch for failing to conform. It is perhaps for this reason that the statement on pluralism asks for an end to ad hominem attacks:
We behave as if the foundations and individual donors who take stances with which we disagree are also committed to the betterment of society. We assume that those involved in philanthropy have the best intentions, even if they take a different approach.
The authors’ point was proved soon enough by a response from the former president of the Joyce Foundation, who asked if the statement’s authors think we should have behaved civilly to the foundations that supported eugenics. That was not an apt comparison, since eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s was one of those newfangled causes supported by progressive foundations. Nevertheless, his point was clear: the ideas promoted by conservatives today, from free enterprise to school choice, are merely updated versions of fascism or white supremacy.
Civil discourse and reasoned debate are important in politics and public life, but they are perhaps less important in a field like philanthropy where donors and foundations enjoy a fair amount of freedom to operate and do not need to engage their critics. While politicians are subject to the will of the voters, businesses have to worry about customers, and journalists have to find readers, philanthropists do not need supporters to operate and do not face anything resembling a market test. Notwithstanding the difficulty of the current environment, donors with resources will always find organizations eager to apply for grants.
Still, philanthropic pluralism can be hampered by new government policies. For the past few decades, activists in the field have been trying to restrict when, how, and to whom philanthropists can give their money. A chorus of voices on the Left claims that philanthropic money is really public money because donors receive tax benefits in return for their charitable contributions. As a result, they claim, federal and state governments should have a say in how foundations spend their money. They have pushed for diversity mandates on boards and staffs, and have proposed restricting the use of the charitable tax deduction to favor donations to causes they support. They also favor reporting requirements on donor-advised funds to prevent donors from giving anonymously to unpopular causes.
Unfortunately, the statement on philanthropic pluralism has nothing much to say about any of these issues. It notes, “We reject efforts by anyone to circumscribe or proscribe the programmatic prerogatives of donors or their foundations, so long as the exercise of those prerogatives conforms with the law.” But changing the law to circumscribe those prerogatives doesn’t seem to be off the table. Indeed, foundations like Ford have supported many of the above causes—for example, by donating to the Greenlining Institute which has lobbied for these policies. And Ford—along with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation—have supported greater restrictions on donor-advised funds.
It is comforting to hear that there is support across the political spectrum for respecting opposing viewpoints. But unless these foundations stop asking the state to restrict others’ philanthropic activities, it’s hard to see why this matters.