Smoldering Piles: Will Philanthropy Survive the 2016 Election?

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Will America recover from this election? Whatever the result, there will be lasting impact to our society, as actual American Nazis, misogynists, and bigots of every persuasion have crawled out of their bunkers for a public hearing. This has damaged our American experiment, and the impact will be felt for years. Can you imagine eight years ago, when President Obama was elected, that we would be giving a voice to American Nazis in 2016?

Common decency and mutual respect have been on the decline, but also has the good name of Philanthropy, by extension, in this shit show. Our vital business of connecting people to good work has been pulled into the fray by very real questions about Trump’s Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, and it is in our best interests as non-profit leaders to understand the issues and defend our work.

Let’s start with Mr. Trump. Creating one’s own “Foundation” has never been easier, and it is a popular, but unfortunate, mechanism for wealth preservation. There are good family foundations, doing essential work, and there are marginal ones, focused more on tax avoidance. There are more than a few out there that do more harm than good.

Trump’s approach to philanthropy represents an absolute new low for our sector, and if you haven’t already done so, check out The Washington Post’s sensational coverage of Mr. Trump’s truly horrifying charitable shenanigans. It is some deeply, deeply shameful business. New York is aggressive in policing non-profit malfeasance, and I hope they skewer the guy for the damage he has done to the reputation of our philanthropic enterprise.

But what of the Clintons? This is more nuanced, but doesn’t reflect well on our sector. The Clinton Global Initiative does extraordinary work around the world. Like many foundations and NGOs, the CGI works nimbly on critical issues like eradicating disease, educating girls, and providing economic development opportunity. So what is the issue? The appearance of a pay to play relationship between powerful leaders (Bill and Hilary Clinton) and wealthy influencers. Even the hint of governmental actors seeking influence on American foreign policy matters doesn’t pass the sniff test, however much good the CGI does day to day. The stink of this will impact all of us working in fundraising.

Why does this matter for our Philanthropic Sector? Americans are losing faith in our institutions: government, business, and non-profits. But we who work in Philanthropy can least afford the hit. We must rebuild trust in our sector, and deal with the very real questions arising from this election:

Are Family Foundations a Force for Good? The dubious wealth management strategy of personal “foundations” should be closely examined. Ideally, we should have better guidelines to the nature, purpose, and spending minimums of these organizations. And let’s start calling them something else entirely, like a Tax Deferred Giving Fund or something. They are not truly foundations. Legitimate foundations have grant making priorities, competitive applications processes, and, most importantly, are led by experienced professionals.

Should we accept that Big Donors wield Influence? Access is a legitimate leverage point in our fundraising toolbox.  Listen, it would great if the CEO, honorary board chair/famous person, or basketball coach all had unlimited time to devote to EVERY donor EQUALLY. That’s not the world we live in, so we must prioritize somehow. Should bigger donors expect reasonable access to leadership for occasional favors, a listening ear, or special opportunity? Of course they should. Can this seem icky and unpalatable? Maybe, but this the reality of our funding system for non-profits in the United States. And the good outweighs the bad.

But we do need transparency and openness. This might mean limiting anonymous contributions and more transparent reporting. If charitable gifts are made in the public good, in place of governmental spending, we should reasonably ask, as tax payers, that donations should be made public, if the donor expects to receive tax benefit.

Are Non-Profits to be Trusted? Philanthropic institutions are under the same scrutiny and lack of faith as religious, governmental, and corporate organizations in this cynical age. Americans, and others around the world, simply have less faith in every sort of authority, and this is contributing to a slow growth of our sector, where giving as a percentage of GDP has been stagnant for many years.

Are Americans less generous than before? I don’t think so, but we in the non-profit sector need to make our cases compelling, our stewardship thoughtful, and to be confident in our Asking.

Let us use this moment to robustly defend our sector, and make the changes necessary to better regulate private foundations and anonymous giving. It is in our sector’s best interest.

And Vote. Please, please Vote.

About jeremymhatch

If I could, I'd write about nothing but tacos. Alas, I am fundraising and leadership consultant in the arts, focusing on contributed revenue growth for organizations. Send me a compliment or complaint. And the location for the good tacos in your town.
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