resent to many of President-elect Trump’s supporters the ways in
which distant elites control the institutions and forces that shape
With regard to philanthropy, they might be onto something.
It does seem as if we have witnessed in the past decade a drop
in interest in philanthropy focused on specific communities.
The recent announcement that the Silicon Valley Community
Foundation would set up an office on the East Coast (see Page 39)
underscored this trend, as does the rise of high-ne-worth “sea
gulls,” members of a global philanthropic elite untethered to any
particular community, as comfortable in San Francisco as they
are in Shanghai or Davos.
Although Silicon Valley was hardly a seedbed of Trump support, the disconnect bet ween the tech billionaires it harbors and
the local nonprofits addressing the needs of the region’s poor —
the subject of a recent report published by Open Impact — has
produced a chasm, replicated in communities across the nation,
in which populist antipathy toward philanthropy can fester. Those
resentments should push philanthropy, and especially the largest
foundations and donors, to shore up its local roots, even as they
maintain a national or global perspective.
So philanthropy’s leaders would do well to listen to the voic-
es of Trump voters (as should, for that matter, all Democratic
office-seekers). But that does not mean they need to respect all of
what those voices seem to have said. The aggrieved racial nation-
alism that Mr. Trump’s campaign stoked is underrepresented on
foundation boards — and this
is not a bad thing. The paranoia,
the conspiratorial thinking,
the intolerance, and the misin-
formation that characterized
a good part of the political
discourse that fed Mr. Trump’s
rise must inform philanthropy’s
work, but only in the service of
The simple fact is that close
to 60 million Americans voted
for a buffoon and a bully, a
xenophobe and a misogynist,
a narcissist and a charlatan, a
man preternaturally unquali-
fied by temperament to hold the
highest office in the land, and that some toxic cocktail of antip-
athy to elites, immigrants, and minorities played an essential
part in their decision. In light of those facts, philanthropy must
serve not as an instrument of accommodation but as an agent of
Resistance to Mr. Trump and what he stands for will mean different things to different people. In the dim days after the lection, we can only begin to intuit the discipline, dedica- tion, and sacrifice that such work will entail, though we can turn to the history of philanthropy for some instruction in
how to go high when our nation’s political institutions go low: the
Fund for the Republic’s opposition to McCarthyism, for instance,
and the Julius Rosenwald Fund’s resistance to Japanese internment.
What we can say with near certainty is that the fundamental
liberal values, those of tolerance and respect for others, of decency, charity, and moderation, have been enfeebled in our public
life. The transition from President Obama, who embodied these
values so confidently — if perhaps a little too coolly — to Donald
Trump is almost too painful to contemplate.
These liberal values have long sustained the nation’s system
and culture of volunteerism. Philanthropy must be a place in
which they are preserved, defended, and championed, a sort of
glass-walled sanctuary for the best of American ideals. One of the
major legitimizing theories of the nonprofit sector has long been
that of government failure: Nonprofits can provide goods and
services that are not produced or addressed by public institutions.
Here we are contemplating government failure of a more troubling sort: Nonprofits and foundations will have to manufacture
the civic resources that our contemporary political culture seems
incapable of sustaining at the moment.
For we must be clear: Mr. Trump’s victory represents a civic
failure of epic proportions. It is a failure of journalism and of media — of Facebook fake-news stories and a rigid, unthinking commitment to “balanced” coverage of the candidates. It is a failure of
our voting and electoral systems. It is a failure of political engagement: By all accounts, turnout fell steeply from 2012 to 2016, and
even with the stakes as high as ever, almost half of eligible voters
didn’t cast a ballot for president. That millions could be swayed
by Trump’s demagoguery and authoritarian fantasies exposes the
fragility of our democratic system — its vulnerability to cynicism
and apathy, political hacks, foreign hackers, and unprincipled
And because all these institutions failed, we must admit that
philanthropy, too, failed. With a few notable exceptions, grant
makers have not given enough attention to our nation’s civic
health. The numbers recently unveiled in the Foundation Center’s
Foundation Funding for U.S. Democracy online resource seem
impressive — totaling more than $3 billion in grants over the past
five years — but they have just been proven inadequate.
No matter how much more attention nonprofits and foundations have given to advocacy work, this election calls out the need
for deeper structural investments in the civic infrastructure on
which advocacy rests. There is a desperate need for more funding
of grass-roots social-justice organizations that can speak to the
anxieties and fears of Americans across the entire nation and that
can address them responsibly.
That will require confronting the reality of the Trump elec- torate — the majority of white America, really, except for the most affluent, largely holed up in liberal enclaves. Philan- thropy must operate in the nation that is beyond the bounds of our Facebook friends and homogenous social net works.
Although the names and historical particulars have changed, this
is not a new imperative, and the challenges it represents for the
sector are profound.
One of the earliest lessons learned by the first modern foundations at the turn of the last century, organizations that were
committed to improving the public education system in the
South (and especially the education offered African-Americans),
was that their efforts would have to go through the region’s poor
whites. Southern leaders warned that focusing on black schools
would stoke racial resentment.
As the president of Washington and Lee University instructed
John D. Rockefeller, “If it is your idea to educate the Negro, you
must have the White of the South with you. If the poor White sees
the son of a Negro neighbor enjoying through your munificence
benefits defined to his boy, it raises in him a feeling that will ren-
der futile all your work. You must lift up the ‘poor White’ and the
Negro together if you would approach success.”
Rockefeller took this advice. He dropped the name he was
considering for his new foundation — the Negro Education Board
— and instead called it the General Education Board. In practice,
this approach meant that much of the early foundation invest-
ments in Southern education disproportionately benefited whites.
Philanthropy helped establish the principle of universal access
to state-funded public education throughout the nation, even as
it capitulated to segregation and exacerbated inequality. The bal-
ance between accommodating the forces of reaction and resisting
them is treacherous and not easily struck. But philanthropy will
need to find it if it is to help make America great again. n
Benjamin Soskis is a historian of philanthropy at the Center for
Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy and Policy at George Mason
University and a co-editor of the HistPhil blog.
An early lesson of modern
foundations was not to lift
up poor blacks without also
lifting up poor whites.