The election of Donald Trump stunned many people in the nonprofit world, but as we look at the results with fresh eyes, the outcome isn’t quite as shocking as it first appeared. Many of us simply weren’t looking beyond ourselves to see what was really happening with a large group of voters — and to
consider our own role in creating the environment that led to his
Now we are faced with a crucial question: Do we use this as an
opportunity to find common ground and potential new allies, or
do we retrench?
One of the central themes of Mr. Trump’s campaign was his
promise to build a wall along our country’s border with Mexico.
But while many were fixated on this wall during the campaign, we
have been ignoring a more ominous wall that has been building,
brick by brick, over the course of several years.
It’s the figurative wall bet ween t wo Americas.
Many in the nonprofit and foundation world have been decrying
the deep divisions between the urban, liberal culture that exists
largely on our coasts and the more rural, conservative culture that
permeates much of our heartland.
The problems that many in the philanthropic world are looking to address — issues of economic and racial inequity, hunger,
education, the environment, and health — affect large numbers of
citizens on both sides of this growing divide. Often the solutions to
these problems bring benefits to all — regardless of where they live
or the color of their skin.
Philanthropy can do much more to bridge those divisions. But
as I read the responses from nonprofit and foundation leaders
on social media and elsewhere in the days after the election, I’m
seeing anger and frustration thrown at Trump voters. I’m seeing
genuine expressions of fear and panic. I’m seeing blame lobbed at
third-party candidates and the FBI.
The tenor of their messages is dispiriting — and it’s also revealing.
In venting emotions about the election’s results, we risk insulting — and further alienating — a large population of people whom
we need on our side as we work to achieve our missions. We are
labeling them as others.
In turn, they are labeling us as part of the problem.
Many of those who voted for Donald Trump in places like Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin did so because they feel ignored and looked down upon. They feel as though nobody in Washington is respecting their values or needs. And they feel as though they are
being lied to and taken advantage of by the so-called elites who
run the show.
Many of these voters are living in communities that have seen
better days. They have watched economic opportunities vanish
and their education system fail. And they feel like nobody — not
government, politicians, corporations, or nonprofits — has taken
steps to find real solutions.
For those who work at foundations and nonprofits, this dynamic
is all too familiar. After all, these are many of the very problems
these institutions are working to address.
Many large national nonprofits and foundations have the power
to do much more to engage this important population in finding
solutions to these problems. Yet to achieve that requires reaching
out instead of adding to the rhetoric that labels them as deplorables.
Yes, there was a current of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny
in Mr. Trump’s campaign that was unacceptable. And we should
continue to stand against it. Yet we cannot cut through that and
change minds by simply denouncing it. Or by broad-brushing or
stereotyping the people who supported his campaign as racist and
Instead, let’s use these results as a call to action.
The best way to combat these attitudes and push for the greater good is to find areas of common ground. This begins with how we listen and how e speak. As nonprofit professionals,
we should see the election result as
an opportunity — and challenge
— to take time to listen thoughtfully to those who have different
perspectives. It’s an opportunity to
learn about their motivations and their pain and look for shared
Further, if we really want to address issues like economic opportunity, education, and global warming, our communications must
engage more than a few selected audiences.
This doesn’t mean we should neglect our supporters and audiences. But we can expand those audiences by thinking about our
work differently — and find ways to engage a full range of people
We also have to rethink our tone to make sure we communicate with authenticity, not arrogance. All too often, in our official
communications, in our fundraising, and in our advocacy, we are
largely speaking directly to the elites.
So much of what comes out of the communications and fundraising departments at nonprofits and foundations is created for
those who are like us — and it’s often littered with jargon and
dense language that, to those outside of our bubbles, raise red flags
When we speak like insiders, we send a strong signal that we’re
part of the same club of
elites who don’t truly care
about the needs of many of
the people we are actually
trying to help.
That leads to nonprofits
and foundations being
lumped in with the establishment groups that aren’t
always our allies. Worse,
it leads to mistrust among
the very people we are
working so hard to help.
And that’s a shame because quite often this work
would not only benefit
from greater support — it would improve the lives of many people
who see it as working against their interests.
It’s a conundrum — and it’s one that nonprofits helped create.
But it’s not too late for us to take a new approach — and to take
the message we heard on Election Day to heart. n
Peter Panepento is a communications consultant to nonprofits
and a former assistant managing editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
By PETER PANEPENTO
Communications and strategy
consultant to nonprofits
Trump Voters Have Felt Ignored and Looked
Down Upon for Too Long — Let’s Embrace Them
In venting our emotions
over the election, we risk
further alienating people
we need on our side.