Moral Preening in the World of Philanthropy

In a recent interview with the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, explained that many of of the nonprofit leaders receiving money from his foundation “feel muzzled… Many feel they can’t or shouldn’t speak up.” Oliphant says that foundation leaders and philanthropists need to set an example: “Our grantees are watching us,” he says. “Folks in our communities are watching us. They’re looking to see what we’re willing to say and not willing to say.”

So what are they willing to say? The short answer is just about anything when it comes to Donald Trump. Aaron Dorfman, president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, told the Chronicle, “Neutrality is not an asset, and I hope to see more philanthropic leaders using their voices and their reputational capital to stand up for vulnerable communities attacked by President Trump and his allies.” Looks like he’s getting his wish.

Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, says that we are “in a battle for the soul of this country.” He believes it’s important for foundation leaders to write op-eds and give speeches and do whatever they can to get across their political message because “if we don’t manage our narrative, others will manage it for us.”

There are probably a few people out there who thought that the goal of philanthropic foundations was neither getting involved in politics nor “managing a narrative.” But this piece from the Chronicle of Philanthropy on the role of foundation leaders in the time of Trump should disabuse even those last few. Everywhere you turn foundation leaders are writing articles, giving lectures, and giving money to support the people they feel are being oppressed under the Trump presidency. Walker says that by speaking out foundation leaders can display “moral courage” in this fraught time.

If this is how these philanthropoids want to spend their resources, more power to them. But the kind of moral preening that these leaders want to engage in seems a little silly. Judy Belk of the California Wellness Foundation has been happy to write in newspapers, the Huffington Post and on Twitter. Belk lost her sister to gun violence in the 1970s and regularly expresses her strong support for gun control. “When things get really crazy, I step back and say, ‘OK, Judy, what do you stand for?’ ” she says. “I’m looking for any type of credible platform to reach a wide audience.”

The idea that Belk has to somehow buck herself up to do this is laughable. Okay, you believe in gun control? Do you have any friends who don’t? Writing about gun control on the Huffington Post does not require moral courage. It requires an Internet connection.

But pontificating—mostly left-wing pontificating—has become the role of foundation presidents in recent years. The idea that leaders of such foundations, who spend much of their time attending conferences with other people who are exactly like them and who meet with leaders of nonprofits who basically agree with them (and hang on their every word because they want grants) are exhibiting any kind of strength in speaking out against the president is also completely self serving. Fifty foundation leaders signed a letter opposing Trump’s travel ban on people traveling from majority-Muslim countries. I happen to oppose the ban too. But if fifty of your colleagues believe the same thing you do, there is no risk in signing such a letter. Why don’t you try saying something that anyone within a seventy-five-mile radius of you might disagree with? Then we can talk about moral courage.

Image: Flickr/Don O’Brien

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