A Leadership Conversation: Philanthropy’s Post-Election Assessment

Monday, December 19, 2016
Arlington

This past Friday a diverse group of philanthropic leaders gathered in New York City to discuss the unexpected election results, what those results mean for our nation and what they mean for our work, both individually and as a sector. The meeting, convened by the Council on Foundations and hosted by the Ford Foundation, included representatives of private foundations, community foundations and corporate grant makers who came from all four time zones of the country. As you will see from the notes below, the group was diverse in every way, including diversity of perspective.

The meeting opened with Vikki Spruill, President and CEO of the Council, and Darren Walker, President of Ford, sharing their thoughts. Spruill stressed that the conversation was about more than policy considerations: It was truly about the role of philanthropy in our society. She reminded the group that at the forefront of the Council’s mission is preserving the public trust in our work. Walker urged the group to think about who is being left behind in our nation in an economy that appears to be producing more losers than winners. He also urged the field to avoid demonizing those who have different perspectives and to avoid allowing the conversation to become personal.

The free-wheeling and far-ranging conversation began by answering a series of questions posed to the group. What were your personal reactions to the election results and their aftermath? How did the staff of your organization react? Where does the country stand as we bring 2016 to a close? What messages should philanthropy be hearing? Points made by participants included:

  • We don’t need to choose between helping the country heal and continuing to fight for what we believe in.
  • Those feeling left behind in America are both Republicans and Democrats.
  • We need to remember that there are two sides to this moment. Not everyone was devastated on election night.
  • We need to make sure that evidence and facts are not devalued, but we also need to be better storytellers.
  • The issues of cultural dislocation and economic uncertainty lead some people to feel like they are strangers in their own country.
  • We will be ill-advised to make this conversation about Trump. Our focus should be on inequality and vulnerability, race and economic insecurity.
  • In this moment we need to be working to sustain the institutions of civil society.

The group then moved to a more focused conversation about next steps. The questions posed here included:

  • What can we anticipate happening in 2017 that we need to be ready to respond to?
  • What do the election results and their aftermath mean for your organization’s current work?
  • What are you planning to do that is new or different in 2017?

As the participants shared their plans for 2017, it was clear that many of their institutions were embracing flexibility by pivoting from previous strategies and budgets, doubling down in some areas and shifting priorities across the board. There was also a general agreement that philanthropic institutions need to be closely watching and listening in this new environment. There is a great deal of speculation about changes that might be proposed, but it was repeatedly noted that the times are both uncertain and unpredictable. Several participants indicated that at recent, year-end board meetings they had also created flexible pools of resources that can be used as a "war chest” as threats arise in the new year.

The Council shared our plans to launch an initiative in 2017 to proactively tell the story of philanthropy’s value to society and to begin the mobilization of our sector. The focus of this effort will not be to simply advocate for the field of philanthropy, but to focus on the good that philanthropy does, the innovation that philanthropy supports and the communities and populations that philanthropy supports. The Council will be doing this as a catalytic leader, bringing together all of those who have an interest in supporting this work.

While the looming prospect of comprehensive tax reform was not the specific topic of the conversation, the group spent some time reviewing the likely legislative timing for tax reform in 2017, the major threats that exist for our sector and how we have prepared to respond to them. The Council outlined its specific plans for working on the Hill, including a significant amount of personal outreach happening in the first 100 days of the new Congress, as well as our plans to work in concert with other key organizations in the sector like The Philanthropy Roundtable and Independent Sector.

The meeting ended with thanks to the Council and Ford for putting the meeting together on such short notice, an appreciation for the opportunity to come together and share thoughts and a desire to keep the conversation moving forward, in a variety of ways, during 2017.