What’s the Role of Philanthropy in the Era of Trump?

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The most unconventional presidency anyone living can remember is now in full swing. Has anyone encountered the word “unprecedented” so frequently?

One thing is clear: Things we used to consider certain are no longer so with President Trump in the White House.  

Amid that uncertainty, philanthropy is well positioned to lead. Philanthropy has funding, a bully pulpit, and the partnership-building capacity to make a difference where it’s needed most. Here are seven areas where philanthropy can leverage its assets.

  1. Invest in grantee communications. People are looking to the social sector—nonprofits and philanthropy—for information. I recently read that the public’s faith in our government and institutions is abysmally low, while faith in the social sector is high. A recent poll by Independent Sector showed three out of four Americans have more faith in the social sector than government. The same survey revealed that 85 percent of Americans want to hear more from foundations and nonprofit organizations. Foundations can help by investing in expanding the strategic communications capacity of nonprofit organizations.
  2. Advance advocacy efforts. Given the myriad of causes and freedoms under attack by the Trump administration, it’s imperative that philanthropies and nonprofits are engaged in policy debates. Yet, foundations and nonprofits often mistakenly feel hamstrung by federal laws about lobbying by 501(c)3 groups. (501(c)3 refers to the tax status of most nonprofits.) It’s actually okay to lobby within specified limits. It’s also okay to advocate, which is different than lobbying. Knowing the definitions and the limits helps everyone act within the law. Foundations can support nonprofits with advocacy training, and fund grantees’ capacity to participate in the policy conversations. Foundations also can use their bully pulpit to advocate themselves.
  3. Fund accountable journalism and media literacy. The Trump administration’s attacks on media have been particularly notable, and should sound alarms across the country. The president deems any unfavorable reporting as “fake news;" his staff has barred media from press briefings; and his agencies are less open to reporters than their predecessors. Yet, independent, accountable journalism is fundamental to our democracy. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” The Knight Foundation has long supported free expression and excellence in journalism to promote informed communities. Is it time more foundations fund journalistic endeavors in the name of democracy? It’s also important that we remember the second half of Jefferson’s quotation: “I should mean that every [hu]man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” Media literacy—the ability to access, analyze, and evaluate media—is just as vital to our democracy. It merits funding as well.
  4. Act locally. Trump’s actions to defund government and roll back regulations are putting the onus on states to take care of our people, our economy, and our environment. States, counties, and cities are where many policies actually affect people’s daily lives. They are places where changes can be made more quickly and with more impact. Localities offer opportunities to maintain ground. Given this shift, philanthropy might consider putting additional funding into state and local efforts.
  5. Support community leadership. If states, counties, and cities are the true battlegrounds, then we’ll need community leaders who can lead the charge. We’ll need compassionate and competent leaders who can facilitate important conversations, and mobilize and inspire people. According to Foundation Center data, less than 1 percent of U.S. grantmaking goes into leadership development. This seems like a critical time to increase funding for leadership development, especially for leaders of color.
  6. Host bridge-building conversations. With the polarization in politics and a growing economic divide, we need to forge opportunities to connect people around shared values. Foundations are uniquely positioned to be bridge-builders, using their influence and voice to bring together unlikely partners for conversation. The Ford Foundation, with Hattaway Communications, is doing this through its American Aspirations initiative. Foundations can host gatherings that help break down barriers and find the common ground that unites people.
  7. Consider both short-term and long-term funding. Post-election, we’ve seen a marked increase in charitable giving. Giving Tuesday in November 2016 saw a 44 percent increase in donations. And large national organizations like the ACLU have reported a significant surge in giving. In light of this invigorated support from citizens and residents, it’s important for philanthropy to consider how and where its dollars will provide the most value. What is the right balance between investing now to address immediate crises and investing in the longer-term sustainability of organizations? At the same time, philanthropy needs to consider smaller organizations, which may not have experienced similar influxes of public support.
Kara leads our philanthropy practice, working across Pyramid’s issue areas and creative services to deliver the best results for clients. She brings more than 25 years of communications and advocacy experience driving change on health, education, social justice, and conservation.