Philanthropy in the Age of Trump: Six Predictions

A few weeks ago I told a friend of mine, jittery about the prospects of a Trump win, to “take an Ambien and call me in November, after you wake up in the second Clinton era.”

I mention that because, clearly, my predictions aren’t worth very much. But, hey, the same goes for so many other people who live in elite coastal bubbles, well insulated from life in the flyover states.

With that caveat out of the way, let’s wonder out loud about what a once-unthinkable Donald J. Trump presidency might mean for philanthropy and the nonprofit sector more broadly. In the runup to the election, we wrote several stories exploring how a Hillary Clinton victory might play out on this front, in which we predicted a golden age of public-private partnerships, along with new high-level access for funders and nonprofits working on women’s and family issues.  

So what might a Trump scenario look like? Here are six predictions.

1. Philanthropy and Nonprofits Will Lose Influence in Washington

The last 16 years has seen a remarkable rise in the influence of civil society in the halls of power, or at least in the White House and executive branch. This shift began under George W. Bush, a president who embraced the conservative argument that government had overreached and that civil society needed to step forward as a central agent in solving problems—especially poverty. Advised by veteran thinkers like John Dilulio, Don Eberly and Marvin Olasky, Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which channeled billions of dollars to nonprofits. When Obama came in, he built on this work, and expanded it, adding the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, which coordinated a number of major initiatives involving top foundations and nonprofits.

That was then.  

It’s hard to see how this long, bipartisan push continues with any energy in a Trump administration. Never mind that the billionaire himself believes so little in philanthropy that he has given away less than $10 million over the past 30 years. This is also a president-elect with few ties to the nonprofit sector or the conservative policy thinkers and funders who focus on how to strengthen civil society.

2. Philanthropy Will Gain Influence in the Rest of Society

Republican control of the White House and Congress is likely to mean new cuts to non-defense domestic discretionary spending, on top of reductions that have already shrunk that portion of the federal budget to its lowest level since the Eisenhower era, measured by GDP. This deepening era of scarce public resources will mean a larger role for private funders, a trend we’re already seeing play out in areas like education, public parks and science research. Foundations and major donors will be picking up more tabs for more things in coming years as government pulls back even faster under Trump, and they’ll wield more influence as a result. Overall, we’re looking at an acceleration of a historic power shift away from the public sector and toward private philanthropy as the next chapter of the second Gilded Age plays out over coming decades.   

3. Progressive Fundraising Will Explode

At the Nation magazine, there’s a saying that “what's bad for the nation is good for the Nation,” meaning that whenever the right is in power, circulation and donations soar. During the Bush era, we saw this phenomenon play out with dramatic effect, as numerous new donors—alarmed by a reckless president and Republican dominance—swung behind progressive causes in a big way. Those donors pumped tens of millions of dollars into the Democracy Alliance, the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, and other new progressive organizations, while existing groups on the left saw their funding skyrocket. We’re likely to see the same phenomenon this time around. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if groups like the ACLU are already seeing a spike in donations.

A deeper point here is that affluent Americans—and the donor class, specifically—are continuing to move away from an ever more populist American right wing. Clinton won voters making over $250,000, just as Obama did in 2008. The ranks of the rich include more progressives than ever before, as well as those sympathetic to such traditional progressive causes as protecting the environment and promoting tolerance. Trump’s victory will solidify this trend in ways that play out in nonprofit fundraising for years to come.

4. Philanthropic Giving Overall May Decline

If Trump is able to enact his tax plan, it could mean a notable falloff in charitable giving. Not long ago, the Tax Policy Center estimated that “Trump’s plan would reduce individual giving by 4.5 percent to 9 percent, or between $13.5 billion and $26.1 billion in 2017. That would be so because when you cut taxes on the wealthy, as Trump proposes, you reduce the after-tax value of the charitable tax exemption.” Trump’s proposed cap on itemized deductions, as well as his plan to raise the standard deduction, could also serve to depress tax-deductible giving. On the other hand, if his plan means higher incomes for the wealthy, that could mean this group has more spare cash to give away. More broadly, the growing influx of new givers may work to offset any declines in overall giving. So this is an area of real unknowns.

5. It Will Be the Worst and Best of Times for Conservative Philanthropy

For four decades, a cadre of disciplined and strategic conservative funders have been patiently building up a powerful infrastructure of think tanks, policy groups, and academic centers. Many of these funders, like Bradley, have believed fervently in the power of ideas to re-direct American life. Trump’s ascendancy has dealt a crushing blow the right’s intellectual class, which rejected him from the beginning and now wonder if they still have a home in the Republican Party. No champagne has been flowing at a place like AEI. But the champagne surely was flowing last night among a newer breed of hardline funders like Robert Mercer, who has lately emerged as a top donor to conservative policy groups and was among the biggest backers of Trump’s campaign. The door is now open to push forward a long right-wing wish list, starting with the repeal of Obamacare and moving on to such Holy Grail projects as abolishing the EPA, which Trump has discussed. Even as some highbrow conservative funders recoil from the new Trump regime, look for others to try to seize the moment with new funding and new activism.

6. Centrist Donors Will Rally to Save the Republic

After the most appalling election spectacle in memory, a civic horror show that revealed deep and hostile schisms in American life, I'm betting we'll see a wave of funder-backed initiatives aimed at bringing more civility and unity to public life. It's hard to imagine that these efforts will have much traction, for the same reason that I've criticized the Hewlett Foundation's efforts to reduce polarization—namely, that philanthropy has limited traction over the powerful forces pulling apart America, starting with the deep alienation of non-college-educated whites and the rise of reactionary politics on the right. 

Still, funders will try. Good luck with that. A better strategy would be to really engage with the tens of millions of people who feel forgotten and angry, however "deplorable" some of them may, indeed, be. 

RelatedBypassed: How Philanthropy Forgot About the White Working Class