"Everything We Care For." The Future of Progressive Philanthropy Under Trump

For those vehemently opposed to a Trump presidency, election night was a punch to the gut. Then followed the waves of anxiety and anger over a looming hard-right shift, the president-elect’s disturbing racist and sexist rhetoric, not to mention his unstable behavior. 

But now we’ve emerged from those first dark days (right?). And even as protests rage on, we’ve entered a stage in which those on the left are asking: What now? 

It’s the subject of endless discussions over dinner, beers, community meetings and board meetings, as we brace for rollbacks to the social safety net, reproductive rights, and climate policy, just to name a few. 

For donors and foundations with progressive agendas, the answer has implications for millions to billions in nonprofit support. With the White House and both chambers of Congress under Republican control, philanthropy will play a big role in whatever future progress stands to be made. 

As we've all heard, nonprofit fundraising lit up remarkably quickly after the election. Individual donors and volunteers have flooded prominent groups like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the Sierra Club. They need it, too. As the team at Earthjustice, which also saw a spike in support, told Inside Philanthropy

We will need to deepen our expert legal teams—across all program areas and in all regions—to act as the first line of defense against attempts to gut environmental protections, undo public health gains, and reverse the progress we’ve made in the fight against climate change. … There has never been a more important time for foundations and nonprofits to come together and dedicate their resources to fight for the right to a healthy environment.

Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance, summed up the mindset of many progressive funders when he told us that "fighting back is going to have to be a priority, but at the same time, we have to continue to build for the future both electorally and in terms of ideas and policies." The stakes could hardly higher, he said: "everything we care for is in danger."

To get a better sense of how a combination of defense and offense might translate into grantmaking, we contacted a handful of leaders at foundations with politically progressive or social justice-based agendas. Some are longtime philanthropoids, others shrewd up-and-comers. We asked what their teams are grappling with right now, what issues and strategies they’re focusing on, and more broadly, what progressive philanthropy needs to do in Trump’s America. 

Keep in mind, this only represents a handful of the many sharp minds in the field, and this doesn't reflect a consensus among those interviewed, but I’ve culled what I think are the biggest takeaways from our discussions about the way forward for progressive philanthropy during the next four years. 

Hold the Line on Progressive Values

The impulse of Democrats in the face of defeat is so often a rush to the center. But remember, there is hardly a dominant conservative mandate following the election, with Clinton winning the popular vote by nearly 2 million votes (so far), and Democrats winning overall more popular votes in 2016 Senate and likely House races.

In the face of a Trump administration, progressive foundation leaders will need to be resolute in defense of core values like equity and tolerance, and double down on work that reinforces them. 

“We need to, in philanthropy and with our partners, be holding the line on democratic values and religious freedom, [against] targeting based on race and ethnicity, citizen status, or gender identity,” said Sharon Alpert, president and CEO of Nathan Cummings Foundation. Alpert moved about a year ago from the Surdna Foundation to NCF, where newly revamped program priorities include racial and economic justice, an inclusive clean economy, and corporate and political accountability. 

“I don’t think we feel like there’s anything on the chopping block," Alpert said about NCF's grantmaking agenda, "and in fact, we want to figure out how we can be more supportive of our partners." 

Foundations we contacted are sticking with existing programs, but recognized a possible need for tactical changes in cases where there's a direct connection to federal action. They’re also exploring how they can augment current giving, especially given Trump’s campaign rhetoric and heightened threats to vulnerable communities.  

“There’s this sense of normalization and accommodation with the incoming Trump administration that seems very, very dangerous,” said Farhad Ebrahimi, president of the Chorus Foundation. Funders need to do whatever they can and support their partners to resist that slide.

“Speaking as a funder that funds social justice organizations and communities of color, whatever happens to normalize Trump and the things that he has said just makes things more dangerous for the folks that we’re supporting.”

Similarly, while there may be an urge to hew toward the center as a defensive strategy, Tyler Nickerson, director of investments and state strategy at Mark Ruffalo-backed grantmaking nonprofit The Solutions Project, hopes funders will instead see the greater potential for impact in building diverse power on the left. Solutions Project funds rapid response and power-building climate work in frontline communities.

“The real investment to be made is in building a strong and unified progressive and justice-oriented movement and coalition that weaves together a number of different issues, a number of different experiences, to actually, truly build power,” Nickerson said. That includes support for work led by people of color, as well as embracing equity at a level foundations have not in the past. 

“We haven’t given it full attention. It’s been a box to check instead of the central core strategy, and I’m arguing that given the election results, we need to move it from a box and make it our lens.”

Get Out of the Bubble

Sticking to principles doesn’t mean funders should dig their heels into liberal enclaves. Foundation leaders conceded that, without backpedaling on values, they clearly need to do a better job of connecting with more Americans, particularly those living outside of coastal and city strongholds. In a speech to Democracy Alliance partners right after the election, Gara LaMarche declared that the election called for "resistance" by funders and said "all of us need to reach deep into our wallets in the coming months and years to fund the defense of our most cherished laws." But he also said losing an "election you were supposed to win" required "reflection" on the part of progressives. "Donald Trump’s appeal exposed just how estranged many white working class voters are from the elites of both political parties," he said. A key challenge going forward is to figure out how to align these people and communities of color to create "a bigger, stronger New American Majority."

Phil Henderson, president of the Surdna Foundation, made a similar point: “There’s a whole swath of the United States where the sorts of things that we talk about don’t resonate. And I don’t think it’s because the underlying issues don’t resonate." Surdna funds areas like sustainable infrastructure, strong local economies, and arts and culture.

“I don’t care whether you’re in rural Iowa or you’re in the Bronx, the basic principles translate well, but they have not been translated effectively,” Henderson said.

If you look at the grantmaking footprint of Surdna and other foundations, he said, you’ll often see a geographic bias toward the coasts and bigger cities in the central U.S.

“That is a reflection of, I would say, a strategic misstep writ large, because I think we’re emblematic of the way progressive philanthropy, but philanthropy in general, is not evenly spread. And I think we tend to go to places where it’s easy to work, and not always find ways to work in places where it’s a little bit harder to engage partners.”

Ebrahimi from Chorus, which funds the transition toward a just, green economy in Eastern Kentucky, Alaska, Buffalo, and Richmond, California, similarly pushed back against an impulse to shift away from places that might be deemed more politically hostile environments. 

But reaching out from comfort zones shouldn’t be limited to urban-rural divides. It’s more about getting closer to the people affected by problems foundations are looking to solve.

“We’ve got to get proximate,” Sharon Alpert said. “We have to listen to voices closest to the problems, have conversations that may make us uncomfortable, build understanding and empathy for experiences that are very distant from our philanthropic halls and board rooms. And if this election doesn’t tell us that we need to do more of that, then I don’t know what does.”

At the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, President Genaro Lopez-Rendon described plans for a “learning and listening tour” to take place in early 2017. Noyes gives to issues like reproductive rights and environmental justice, which will be crucial under Trump, but he hopes the tour will help them be responsive to what’s happening in the moment.

“We want to be able to go out into the field and listen to movement leaders and listen to movement organizations and grassroots organizations about what they’re seeing and feeling,” Lopez-Rendon said. “We want to be able to have the field inform what our strategy is going to be.”

Repair and Strengthen the Movement

Funders will need to invest in bringing new people on board, and strengthening connections across the progressive community, and part of that means healing rifts.

“The left is always fractured, and it’s especially sensitive right now,” said Ebrahimi, citing not only the Clinton-Sanders divide, but also rampant finger-pointing in the days after the campaign. Foundations need to offer up forums to reestablish trust in a sensitive way.

“Just because we’ve got a Trump headed for the White House doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to work together. We need to actually have spaces, containers for trust-building, for dealing with past traumas, for relationship-building, and for strategic development.”

This is also a key moment to absorb massive numbers of newly activated people, something that requires resources, and didn’t happen on the level it should have following Occupy Wall Street, Ebrahimi said. Racial justice and activist groups around the country, and organizations like Working Families, and Momentum trainings, for example, will have their work cut out for them. 

Funders also need to build connections and real solidarity beyond the boundaries of their issue areas. For example, another new initiative Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation has in the works is a Building Power Across Movements program, which will be especially relevant during the Trump administration, Lopez-Rendon said.

“While I think that our programs and where we put our resources are crucial and fundamental at this moment, I also know that historically in getting us here, they’ve also been limiting.” He hopes the program will allow them to identify and connect new partners and allies, and step outside the confines of their core programs.

The 2016 election saw further losses at the state level for Democrats, with the right now holding all chambers of power in 30 states. Gara LaMarche said the Democracy Alliance had already begun to focus new attention on the challenge of rebuilding progressive power in the states before November 8. The 2018 election will be a key focus of that work for the DA, which will hold a major donor meeting in March to plot strategy. 

Don’t Hesitate to Give Flexible Funds Now

While there has been no shortage of alarming activity post-election, funders to some extent find themselves waiting to see the landscape. Foundations we spoke with said that on one level, they are watching for opportunities to take shape. But a number were looking at freeing up flexible, post-election pots of money.

The Open Society Foundations has already set aside $10 million for a new rapid-response initiative to get funds to groups on the front lines of anti-hate work around the United States. While Stone told us last week that it was still early to plot strategy against an inchoate Trump presidential agenda, the imperative to push back against hate incidents was clear and urgent. “This was an effort to respond to something happening right now, right in front of us," he said of the new fund, which will issue grantmaking guidelines by December 1, with a pledge to get grants out the door in a fast, streamlined fashion. Stone also sees this effort as strengthening advocates and networks for the longer fight ahead. (See our closer look at OSF's initiative here.)

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Foundation has established a Rapid Response Fund for Movement Building. “We want to ensure that those who are most impacted by emerging issues and challenges have the resources they need to respond in a timely and effective manner,” CEO Fred Blackwell stated in the announcement.

We can expect a whole set of potential rapid response needs among nonprofits post-election, said Ebrahimi at the Chorus Foundation, which is known for giving long-term, flexible general support dollars. Needs will include legal and financial support for those facing threats like deportation and loss of social services, support for direct action trainings, even fiscal support to make sure grantees are organizationally secure. The important thing, he said encouragingly, is to not wait for them to arise. 

“There’s no reason to be hesitant because we don’t know what’s going on. The fact that we don’t know what’s going on is exactly the reason that we need to double down and provide resources that allow folks on the ground to do whatever they need to do, as it comes up. And then we’ll all figure it out together as the situation unfolds,” he said.

That means stepping outside of many of the formalities of institutional grantmaking—things like strict metrics and long-term plans in favor of moving money now and following up through ongoing conversations—and staying nimble and open to risk.

“We obviously didn’t have all the answers,” said Alpert at NCF. “So that should teach us a lesson too, about not locking yourself up and into a strategy.”

Some nonprofit leaders are hoping that Trump's victory will deliver a badly needed jolt to a progressive funding world that tends to be way too cautious. In a post-election opinion piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Vu Le urged foundations to break out of constraints that limit their impact given how a Trump presidency threatened "to undo all the progress nonprofits have worked so hard to make." Among other things, Le wrote that if "there was ever a time" to blast past the standard 5 percent payout rate, "it’s now.

Find Paths to Progress

A Trump administration will require funders and their partners to leverage avenues for change outside of federal action.

“What’s happening at the federal level is quite different from what is happening in local settings—states, cities, municipalities—where many of those places have allies to diversity, equity, inclusion, sustainability … and that doesn’t change,” said Henderson at Surnda.

He said the cooperative problem solving across multiple federal agencies under Obama was powerful, and will be missed. But mayors, for example, will be critical partners as they have practical needs while running their cities.

“And we’ve seen in things like minimum wage, also [marriage equality], that the assemblage of local wins can often create momentum that really matters, and I think that’s going to remain true and maybe it will be more important in the coming few years,” Henderson said.

(See our own argument for how progressives can capitalize on the promise of federalism to score many gains in heavily populated blue states.)

There will also be opportunities in the private sector that can’t be overlooked, both in recruiting business leaders as allies, but also as investors.

“We should also be looking at not just our giving, but our voice and the leverage that we hold as institutional investors,” said Alpert at NCF, citing their work using shareholder pressure to push for corporate political spending disclosures. “There are very, very few foundations that use their institutional investor status to make change, and we’ve seen huge progress on that.”

Reshape the Narrative 

Whether we want to admit it or not, and no matter who’s to blame, Donald Trump owned the national conversation during the 2016 election. And it was ugly. Funders can help take it back.

“We really believe that so much of what this election tells us is about the dominant narratives, and how those get shaped,” Alpert said. Funders need to help shift it toward empathy and compassion.

“We really witnessed the damage that happens when national conversations are dominated by narratives of fear and blame and divisiveness. We can help repair that breach by investing in the voices of religious leaders, and artists, and those that shape our culture," she said.

Similar to what Phil Henderson referenced in the left’s need to translate its principles to different audiences, Ebrahimi pointed out the left’s failure to present a strong vision in the past. 

“We need to have an oppositional bloc, but it can’t just be against what they represent; it has to be for something else,” he said. Philanthropy is often a reactive space, but it needs to support groups with the ability to energize people on the left.

“We need to set aside a significant amount of our time to really advocate a radical vision of what we’re for. Because not having that is a big part of what got us in this mess in the first place.”

LaMarche said the importance of putting forth a strong vision meant that funders were likely to be especially keen to fund groups with a broad agenda that work across multiple issues, such as Demos, the national policy and advocacy organization based in New York. 

Take Care of Your People

Finally, grantees have a long road ahead, and funders need to be especially aware of the risks and vulnerabilities facing partners in low-income communities and communities of color. Impacts of future policy aside, we’ve seen a sharp spike in hate crimes, including anti-immigrant and racist harassment since Trump’s victory. 

OSF's rapid-response fund is one kind of response to this ugly atmosphere. Ebrahimi, however, suggested funders think more broadly about what it means for advocates to operate under such a high degree of new stress. They should take into account the costs of self-care, and consider funding relief for nonprofit staff. For an executive director to take a timeout or divert attention elsewhere can cost the organization fundraising dollars, for example. 

But more generally, it will be a time for foundations to be cognizant of what their partners are taking on, and to support them with their voices, staffs, and dollars.

“The fear, the feeling, the direct impact … it’s heavy, right? And it’s scary. I think there’s a high level of unsettledness that communities and individual folks are feeling at this moment. It’s not a good place to be,” said Lopez-Rendon at Noyes. As a longtime community organizer from Texas, he witnessed how rising up in response to an oppressive force is not an easy thing to do.

“We’re asking for them to be bold and to step up, but that’s also asking a lot, right? That’s why I also feel that organizing and movement building and funding at the local level, funding at the state level is fundamentally important right now.”

This is only a handful of opinions and ideas in the mix, and leaders we spoke with emphasized that (even if it already feels like an eternity) it’s still very early in this new political landscape. That drives home a big underlying message, here, that some of the things we always encourage—flexibility, general operating support, nimble grantmaking, simplified proposals—will be even more important under a Trump presidency. Because frankly, it’s really hard to predict what this guy is going to do.

We’re no doubt entering a difficult time for progressives and for marginalized communities in the United States. But it’s also a time of rapid change and fluidity that can present opportunities, whether that’s expanding a base of support, rallying and strengthening individual communities, or building stronger movement infrastructure and vision. Foundations willing to take risks can be major drivers of that change in the dark days ahead.