Moment of Truth: Will Foundations Come Together to Fight Trump?

Well, that didn't take long. In the first 10 days of his presidency, Donald Trump has served up multiple reminders that he poses a profound threat to American values and policies that have attracted bipartisan support for generations. When Dick Cheney and Elizabeth Warren end up on the same side of issues, as they did this weekend on the Muslim ban, you know you're in new terrain politically. Ditto when you see the Koch political network firing up a major campaign to block a top priority of the new Republican president (imposing a border import tax.) 

Opposition to Trump has always been a bipartisan affair. Many mainstream Republicans have been hesitant to join that opposition because they're running scared of an extreme GOP base. But recent statements by Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain hint at what lies ahead: a renewed civil war between mainstream Republicans and Trump. Again and again, in coming months and years, efforts to limit the damage from a black swan presidency are likely to transcend partisanship. 

Meanwhile, though, it remains an open question whether the opposition to Trump will also include America's top foundations working in a united way. 

When it comes to political controversy, foundations have good reasons to keep their heads down, especially right now. Tax-exempt institutions are nonpartisan by law. And with distrust of philanthropy rising, and populism surging, this isn't an ideal moment for foundations to make themselves a target. As it is, Trumpist attacks on funders are a near certainty in coming years—and, in fact, have already begun

On the other hand, foundations are uniquely positioned to engage in risky combat in the public square. Their leaders and boards can’t be ousted by voters or shareholders. They don’t have products or services to boycott. The regulatory state has few ways to harass them. And, if push really comes to shove, foundations have plenty of money to lawyer up, hire PR firms, and even pay for private security. As I've written before, if ever there were a time to be thankful for the insularity and unaccountability of philanthropy, it is right now. 

So let's get to the real question at hand: Do foundations have the conviction and courage to fight Trump? 

On the matter of conviction, I was not among the many people who snickered when 39 foundation presidents signed a full-page New York Times ad last summer that proclaimed the value of "hope" given America’s past track record of steady progress toward “dignity, equality, and justice.” It seemed important to hear foundations speak up for the ideal of progress at a tense moment, however vacuous that particular statement felt. Foundations, I wrote, have a unique role to play as "moral cheerleaders" for America. 

It's even more important for those same 39 top foundations, and many more, to speak up today. Just consider how much truer—indeed, prophetic—the lead statement in that Times ad rings now than it did in August: "Every American generation must face defining moments. We are facing one now."

The foundations that signed onto that letter—including Mellon, Gates, Knight, Ford, Hewlett, Packard, Kellogg, Carnegie and MacArthur—have diverse goals and approaches. But what they share in common, along with many foundations, is a humanist vision for improving society using reason and knowledge. 

That vision is now under attack as never before in America—and in other countries, too. The central project of organized modern philanthropy, the scientific advancement of human civilization, is at risk in a fundamental way from a quasi-fascistic populism that dismisses both humanism and reason, while showing a disregard for constitutional norms and the broader rules that govern democracy.

The way to meet this attack is not issue by issue, and it's certainly not with one hand tied behind the back. This is a meta-level fight over the basic values and direction of society. Foundations have never faced a fight like this, and going up against a U.S. president in an open and active way is scary, for sure. But let's be clear: Stopping Trump is not a partisan cause. As I said at the start, the rise of Trump has transcended partisanship from the get go. As long as foundations respect the letter of the law in how they conduct themselves, they'll be OK here, with plenty of good company from both political parties. 

What does fighting Trumpism mean in practice? Well, lots of funders have obviously been discussing specific ideas and tactics for over two months now, and quite a few are already immersed in battle, with new rapid-response funds and the like, as we've been reporting. 

But what's yet to happen is for top foundations to get organized as a group to fight Trump and publicly create a united front in defense of their core values. Here are a couple suggestions to funders for how to do this. 

First, get your house in order internally. If foundation presidents and their staffs are really going to fight, they need to know that their boards are 100 percent behind them. Now is the moment for emergency board meetings and retreats, to get everybody on the same page about what the stakes are here and how to respond. This might also be a good moment for some foundation presidents to resign if their boards lack courage. After all, what's the point of being in charge of a pile of "society's risk capital" if your institution won't take risks at a moment like this? 

Second, get organized, as a group. Those 39 foundation presidents who all said they believed in hope back in August should be now be working closely with each other on how to keep hope alive as a new age of hatred and unreason looms. This is a moment to come together to plot strategy—and then stick together when the Trumpist counterattacks come. Among other things, the high command of American philanthropy needs a way to engage in collaborative emergency responses in the face of new developments like the Muslim ban.

Third, think broadly and stay united. Foundations will be tempted to stand up and fight only when their own priorities come under attack. But while funders should certainly play defense in terrain they know best, and on issues they care about most, this is not a moment for philanthropic parochialism. Rather, it's a moment to recall Benjamin Franklin's wise advice to his fellow founding fathers: "If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately." Foundations need to better define the core values they stand for, and be ready to step up on fights to protect those values—even on issues that have nothing to do with their immediate agendas. 

Fourth, fund the opposition. Foundations also need to look well past their program priorities to fund a broad opposition movement to Trump. They need to identify, or create, a set of anchor institutions that will support and help lead this movement, and spare no expense in funding those institutions—pooling their grants in a collaborative way. This is one of the things that foundation presidents should be discussing together as a group, right now. And if properly funding the opposition means blowing past payout limits for a few years, so be it. The stakes are that high. 

These are just a few ideas on how to get the ball rolling. There are a lot of ways this could go, especially once funders have taken the plunge and are really putting their heads together about how to counter an existential threat to everything their institutions stand for.

This is a moment of truth for modern philanthropy.