Balancing Act: Tricky Times for Community Foundations in the Age of Trump

An anti-trump protest in chicago

An anti-trump protest in chicago

Many foundations are starting to stand up to Trump administration policies with new grantmaking and also public statements. We've reported on new emergency efforts by a few community foundations in this mix, including the San Francisco Foundation, the Boston Foundation, the California Community Foundation, and the Brooklyn Community Foundation. But we've heard little to nothing along these lines from a wide range of other such local foundations, including biggies like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust. 

You can see why this would be a tricky moment for community foundations to navigate. These institutions are unique in the philanthrosphere in terms of the diversity of stakeholders that they need to keep happy. While a private foundation can charge ahead with whatever initiatives its board and staff favor, community foundations face a different set of calculations. They have to tread carefully on political or controversial issues, because one of their key roles is to secure donations and set up charitable funds from donors with a variety of backgrounds and beliefs. If community foundations alienate certain groups of people, they risk decreasing their overall capacity and effectiveness.

Related: Scary Times: Foundations, Trumpism, and the Fear Factor

On the other hand, these foundations also need to be responsive to what's happening in their communities and the passions of the moment. The rise of Trump hasn't just sparked intense reactions; many places also have a lot at stake in Trump policies, and that's especially true of large urban areas, with large immigrant populations and heavy dependence on federal safety net programs that face cuts under Trump.  

One community foundation that we've been watching since Trump's election is the New York Community Trust. While this institution hasn't clearly positioned itself as a locus of "resistance" the way that, say, the San Francisco Foundation has, it's been responsive to Trump's rise in its grantmaking—even as it continues business as usual. 

Back in December, with fear growing in immigrant communities, NYCT and the New York Foundation announced a new collaborative effort, the Liberty Fund, which began accepting LOIs "to support nonprofits that are engaged in addressing rising hate crimes and New York City residents’ fears of deportation, discrimination, arrest and poverty." These funders added, "We have created the Liberty Fund to protect and improve the City’s support for all those who seek acceptance of their values, a sense of possibility and hope, and economic opportunity."

It wasn't so surprising to see NYCT stand up with a response to Trump immigration policies, since this funder has a long history of working on immigration, as well as getting out front on controversial issues, despite being one of the nation's leading community foundations. Last year, as we reported, the foundation stepped forward to combat Islamophobia, committing a half-million dollars toward a new effort aimed at highlighting and supporting the positive contributions of Muslim Americans living in New York City and elsewhere.

RelatedIn Trump's Home City, a Funder Helps Push Back Against Islamophobia

Last week, NYCT announced its first round of grants for 2017, sending $7.6 million to 49 nonprofits for a wide variety of causes that reflect both the imperatives of the moment and NYCT's ongoing priorities.

So, for example, grants went out to bolster the arts, improve elder care, get more electric cars on New York's roads, and improve care for kids with serious mental illnesses outside the hospitals. But NYCT also awarded a grant to Planned Parenthood for an advocacy campaign to protect access to reproductive health services in the state. And it awarded grants to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the New York Housing Conference to protect safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps.

Patricia Jenny, NYCT’s vice president for grants said, “At a time when programs to improve health care, support the social safety net, and safeguard the environment are under assault, the trust is working for the well-being of all New Yorkers.” Four new grants between $60,000 and $300,000 each were awarded under the category “Responding to Federal Policy Changes” by NYCT in the first round of 2017 grantmaking. 

A full list of recent grants can be viewed here.

Again, there’s a fine line that community funders need to walk between supporting the causes the board, staff, and majority of the community are passionate about and being an accessible and inviting place for all potential donors to turn, whatever their political beliefs. 

Yet today, with national politics beginning to affect local lives in dramatic ways, especially for immigrants, it's getting more difficult to strike a neutral stance.