Scary Times: Foundations, Trumpism, and the Fear Factor


It took a bit of time, but foundation leaders—some of them, anyway—are now speaking out against the Trump administration’s executive orders banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim countries. 

On Friday, more than 50 leaders from philanthropy released a joint public statement that criticizes Trump’s executive orders for comprising “our nation’s founding principles and the Constitution, our standing in the world, and our core values of liberty, justice, and due process.”

Last week, several foundation presidents also spoke out through blog posts, including Grant Oliphant at Heinz Endowments and Don Howard of the Irvine Foundation.

On Thursday, the Rockefeller Foundation announced a $500,000 grant to the ACLU, tweeting: “When our core values—diversity, pluralism & respect for all—are threatened we will respond.” (Update: On Tuesday, Rockefeller also announced a $500,000 gift to the Anti-Defamation League to "support immigrants, refugees and our ideals," it said in a tweet.)

The joint statement by philanthropy leaders was coordinated by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR), which had begun a discussion with its members after the election about taking a public stance against Trump’s immigration policies. Some funders were keen to have their funding strategies in place and get the timing right before signing on to any statement. But Daranee Petsod, GCIR’s president, told me that the executive orders issued on January 27 changed everything, thrusting this issue onto the front burner.  

When GCIR started circulating a joint statement last week, Petsod was heartened by some of the funders who stepped forward to sign on, including foundations that are not members of GCIR. “This is really about values.” In particular, she said, the “impact of the executive order on lawful permanent residents was a wake-up call for many funders.” More broadly, the sense among funders signing on was that this was “such a defining and unusual moment.” Petsod also said that for most of the signatories “it’s about standing with their grantees.” 

Efforts are still underway to get more funders behind the joint statement, and Petsod said at least a dozen foundations are engaged in internal deliberations on this.

But what’s striking about the list of signatories so far is that it doesn’t include the leaders of most major foundations.  

While several large California foundations—including Hewlett, Irvine, and the California Endowment—have signed on to the joint statement, America’s largest and best-known foundations are still conspicuously missing from the list. They include Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, MacArthur, Kellogg, Gates, Packard, Knight, and quite a few other biggies.

By contrast, leaders of most of these same big foundations did sign on to a statement in August, after a series of shootings, that trumpeted “reasons for hope.”

So why the silence now, among so many foundations? Well, for one thing, it’s different to back a broad and vacuous call for hope than it is to directly criticize a sitting president. Coming out against Trump’s immigrant ban feels “political,” and many foundations steer clear of such terrain. Some also worry about a slippery slope, of being called on to speak up in response to every new transgression by the administration. Others see their role as staying in the background, while their grantees do the talking.

As I wrote in a previous piece, these concerns all make a certain amount of sense—or at least would in normal times. But clearly, we’re not living in normal times, and you’d think foundation presidents would grasp that by now. Indeed, most probably do.

So let’s get on to what this foundation silence is really about, which is fear.

Like leaders in corporate America, foundation presidents are afraid to challenge President Trump. And you can see why, too. Behind Trump stand legions of Internet trolls, a right-wing media attack machine, and a phalanx of conservative policy and legal groups that are adept at playing dirty. No foundation wants to draw the attention of that mob.

Then there’s the longer-term threat that the federal government could turn on foundations. The events of 1969 are never far from the minds of top philanthropoids. That’s the year that Congress held hearings into the activities of foundations, most notably Ford, which was accused of stepping over the line into politics and activism. More recently, congressional committees investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state found ways to harass the Clinton Foundation. Obviously, too, the IRS—a wing of the executive branch—could potentially become a tool for attacking foundations.

In short, foundation leaders have real reasons to fear both Trump and right-wing populism more broadly. The president’s top advisor, Steven Bannon, has said clearly that a top Trumpist goal is to reduce the power of an arrogant globalist elite. (Never mind how Trump is turning financial policy over to Goldman Sachs.) If that’s true, it would seem only a matter of time before the Trumpist movement comes after the foundation world, since perhaps no sector better epitomizes elite influence. 

A saving grace, here, is that the conservative foundations that foot the bill for the right’s policy infrastructure believe in philanthropic freedom, and so we can expect unified pushback across the sector, including from the Philanthropy Roundtable, if some foundations really do come under attack.   

Which leads me to my broader point: The fear among foundation presidents is overblown. While it’s true that the Trumpist mob might turn on philanthropy, foundations have both the autonomy and resources to withstand attacks. As I’ve written before, 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. And, if push really comes to shove, foundations have plenty of money to lawyer up, hire PR firms, and even pay for private security. 

Given all this, it’s hard to think of a sector that’s better positioned to fight Trumpism than philanthropy. This advantage magnifies the importance of foundations standing up and being heard. There’s really no good excuse to stay silent. Certainly, it’s safer for foundations to speak out than top research universities or tech companies that are vulnerable to retaliation by the Trump administration—and yet have still gone public with their criticism. 

At this point, the top foundations are starting to stand out for being cowardly. And there are dangers in that positioning, too, by the way. A key argument for philanthropy is that it can take risks. When the sector shirks from doing the right thing, it undermines that case. 

A main challenge for foundation leaders, it seems—in this fight and in future ones—is to overcome fear. This is a good time to bring in the executive coaches—or therapists.

To be sure, new fights could be extremely distracting for CEOs who may find themselves in crisis management mode when the tweetstorms hit. Public fights make it harder to stay on track and accomplish key priorities.

I get all that. But now is not the moment for foundations to be preoccupied with their own institutional agendas or programmatic plans. This moment is much bigger than that. Now’s the time for these institutions to fight for their core values.