In a recent piece on the declining fortunes of the Council on Foundations, we looked at how the philanthropy sector has changed as it grows. Beyond the arrival of many big new donors, especially from tech and finance, and an explosion of regional philanthropy, today's larger and more complex philanthrosphere includes a slew of local grantmaking associations, issue-based affinity groups, funding intermediaries, and consulting outfits. That makes for a more varied and clamorous sector, and, arguably, a much stronger one.
Those trends were all in full swing in late 2016, when the election of Donald Trump stirred things up even further. Trump’s ascendence set a lot of folks in philanthropy reeling, prompting some to act rapidly while others played a waiting game to see how the national situation shook out. Quite a bit has now been written about how funders have responded—and are responding—to the developments of the Trump era.
One interesting part of this story is how funder affinity groups have emerged as more important players. Inside Philanthropy has run a half-dozen or so stories on how different affinity groups are grappling with the Trump presidency. Some, like Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, have put themselves right at the forefront of the resistance by working to mobilize urgent funder actions.
Other organizations making up philanthropy’s connective tissue have also responded to Trump with new moves and strategies. In fact, so much has been going on that it can be hard to keep track of it all, or tease out the larger takeaways. That's why a report published in late March by TCC Group on the activity of philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs) makes for important reading. It's quite encouraging, describing “a level of rapid learning, collaboration, adaptation, and response that seems itself unprecedented and challenges blanket criticisms of funder parochialism and caution.”
To produce the report, TCC interviewed 27 leaders of funder collaboratives and PSOs. They include people who’ve long argued that funders need to get more serious about collaborating across issue areas and breaking down silos. In the past year, as Trump administration policies have targeted a host of constituencies and causes dear to funders, that hard work has been fast-tracked. Writing about the report's findings, Melinda Fine and Steven Lawrence said the new political environment had "accelerated important funder conversations." That point tracks with our own reporting highlighting newly urgent efforts to knit together social justice funders in more powerful ways.
In addition to driving home the imperative of intersectionality, the Trump era has also boosted philanthropy’s growing focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Groups embracing that focus, like Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, are getting more traction in a racially charged moment, and conversations over DEI have picked up. At the same time, leaders like Nat Williams of the Black Social Change Funders Network (he also heads the Hill-Snowdon Foundation) point to new tensions. As he says in the report, the Trump era’s divisive national immigration debate has drawn some philanthropic attention away from police brutality and racial equity for African Americans.
That points to a broader challenge these affinity groups and funder collaboratives face in a time of multiple pressing needs. Is philanthropy a zero-sum game, or can a mounting tide of donor dollars actually be deployed to lift all boats? The report’s argument, it seems, is that better funder networking and aligned support can at least build the groundwork for a more cohesive sector.
And there’s also the learning element. Affinity groups and collaboratives act as a “ready-made infrastructure” for funders who want to understand how to fund things like rapid responses and movement building. "PSOs were often the first call for grantmakers," write Fine and Lawrence. And those calls have kept coming, turning these groups into more critical nodes for sharing information and coordinating strategies. As Daranee Petsod of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees notes, “Funders truly want to understand how public policy changes affect families and communities."
Petsod’s reference to public policy is no accident. Despite philanthropy’s wariness about appearing too political, funders have found it necessary under Trump to be more outspoken about their values. And while the Council of Foundations and the Independent Sector have tended to keep their heads down, affinity groups have taken a bolder stance. Perhaps most dramatically, Petsod's organization rallied scores of foundations and philanthropic organizations to sign onto a strong statement last year condemning the Trump administration's travel ban, as we reported at the time.
Other responsive moves by affinity groups include the creation of Grantmakers United for Trans Communities (GUTC), a new initiative by Funders for LGBTQ Issues to help draw more support for a group of Americans under pressure from Trump policies. The TCC report cites various examples of affinity groups and other PSOs mobilizing funders in response to the new political climate, including Funders for Justice and Grantmakers for Girls of Color.
Amid all this polarization, leaders interviewed for TCC’s report point to funders who want to engage in dialogue across those divides. Among other things, affinity groups and funder collaboratives can offer a space within philanthropy for difficult conversations between people who don’t necessarily agree.