The Council on Foundations (CoF) had a little bit of a challenge—or, as strategic-planning consultants might say, an opportunity—in preparing and presenting its new strategic plan last month. Philanthropy, along with individual mega-billionaires and other multibillion-dollar institutional endowments in higher education, is unpopular and under attack. Both progressives and populists trust big foundations less than they used to, and well, don’t seem to like them much either, really.
“At a time when philanthropy faces mounting critiques, the Council on Foundations will support the field to restore trust in philanthropic institutions in the United States and around the globe,” CoF president and chief executive officer Kathleen Enright said in announcing the plan.
Actually, at a time philanthropy faces mounting critiques, CoF’s plan essentially agrees with those harsh critiques, doubles down on the ones from progressives, and obligates itself to take steps that will further anger those populists critics who even pay attention to it.
Given its history and the nature of both its membership and leadership, CoF was not well-positioned to meet the coming challenges of helping to preserve Big—or, as some are saying, Woke—Philanthropy’s justifiably criticized prerogatives in any case, but the plan proves it will not. It is definitely woke, as it creatively tries to just gently imply. In fact, it’s really woke. It’s more woke than a college kid on energy drinks during finals week. Like that kid, it’s too focused—in this case on a singular, monocultural progressive worldview.
It remains to be seen whether others will take advantage of coming opportunities to change establishment philanthropy for the better and if so, how. Some should creatively try.
“It’s 2021, and the philanthropic community is awake,” one reads first when clicking on the plan at the Council on Foundation’s website. Yes, got it. Very good. “Awake to the reality that in doing more, we often did less to build true and trusted partnerships.” Clever. “With eyes wide open, the Council is doing its part to change that pattern and supporting others doing the same. Together, we can create a world where philanthropy is a trusted partner in advancing the greater good.”
We’ve been bad, in other words, but we meant well and will try to do better, by changing what and who we are, or at least what and who we appear to be, to fit the new time. So trust us, you know, as a partner.
If this all sure seems generally addressed to Big Woke Philanthropy’s progressive and not populist critics, read on for confirmation. “Philanthropy’s role is to fund and advocate for the nonprofits and communities doing the hard work of social change,” according to CoF, which seems a partial description of the role at best, a purposefully narrowing one at a little worse.
“The more we let go of control and power, the more others can lead,” it continues. “The more we let others in, the better ideas and relationships become. That’s how we create trusted partnerships, and a world where all people and the environment can thrive.”
There’s more pyscho-therapeutic drivel. “The more each of us in the philanthropic community tries to do alone, the less we end up doing to earn the trust of others,” it continues. “That’s because the more we try to own or control, the less we let others in to contribute. That leads to inequities and lack of trust. And that’s a problem.”
Lack of trust in philanthropy is certainly a problem, about which we at The Giving Review have tried to sound something of an alarm, and an opportunity. It doesn’t seem clear why CoF thinks grantmakers are necessarily distrusted because they “own” their own money and give it out “alone.” The causes of distrust in foundations should perhaps be explored more aggressively, including by inquiring about the underlying reasons for populist distrust, maybe even by asking some populists. Some should creatively try.
Instead, somewhat comfortably resorting to more-familiar strategic-planning gobbledygook, the Council’s plan promises to spend the next two decades “creat[ing] a collective that helps everyone journey bravely and confidently toward advancing the future of philanthropy.” It will “[e]mbrace better ways of operating,” “[b]uild common ground,” and “[e]xpand philanthropy’s opportunity to thrive.”
“Better ways of operating” means, among other things, closing racial and sexual “diversity gaps in leadership” on boards and staff in salaries. It means supporting credentialed members of the philanthro-bureaucratic managerial class who “are ‘levers of change’ within organizations,” including CEOs, human-resources/talent leaders, legal counsel, and policy/advocacy professionals. It means creating “a supportive on-ramp for your DEI journey” and “being a committed partner in advancing the field’s equity objectives,” set by whom it doesn’t quite say.
“Building common ground” means a lot of cross-sector collaboration, including with other funders, nonprofits, government, and corporations to advance common long-term goals.” And “expanding philanthropy’s opportunities to thrive” means “cultivat[ing] a supportive federal policy environment” and communications efforts to “reframe the story of who gives ….”
In 1984, the John M. Olin Foundation discontinued its Council on Foundations membership because, as its then-executive director Michael S. Joyce wrote CoF’s then-president James A. Joseph, mandatory member agreement with the CoF’s 11-point “Principles and Practices for Effective Grantmaking” violated Olin’s independence and the principles contained “a seriously mistaken understanding of the responsibility of foundations to the public and of their relationship to the state.” (The letter is published in Giving Well, Doing Good: Readings for Thoughtful Philanthropists, edited by Amy Kass.)
In 1993, a Marvin Olasky monograph for the Capital Research Center, Philanthropically Correct- The Story of the Council on Foundations, harshly concluded that despite CoF’s “image of itself as forward-looking, most of its key doctrines represent the last gasp of four ideas—materialism, reliance on government, universalism, and an emphasis on society (or ‘the masses’) at the expense of the individual—that became intellectually popular during the first half of” last century.
Now, “It’s 2021, and the philanthropic community is awake,” says CoF, the 20-year plan of which is insular, inward-looking, and ignorant about what’s going on in much of the country. It does say it will listen more, and maybe it will. One might, though, doubt.
In the meantime, and for what could be a long time, populist critics of Big Philanthropy and those few conservative philanthropists they can perhaps convince to join them should more energetically prepare for the coming difficult “finals week” of tests for “control and power” in the whole nonprofit sector. In fact, they should consider doubling down, too, and making it a much more difficult “week.” If they can, or actually even if they cannot, as CoF’s strategic plan itself puts it, maybe “others can lead.”