The Chronicle of Philanthropy ran a profile today on Elise Westhoff, CEO of The Philanthropy Roundtable.
Since taking on her new role at the Roundtable, Westhoff has become a vocal critic of “woke philanthropy.” It’s a controversial opinion to take, but Westhoff has been on a tear, vociferously criticizing cancel culture, our sudden obsession with “systemic racism,” and the role of Big Philanthropy in funding work that threatens to divide Americans and stoke polarization.
Westhoff deserves credit for sticking to her guns even as the Roundtable loses donors who aren’t aligned. The Chronicle quotes her quite plainly: she tells them, “When there’s not an alignment of goals and values, that’s not a successful grantee relationship. If it is not a right fit for you, then it’s good that you walk away.” Her opposition isn’t to dialogue or disagreement, as some of her critics suggest. Her opposition is to dividing Americans along racial lines—but she’s happy to have the debate, and she certainly stands for philanthropic freedom to fund causes she disagrees with.
Unsurprisingly, the Chronicle is focused on the way Westhoff’s stance on woke philanthropy is affecting the Roundtable and the philanthropic landscape, and how current and past donors have responded.
But what’s more interesting—and doesn’t receive much attention in the article—is a phenomenon that Westhoff brought up during an earlier conversation with Jeremy Beer on Philanthropy Daily’s Givers, Doers, & Thinkers podcast.
Philanthropists want to feel connected to a community. They’re just like you and me, and money cannot erase a social nature.
The Chronicle piece catches the theme early but doesn’t revisit it: “She says donors are under pressure to fund progressive groups bent on dismantling systemic racism, and they risk being shunned and shamed if they don’t” (emphasis added).
It’s good that Westhoff is taking a bold stance and carving out a space for donors who want to belong somewhere and don’t want to participate in the “woke philanthropy” movement. It’s also great that she’s helping us see the importance of belongingness for all donors—even foundation heads and mega-philanthropists.
Speaking with Jeremy on the GDT podcast, Westhoff brings up the issue of foundations and donors feeling pressured into supporting things that don’t seem to be on mission for them. Jeremy asks the obvious question: “why are the foundations so fearful, when, in theory, they should have the most freedom of anyone? They have the money.”
It’s odd indeed. If Westhoff is right that “funders feel pressured … to adopt” a woke mentality or to drift their missions into issues of race and or diversity, then why do they feel this pressure? It’s not want of money or financial resources. It’s not government interference forcing their hand.
Westhoff’s answer to Jeremy wanders a bit, blurring the lines between those who are at risk of losing their jobs and those who are giving in more willingly. Regardless, she catches the main point: “it’s more psychological than anything.” People fear canceling and shaming not merely because of material or financial need—i.e., fear of losing their livelihood—but because people want to belong to a community. They don’t want to be shamed, to find themselves on the wrong side of history, to be excluded from a group with no one left in their corners.
As we often tell fundraisers, foundations are people, too—and the people staffing those foundations, regardless of their financial resources as philanthropists, remain social creatures.
The profile of Westhoff and the Roundtable is well worth reading, and it tells a good and honest story about the important stance that Westhoff is taking. But the most important thing about the Roundtable’s stance under Westhoff’s leadership is that they are creating a community where donors can say “no” to policies, practices, and beliefs that they find objectionable, without finding themselves adrift and alone.
Aristotle told us that a man who does not need society is either a beast or a god. The same holds true even for donors when it concerns their giving.