Philanthropy does not exist in a vacuum. It’s a complex dance between societal needs and private entities with the resources (financial and otherwise) to address them. In the best of times, smart philanthropists lay out strategies rooted in passion and vision. In times of great political, economic, or social change, philanthropists should take the time and make the effort to reassess their strategies and approaches, considering new opportunities for impact while remaining true to their beliefs.
Having just passed the 100-day mark of the Trump administration, it’s clear that donors want to better understand how our new political climate will impact their philanthropic work. Despite this nation’s partisan divide, grantmakers of all ideological stripes are in widespread agreement that the role of philanthropy is only going to grow. In a recent survey of our members—foundations with few or no staff, philanthropic families, and individual donors—82 percent of respondents said they “expect the institution of philanthropy to play a more important role in society as a result of recent changes in politics.” Furthermore, almost one quarter of survey respondents said they expect to make changes to their philanthropic giving in 2017 as a direct result of these changes.
While Washington has no shortage of grandiloquence and promises from both sides of the aisle, it is clear the nation and the nonprofit sector that philanthropy serves are facing looming policy changes, an aggressive congressional agenda, and an executive branch with an unconventional administrative style. To maintain a deliberate, purposeful, and forward-thinking stance, here are three things donors should be doing today to drive philanthropic impact in the Trump era.
1. Scan, listen, and learn. We heard from foundations that expect changes in Washington, DC to create significant challenges for their grantees and the people they serve, and from foundations that expected a positive effect from economic growth. Now, more than ever, is the time to get out of the office, engage your community, listen to what grantees expect from the changes, and hear what they need. Just as smart investors don't abandon long-term strategies based on the daily ups and downs of the stock market, philanthropists need to avoid knee-jerk reactions. Action for the sake of action can harm those you've committed to helping, particularly if a shift in giving takes them by surprise.
In addition to connecting more deeply with grantees, donors can benefit from engaging more closely with their peers as they navigate change. Of our survey respondents planning to make changes, 28 percent are planning to add a new funding area. Listening to donors experienced in a particular issue area—as well as nonprofits in the field—is a crucial step to understanding how additional funds can be best used. It is also prudent to understand how legislative and regulatory changes may impact rules about individual giving and foundation operations.
2. Consult the data, or create it. Funders are well positioned to commission nonpartisan research and data about programs and efforts to address society’s needs. We're experiencing a time of great political divide and often less-than-civil disagreement about the “right” ways to address all kinds of issues, including poverty, health, and education. Research and data build our shared understanding of what is and isn’t working, and why. Grantees can benefit tremendously from support for research and evaluation efforts, both to help them meet their missions, and to help them attract additional funding. Many times, nonprofits are asked to provide data that supports their approach to their work, and most don't have resources to conduct this type of research on their own. In some cases, grantees may have data and need support to better use what they're collecting. Policymakers can use research and data to ensure prudent use of taxpayer dollars and to expand programs that work well.
3. Strengthen grantees with the right kind of support. Your grantees are your partners on the ground. As donors, you can strengthen these organizations by providing general operating support, capacity building, and multi-year grants. This foundational, flexible funding is hard to come by and gives nonprofits greater financial stability during times of change.
You can also fight above your philanthropic weight class by leveraging networks and connections. Collaboration, convening, and other non-monetary resources can extend considerably the value of your financial support. More than a third of our members who are making changes this year are either beginning to fund advocacy efforts, or increasing their allocations to advocacy. Some are finding that policymakers are more open to donor-led efforts than direct appeals from nonprofit grantees.
America has undergone big changes in the past. It has met large challenges and solved complex problems. Philanthropy, in all its forms has helped shape the nation's identity. Philanthropists have catalyzed humanitarian response to wars, are a unifying force in moments of tragedy, and have helped ensure that gains in technology and communications benefit the poor as well as the rich.
Despite the ideological differences of donors, which may echo the country’s national partisanship, philanthropy's commitment to people in need should serve as a stable and enduring beacon of hope.
Regardless of how you feel about the immediate future and what may, or may not, be in store, all of us who practice philanthropy can benefit from contemplating our approaches in the context of the current environment. We must remain true to our missions and those we have committed to serve, whether that means making changes or staying our course. Anything less is philanthropic malpractice.