For generations, American philanthropists have devoted their lives to empowering their fellow citizens. I chose philanthropy as a career because it gave me the opportunity to pass on the ideals of hard work, personal responsibility, education, and faith — ideals that allowed my family to overcome many difficulties. Yet the philanthropic sector is now abandoning this time-tested approach. Instead, it is embracing a political approach that is dividing the country and holding Americans back.
Darren Walker, the head of the Ford Foundation and perhaps the country’s most prominent philanthropist, summed up the new philosophy in a recent interview with 60 Minutes. While Walker’s life is proof that philanthropy can enable people to thrive — it helped him rise from the bottom 1 percent to the top 1 percent — he argues that our industry must turn “from generosity to justice,” which includes “reforming” capitalism and confronting “privilege.” The subtext is that philanthropy must replace broad-based empowerment with left-wing advocacy.
Walker is far from the only philanthropic leader pushing for ideologically motivated charity. The well-known nonprofit writer Vu Le wrote in September that “nonprofit and philanthropy need to stop with this pretense of neutrality and being above the fray.” Writers in Nonprofit Quarterly have called on philanthropies to “reorient their giving” to support more left-wing causes, while the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy has called on foundations to devote at least 25 percent of grant dollars to “advocacy” and “organizing” on politically charged issues. In my conversations with fellow philanthropic leaders, I have seen the overwhelming pressure donors face to support specific groups and causes favored by the left.
The current focus is on racial equity and social justice, which Vu Le has said must be the foundation of all charitable giving — a view which Darren Walker has endorsed. Since George Floyd’s death last May, foundations, businesses, and philanthropists have devoted well over $10 billion and counting to racial-justice efforts. The Ford Foundation contributed at least $180 million, while the Andrew M. Mellon Foundation declared last year that its $7 billion endowment would henceforth fund grants “focus[ed] entirely on social justice.”
Some of this funding may have a positive impact, and philanthropy is right to focus on empowering communities of color. Yet racial equity and social justice are often a cover for tearing some people down as much as lifting others up. Groups such as Black Lives Matter, which raked in $90 million in 2020, promote concepts such as “critical race theory” and “intersectionality,” which divide Americans based on race, gender, and sexual orientation and demand that those with “privilege” be punished. With nearly $5 billion in George Floyd-related charitable giving going to unknown groups in 2020 and 2021, huge sums are surely being spent on left-wing efforts to reorder American society according to their world view.
But division doesn’t just arise from philanthropic funding in some areas. It also springs from the lack of charitable giving elsewhere. As foundations have increasingly embraced ideological causes, they have increasingly ignored other meaningful efforts, especially in rural America. Perhaps they wish to avoid conservative regions. Perhaps they care less about helping white Americans, who are “oppressors” according to critical race theory. Either way, support for rural America is plummeting even as it faces the opioid crisis, a poverty rate that’s 25 percent higher than urban areas, an epidemic of single motherhood, and many other challenges.
The decline in rural philanthropy is not new, extending as far back as the mid 2000s. But it is also accelerating. Federal data show that foundation grants to nonmetro areas are more than 50 percent smaller, per capita, than grants within metro areas. A recent headline in the Stanford Social Innovation Review summed up the current situation, calling it “philanthropy’s rural blind spot.”
Division is the inevitable result. Rural Americans know they’re both overlooked and looked down on. I’ve been in dozens of meetings where prominent philanthropic leaders rail against the backwardness of rural Americans. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been told that foundations must only support efforts that align with the liberal political mood. Is it any wonder rural resentment is on the rise? While such anger is often targeted at the political class, the philanthropic set is also to blame. It is ignoring the crises it could help solve, if only it put principles ahead of politics.
Philanthropy’s embrace of left-wing ideology is damaging and dividing America. But it doesn’t have to be this way. At its best, philanthropy passes on the values and ideals that have been proven throughout history to help people rise. Of course, foundations, corporations, and generous individuals are free to support whatever causes they wish — freedom demands it. But not all philanthropy is created equal, and the industry that can empower people from all walks of life shouldn’t deepen inequities even as it promises to solve them.