Emerging Idea: Is it Time for Philanthropy to Stand Up for Itself?

Monday, January 26, 2021

The month's Emerging Idea was suggested by Christy Uchida, Senior Program Officer at The Brinson Foundation; and was written by Eric Weinheimer, our President + CEO.

Back in November, Slate Money aired a podcast that was very critical of philanthropy. Highlighting the controversy around the naming rights at New York's Avery Fisher Hall, the podcast framed a conversation about philanthropy in frankly hostile terms: "transactional philanthropy,” “self-interested,” “rapacious reputational repair.” And this one: “self-aggrandizing money.” Ouch!

Granted, the host may be a little uneducated about philanthropy’s history and value. However, podcast participant Rob Reich is co-Director of Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University. When a thought leader such as Mr. Reich posits that current philanthropy might undermine civil society because of a perceived lack of transparency and lack of visible impact, we might have to consider the possibility that public sentiment around philanthropy is shifting.

In March, I will be attending my first Foundations on the Hill gathering, held annually in Washington, D.C. Along with my Donors Forum colleagues, we'll meet with key legislators and advocate for the interests of our philanthropic Members. This year's Foundations on the Hill will be especially important, because the new Congress will be making decisions about which tax provisions survive the upcoming tax reform process.

Philanthropy is not unfamiliar with being under a microscope. The last time there was regulatory pressure on philanthropy, the sector convinced Congress that philanthropy's value and impact justified little change in independence and self regulation.

But, are we seeing a shift in public sentiment about philanthropy? Is a more critical tone emerging? Will philanthropy be a target of reform and increased scrutiny? More importantly, is there more that organizations like Donors Forum -- and the philanthropic sector itself -- can and should do to defend the interests of philanthropy and promote its value to society?

Take a listen to the podcast, I'd love to hear your thoughts; you can email me at eweinheimer@donorsforum.org.

-- Eric Weinheimer, President + CEO, Donors Forum