In a wide-ranging interview, Philanthropy Roundtable President and CEO Elise Westhoff recently spoke with Alliance Magazine Editor Charles Keidan about the current direction of U.S. philanthropy, Westhoff’s vision for the Roundtable and how the sector should create an open space for debate on a wide array of issues.
Below are excerpts from the Alliance Magazine interview with Elise Westhoff:
Charles Keidan: “What was your vision for the Philanthropy Roundtable when you took up the post two years ago?”
Elise Westhoff: “The Philanthropy Roundtable is a network of donors – foundations, individual philanthropists, those who give through donor-advised funds – who share values of liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility. And they want to advance those values through effective charitable giving. Our vision is to build a philanthropic movement that strengthens our free society. Since I started, we have taken a bold stance in advocating for the ways that our values improve lives. We’ve been very outspoken about our beliefs and that’s because our community of philanthropists and the organisations that we work with closely have asked us to do that.”
[Keidan:] “I know that donor freedom and intent is at the heart of your vision of philanthropy. Do you think that freedom should be absolute? Or should it just be restricted with great caution?”
[Westhoff:] “With great caution, yes. We believe the more freedom donors have to give to the causes that they care about, the more generous they will be. Of course, there are certain circumstances, and I think these are already outlined in the current laws, that we would want to be careful about. But within the framework that we have, we don’t believe that any further restrictions are needed.”
[Keidan:] “There are calls for increases of payout rates and to include payouts for community foundations and donor-advised funds. What’s your view on that debate?”
[Westhoff:] “The so-called Ace Act, which is supposed to be accelerating charitable efforts, is a solution in search of a problem. It is trying to impose additional mandates and restrictions on private foundations and donor-advised funds, which are very flexible tools that are growing significantly because donors appreciate that very flexibility. We are standing firm against that proposal because we believe that would lead to less money flowing into those vehicles, and ultimately less money to help people in need. We’ve been the primary opposition to that proposal. There are other efforts that are even more aggressive to try to coerce private foundations to increase their payout rates. We don’t think those have any legs, but we are very conscious of the negative connotation that philanthropy has for people and the push to coerce donors to give in certain ways.”
[Keidan:] “The US, like other countries, is facing a raft of issues – abortion access, voting rights, racial justice, climate change. How do you think our field should navigate those issues given the divisions that arise?”
[Westhoff]: “We have seen polarisation in our country over very controversial issues, and very different worldviews clashing with one another and unfortunately, a lot of people talking past one another rather than listening with an open mind. I think one of the important roles that the Roundtable plays is creating a space for dialogue. We’ve had a lot of really productive debates with people who represent different sides of issues, but in a way that’s respectful. At my first annual meeting, we had a debate on the 1619 project. It was a really respectful but deeply intellectual conversation between two scholars who have very different viewpoints on that issue.”
Please continue reading this interview in Alliance Magazine (paywalled).